Date: Wed, 30 Sep 98 23:30:42 CDT
From: Flint Jones <>
Subject: Spain: Philips defeated in ‘flexibility’ strike/Montero
Article: 44328
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
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Philips “flexibility” refused by workers

By Juan Montero, International Viewpoint, 20 September 1998

Militant trade union struggle in Barcelona has blocked the latest attempt to “flexibilise” Spain's working conditions. Rather than being marginalised, radical left currents in the labour movement have been strengthened.

According to Spain's influential business weekly 5 dias, when the Dutch multi-national Philips tried to introduce a new shift system at its Miniwatt subsidiary in Barcelona, it “had no idea how much workers would resist its decision.”

On 17 August a judge disallowed the new shift system, under which workers would have worked six-days-on, then two-days-off.

A victory for the multinational would have been a terrible blow for what is left of the class-conscious labour movement in Catalunia. Having defeated the combative workers at Minwatt, managers and the regional government would have used the case as a precedent to enforce their plans for a double salary scale, with newly hired workers receiving up to 40% less. To oblige workers to work on public holidays as required. To introduce a nominal working week of 48 hours. To enable employers to decide when pauses should be taken. And so on and so on.

But the victory of Minwatt strikers is a setback to this bosses' offensive. 350 new workers will receive proper contracts.

But what Catalan bosses are really worried about is the wide support for the strike among workers outside Philips. The “officialist” leadership of the main trade union confederations were completely side-stepped in the strike, which was led by activists from the “critical sector” of the Communist-led CC.OO. trade union, and Catalonia's strong anarcho-syndicalist confederation (CGT). Up to 2,000 workers from outside Miniwatt joined demonstrations. Once again, workers have seen that “there is an alternative” to the realism-abdication of trade union leaders.

Philips decision to force a conflict at the plant was the result of shameless collaborationism from the leadership of the UGT trade union, which thought it could replace the CC.OO as the main union at the plant.

Management was massively overconfident. “Your past strikes have been like flower-arranging,” the Minwatt Director told union representatives. “Why not try a three month strike!” Three weeks into the strike, this same Director went cap in hand to the courts, asking them to enforce a return to work. One week later, he unconditionally withdrew all proposed reforms at the plant.

Not that everything is the result of human error. The personnel section at Miniwatt employs several “experts” who have rich experience in running down, then closing, factories which have been blacklisted by the top management of the Philips group.

Workers at Miniwatt realised that the real struggle was about Philips' determination to worsen salary and working conditions, reverse previous concessions to workers, and cut jobs. The multinational's Spanish subsidiaries were particularly determined to liquidate the class-struggle trade union tradition, which has dominated a number of larger industrial plants ever since the death of General Franco in 1975.

In January 1997 the company increased capacity by 60%. Management proposed to recruit 300 new workers, but to pay them 40% less than the core workforce. In April that year, management cancelled all short-term contracts, and demanded that unions accept the two-tier salary scale. They began closing sections of the workshop, and transferring work to other Philips plants. But the size of the order book obliged management to backtrack partially, and in July 1997 they hired 500 weekend workers, according to the more advantageous old contracts.

In November 1997, the UGT union agreed to the two-tier salary scale. Workers struck in protest and, on 12 January 1998, UGT shop stewards crossed the picket line.

In April 1998, the company said all future workers would be recruited through temporary labour agencies. They withdrew this threat after workers threatened to strike every weekend. Only recently licensed to operate in Spain, “temp” agencies are deeply distrusted by workers and young people. There is widespread sympathy for the youth campaign to close private labour agencies, which are accused of profiteering from unemployment, and encouraging flexible and unstable labour contracting.

In June, management invoked new labour legislation to impose the new shift system. There were a series of one day strikes. In an attempt to divide and isolate more militant workers, management destroyed part of the plant, and build a wall dividing different workshops.

On July 6th, Miniwatt workers began an all-out strike. In a hard struggle, workers occupied the factory, and organised a number of ambitious events, including a flash occupation of the Barcelona stock exchange, and the burning of tyres in the Placa de San Jaume, home of the Catalan government and Barcelona city council.

International solidarity

With most trade unionists nowadays accepting the “logic of competition,” Philips was amazed to discover that workers at their Brazilian plant of San Jose dos Campos refused to do any overtime to replace lost production during the Barcelona strike.

After three months on strike against a multinational, Miniwatt workers were increasingly desperate. But, when they realised that poorer workers, thousands of kilometres away, had adopted such exemplary solidarity measures, their morale was restored for a final push towards victory.

Calalonia's main left parties were conspicuous by their absence from the solidarity campaign. But the United and Alternative Left (EUiA) threw all its efforts into the Miniwatt campaign.

Formed after a split in the Catalan wing of the ex-Communist United Left, EUiA is a regroupment of Communists, Trotskyists and independent leftists who want to rebuild a pluralist social and political movement to the left of social democracy.

Current situation

Management and the UGT trade union bureaucrats are still trying to squeeze through some unfavourable clauses in the contracts for the 350 new workers now recruited to meet extra orders. They have also appealed against the court which squashed their original plans, though they know that no court would try to enforce a pro-management decision in the current balance of forces so strong is the popular feeling against Miniwatt and Philips.