“We are thousands, not just eight,” sang the crowds inside the Marcelino Camacho Auditorium, named after the historic founder of the Spanish trade union confederation Comisiones Obreras (CCOO, or the Workers’ Commissions in English).
They were welcoming the so-called “Airbus Eight” – Tomás García, Enrique Gil, Rodolfo Malo, José Alcazar, Raúl Fernández, Armando Barco, Jerónimo Martín and Edgar Martín – on stage during an event held in defense of the right to strike on 19 January 2016 in Madrid.
These eight trade unionists are each facing eight years and three months in prison for “acting with violence” and “attacking the right to work” during a 29 September 2010 strike against the austerity measures and labour law amendments passed by José L. Rodriguez Zapatero’s socialist government.
As protests took place all over the country, several hundred workers picketed the gates of the Airbus factory in the Madrid suburb of Getafe.
"When I arrived to the factory the national police and the riot police was in front of the gate,” Airbus Eight spokesperson Alcázar recently told a group of journalists from the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU).
“The atmosphere was extremely tense, and I feared that something bad was going to happen.”
He was right. Riot police loaded their guns and fired seven shots in the air. In the ensuing panic, protestors tried to escape by seeking shelter in the factory; several people were injured.
The following day, the striking workers were accused of attacking the riot police and eight trade unionists were charged under Article 315.3 of the Spanish Penal Code, which makes provisions for prison sentences for picketing trade unionists. This is the first time this law has been applied since 1972 when Spain was still under the dictatorship of General Franco.
The eight men are due to stand trial on 9 February 2016 but in actual fact, more than 300 Spanish workers are currently facing prison sentences under the same law. Five members of Unión General de Trabajadores (UGT) have already been sent to jail for striking.
In response to this sustained attack on trade unions, two of Spain’s biggest workers’ confederations – CCOO and UGT – are running a campaign under the tittle La huelga no es delito or “To strike is not a crime”.
The 19 January event was attended by several trade union leaders from across Europe and Latin America including Rudy De Leeuw, President of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC).
Luca Visentini, General Secretary of the ETUC, sent a video message and a written statement in which he said: “The right to strike is a fundamental right, and in Spain’s Constitution. To strike is not a crime and to be a trade unionist is not a crime – so why are the authorities pursuing this legal action? The charges should be dropped before this ridiculous story goes to trial.”
Visentini also described the use of Article 315.3 as “unacceptable” while blasting the Spanish government for asking “for 66 years of prison for a group of workers that were peacefully exercising their right to strike.”
The Franco-era law makes the imprisonment of unionists charged under this article compulsory. By stark contrast, in Spanish law, sexual offenders and those charged with violent assault can face as little as two years in prison and escape without jail time.
The significance of the Airbus Eight trial is not lost on Spain’s trade union movement, least of all the men who are facing prison.
“Europe is staring at us because if we lose, the whole continent moves backwards. But if we win there still will be a ray of hope,” an emotional Alcázar told the packed auditorium on 19 January. The crowded responded with rapturous applause and chanting: “They are unionist, not criminals”.
Strike-breaking and gag laws
But the right to strike is “also cut short by other practices such as strike-breaking and the setting of excessive minimum number of members of staff,” recalled Jaime Cedrún from CCOO.
Cedrún is leading the negotiations in an ongoing labour dispute with Coca-Cola over the termination of 1,230 out of 4,200 jobs in factories in several Spanish factories, most notably in Fuenlabrada (Madrid). In June 2014, the Social Chamber of the National Court of Madrid declared the redundancy plan invalid, as it violates the right to strike.
Coca-Cola, however, continues to ignore the ruling which obliges the company to “reinstate the workers to their posts and under the same employment conditions they had prior to their dismissal”.
Both Cándido Méndez and Ignacio Fernández Toxo, the general secretaries of UGT and CCOO respectively, spoke at the 19 January event about the important role played by strikes in bringing democracy to Spain in the last years of Franco’s dictatorship.
“It was an advance not just for working class but for the entire society,” said Fernández Toxo. That Spanish trade unionists are having to watch their hard-fought rights rolled back is a source of great anger and frustration.
“We are facing an economic and social emergency in Spain”, Méndez acknowledged. “Solving that is fundamental but so is the repeal of Article 315.3 since ‘strike’ and ‘democracy’ express the same value in two different words”.
For Carmelo Ruiz de la Hermosa, General Secretary of UGT-Madrid, “it is simply unbelievable to be in this situation in 2016”.
He further described the “legal and media offensive against trade unionism” as closely linked to austerity policies and the imposition of a neoliberal economic model based on “inequality and poor working conditions”.
Ruiz continued: “After seven years of crisis a terrible fear has gripped Spanish workers: either they lose their jobs or they are afraid they won’t not find any.”
Jeffrey Vogt, head of the Legal Unit at the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), thinks that what we are seeing in Spain is part of a global trend towards the dismantling of workers’ rights.
“With greater unemployment, it can be more risky to exercise the right to strike, particularly where it is not well-protected and workers may be replaced. Also, employers’ use of short term contracts or hiring its workforce through multiple contractors are means to make the right to associate, to bargain and to strike all the more difficult.”
However, he said that it is not all cause for despair, citing successful strike action around the world such as the Cambodian garment workers who managed to secure a 10 per cent increase to their minimum wage last October and the US fast food workers “fighting for US$15”.
But Spanish workers are also up against the infamous “gag law”, passed by the current cabinet and which “prevents workers from organising themselves to stand for their rights, paralysing them through concern,” according to Fernández Toxo of the CCOO.
“Spanish society had a defensive attitude to the Crisis and the moment has come to take an offensive attitude to defend our rights, including the right to strike,” he said.
Although the international trade union movement has rallied to ask the prosecution to drop the charges against the Airbus Eight, they acknowledge that “the risk of imprisonment is high” – even if it sets “ a dangerous precedent within the Eurozone,” according to Alcázar.
But that precedent has already been set with the right to strike in jeopardy under the United Kingdom’s proposed Trade Union Bill and as a result of similarly regressive measures in Finland, the Czech Republic and Poland.
“The right to strike is widely accepted as a fundamental right, by the International Labour Organization and regional and national courts, as it has long been understood that without the right to strike, there is no effective right to collective bargaining, which would instead be collective begging”, said Vogt.
“Many countries, at the behest of employers, are seeking to limit the right to strike in law and in practice, including in Europe. For the ITUC, defending the right to strike at the national and international level is a high priority,” he added.