Workers Hammer No. 213

Winter 2010-2011



"Socialist" government imposes martial law to break strike

Defend air traffic controllers!

The following article is reprinted from Workers Vanguard no 971, 7 January 2011.

On 4 December, the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero declared war on Spain’s working class by imposing a “state of emergency” in the airports in response to a work stoppage by air traffic controllers. Under martial law measures not invoked since the end of the bloody dictatorship of General Francisco Franco in the 1970s, members of the Union of Air Traffic Controllers (USCA) were frog-marched by armed police from the Madrid hotel in which they were meeting and forced to man the control towers. Controllers were forced to report for work under threat of arrest; those who took part in the work stoppages now face jail terms of up to eight years for sedition. To prevent strikes over the Christmas holiday period, the emergency measures were extended to 15 January.

It is in the vital interests of workers in Spain, and across Europe as a whole, to defend the air traffic controllers. An injury to one is an injury to all! Drop all charges against air traffic controllers!

Controllers have noted that the government has been carrying out calculated provocations in order to provide a pretext for a crackdown. Early last year, it increased the controllers’ annual work hours, limited overtime and slashed wages by half. Most air traffic controllers in Spain worked more than the legal maximum of 1670 hours last year, and under the government’s new rules sick days and time off no longer count towards their annual work hours. The controllers staged last month’s mass sick-out only hours after the government announced attacks on their working conditions as part of the planned privatisation of 49 per cent of Aena, the country’s aviation authority.

The PSOE government’s drive against the air traffic controllers comes in the context of the capitalist financial crisis that has been wracking European Union countries. It follows hard on the heels of the €85 billion (£70 billion) EU/IMF bailout of the Irish banks and a few months after the €110 billion bailout of Greece in exchange for the imposition of savage austerity measures. Spain’s budget deficit is the third-highest in the euro zone after Greece and Ireland, and according to an article on the Financial Times website (15 December 2010): “Market prices suggest there is a one-in-four chance that Spain will default over the next five years.” The same article reports:

“Analysts are therefore examining the previously unthinkable possibility that Spain will need to seek a bail-out from the €750bn available from the European financial stability facility, the International Monetary Fund and the European Union, or even negotiate a default. Either option would have grave consequences given that the Spanish economy is larger than those of Greece, Portugal and Ireland put together.”

By invoking military measures against the air traffic controllers, the government is sending a message to the international financial markets that it is prepared to use naked state repression to cow the trade unions into submission. The Wall Street Journal (8 December 2010) observed with approval that “the government’s severe response has shored up the position of Spain’s embattled prime minister and could give him more support in passing reforms”. It further notes that the cost of government borrowing, which had been soaring in the weeks before the state of emergency, began to fall immediately afterwards. The government’s “reforms” include plans to raise the retirement age by two years, to 67, and eliminate the pitiful €426 (£355) monthly payment to the long-term unemployed. This in a country with an unemployment rate of 20 per cent, the highest in the euro zone.

The assault on the air traffic controllers poses a deadly threat to the organised labour movement. Especially given Spain’s important tourism sector, workers in the airline industry are strategically placed and have enormous social power. At the same time, the trade unions are generally divided by affiliation to political parties, which weakens their capacity to struggle. What’s needed instead is to unite all workers in industrial unions, including a single union of airline workers embracing pilots, controllers, mechanics, baggage handlers and cabin crews.

The state of emergency should have been met by massive protests by the country’s powerful trade union federations — the General Union of Workers (UGT), aligned with the PSOE, and the Workers Commissions (CCOO), associated with the United Left coalition (Izquierda Unida — IU), in which the Spanish Communist Party (PCE) is the dominant force. Instead, the union bureaucrats in both federations, which are loyal to the PSOE government, scandalously chimed in with Zapatero’s attacks on the strikers. UGT leader Cándido Méndez denounced the controllers’ action as “in no way justified”, while in a 6 December web posting the CCOO described the action as “intolerable” and “an act of grave irresponsibility deserving of ‘our most forceful and radical rejection’”.

Facing the most ferocious attacks on their jobs and livelihoods in decades, workers across Europe, notably in Greece and France, have waged major class battles. But the workers’ struggles have been undermined by the political bankruptcy of their reformist misleaders, who accept the need for capitalist austerity, while seeking to sugarcoat its effects. This underlines the need to forge a revolutionary leadership of the working class. Based on the understanding that the interests of the workers and those of the bosses are irreconcilable, such a leadership would fight for what workers need, not for what the bosses say they can afford. This would be part of the struggle to forge a revolutionary workers party grounded in the Marxist understanding that the capitalist system must be overthrown through socialist revolution.

In Spain, the leaders of both the UGT and CCOO are committed to the defence of the interests of their “own” capitalist rulers. UGT leader Méndez has baldly declared: “Social peace is the birthright and the responsibility of everyone. We are not the ones breaking the social peace and we do not want to do so in the future” (, 23 February 2010). In June, when Zapatero announced a new labour law attacking workers’ rights, UGT and CCOO leaders called for a one-day general strike to be held…three months later, which amounted to seeking the government’s permission for the strike. The 29 September general strike was organised under the slogan “Not Like This” and called for a “fair and balanced way out of the crisis”.

Forge a Trotskyist party in Spain!

To justify their class treason in refusing to defend the air traffic controllers, the UGT and CCOO misleaders maintain that USCA is not a trade union and that the controllers are pampered and highly paid. Reformist left groups in Spain, which routinely look to the PSOE to defend “democracy” and keep out the bourgeois right, have also joined in the denunciation of the air traffic controllers. Despite much handwringing over the state of emergency by the United Left, its parliamentary deputy Gaspar Llamazares denounced the controllers’ action as “an abuse of power against the workers” that leaves the unions “weaker to defend labour and social rights”.

In contrast, a 5 December 2010 press release by STAVLA, a flight attendants union, recognised what is at stake for the union movement. Offering unconditional support, STAVLA expresses the hope that the air traffic controllers’

“VALIANT action and courage serve to wake up a society that is asleep, individualist and depressed in the fight for its economic and labour rights in the country with the highest rate of unemployment in Europe. If we fall into the Government’s devious manipulation and applaud their action, we will have allowed this attack on the fundamental rights of all Spanish workers to succeed and be entrenched forever.”

Spain’s air traffic controllers are a highly paid white-collar group on the margins of the labour movement. But if Zapatero gets away with this outrageous assault on the USCA, his government will take it as a green light for further attacks on the working class as a whole. Indeed, last summer Madrid’s right-wing regional government threatened to use the military to break a Metro strike.

Zapatero’s attack on the controllers, and the response of the trade union bureaucrats and reformists, bring to mind US president Ronald Reagan’s 1981 union-busting attack on the PATCO air traffic controllers union. In response to their strike, some 12,000 PATCO members were fired and their leaders dragged off to jail in shackles. As in Spain today, the trade unions had the social power to shut down the airports and defeat this attack. But the union misleaders in the US treacherously refused to mobilise that power, which emboldened the bourgeoisie to carry out massive attacks on all of labour.

The Spanish government and Aena have imposed horrendous working conditions on the air traffic controllers, who are forced to work overtime as a matter of course because the bosses refuse to hire enough of them. These conditions are a direct threat to air safety, a situation that is drastically worsened by the state of emergency. The International Federation of Air Traffic Controllers’ Associations (IFATCA) issued a statement saying: “Given the duress under which our Spanish colleagues are forced to work, IFATCA declares that the safety of Spanish airspace and airports is severely compromised while this military rule is in force.”

While Zapatero’s martial law measures are an abrogation of democratic rights, the response of reformists has been to promote illusions in bourgeois democracy. Marxists understand that the government is the executive committee of the ruling class. As Lenin explained in The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky (1918), “There is not a single state, however democratic, which has no loopholes or reservations in its constitution guaranteeing the bourgeoisie the possibility of dispatching troops against the workers, of proclaiming martial law, and so forth, in case of a ‘violation of public order,’ and actually in case the exploited class ‘violates’ its position of slavery and tries to behave in a non-slavish manner.” The capitalist state, which exists to defend bourgeois rule, cannot be reformed and made to work in the interests of the oppressed; it must be overthrown by workers revolution and replaced by a workers state.

On 10 December 2010, in opposition to Madrid’s right-wing regional government, leaders of the UGT and CCOO in Madrid organised a public reading of articles of the Spanish Constitution, which formally guarantees the right to work and the right to strike. Upheld by the PSOE and the PCE, the Constitution proclaims the Spanish state to be a parliamentary monarchy. The present king, Juan Carlos de Borbón, was handpicked by Franco himself to succeed him as head of state. The Constitution also enshrines the continued oppression of national minorities — especially the Basque and Catalan peoples — in the name of the “indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation, common and indivisible motherland of all Spaniards”. The king is no mere ornament but the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. It was Juan Carlos who signed the royal decree declaring the state of emergency against the air traffic controllers.

In the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39, the PSOE and PCE, as well as the anarchists and the centrist Workers Party of Marxist Unification, paved the way for the dictatorship of the butcher Franco by liquidating a proletarian revolution and subordinating the working class to the “democratic” bourgeoisie (see “Trotskyism vs. Popular Frontism in the Spanish Civil War”, Spartacist [English-language edition] no 61, Spring 2009). After the death of the dictator in November 1975, the reformists again came to the rescue of the capitalists as a powerful wave of strikes threatened to shake the bourgeois order to its foundations. That betrayal too was carried out in the name of “democracy”.

The Spanish monarchy, the legacy of Francoism and the whole capitalist system can and must be swept away by workers revolution. What’s necessary is the building of a Leninist-Trotskyist vanguard party to lead the proletariat at the head of all the oppressed in the struggle for a workers government that will expropriate the capitalist bloodsuckers and begin the construction of an egalitarian socialist order based on a massive expansion of productive forces. Such a party will champion the right of self-determination for oppressed nations, full citizenship rights for all immigrants, the emancipation of women and full democratic rights for homosexuals. For a federation of workers republics in the Iberian peninsula! For a Socialist United States of Europe!