Esther with members of the Airbus 8. Photo: ETUC
Franco’s ghost: trade union rights under attack
As Spanish trade unions protest against the use of a Franco-era law criminalising picketing, the UK House of Lords is debating picketing restrictions criticised by Conservative MP David Davis as like something out of Franco’s Spain. ETUC Confederal Secretary Esther Lynch makes the connection.
It was extremely heartening to note the strenuous objections to the Trade Union Bill from many members of the House of Lords during their deliberations last week. Trade unionists don’t often look towards the House of Lords for support but the implications of this malign piece of legislation were clearly articulated during last week’s debate.
Expressing concern about the divisive nature of the Bill, Lord Bragg highlighted the contribution of trade unions. Recalling the inscription on Sir Christopher Wren’s tomb in St Paul’s Cathedral – ‘if you seek a monument, look around’ – he pointed to the improvements in the lives of working people achieved over the past 100 years through the actions and sacrifice of trade unionists.
The very fact that the Trade Union Bill has been proposed is shocking. Attacks on the fundamental right to strike, recognised as a basic human right, are not just an attack on workers and their trade unions, they are an attack on society as a whole. Weaker unions mean greater inequality. By interfering with trade union collective action Governments prevent workers from effectively participating in the choices involved in their workplace, society and economy. The deck becomes firmly stacked in favour of the powerful and the privileged.
Unsurprisingly there is a resistance among the proposers of the Trade Union Bill to recognize the essential role played by unions in a properly functioning democracy. As Lord Bragg put it ‘only an organized power of at least equal determination’ can curtail and civilize the entrenched power and privilege that still exists today.
It is well known that workers and their unions in the UK already experience significant limitations on the right to strike compared with their colleagues in Europe. But the UK trade union movement is not alone in facing attacks at the moment.
In Spain, for example, over 300 workers are under threat of imprisonment. Last week I met with the ‘Airbus 8’ workers from that country. Their trial is scheduled for next month. They told me how they had taken part in the general strike of September 2010 – over 5 years ago! – to protest against a range of austerity measures implemented by the Spanish government.
Early in the morning on the day of the general strike, several hundred Airbus workers in Getafe, a suburb of Madrid, gathered at the entrance to their workplace to express their support for the strike. The presence of a large number of riot police units at the factory gate, and their attitude towards the workers gathered there, created a climate of tension. The police use of weapons, firing at least seven shots, created panic so that workers fled in fear.
The following day the ‘Airbus 8’ were accused of “attacking the authorities,” “injury” and “attacking the freedom to work”, accusations strongly denied by the workers. The Public Prosecutor is seeking eight years and three months in prison for each of the workers, a total of sixty-six years in prison. These are clearly excessive prison sentences in relation to the alleged charges.
It is of particular concern that the ‘Airbus 8’ are union leaders, the shop stewards and committee members. Targeting the union leadership sends a strong and threatening signal to the whole of the membership. And it constitutes as particular violation of ILO Conventions protecting trade union rights.
I was struck by both the sincerity and the resolute determination of these workers: they are not the hooligans they have been portrayed as, merely workers seeking to protect their rights, their families and communities. Demonizing those who stand up for the less powerful and the powerless is an age old tactic of those who seek to deny rights.
Today, Rudi de Leeuw, the Belgian President of the European Trade Union Confederation will travel to Spain to speak in support of the ‘Airbus 8’ workers. He will join with other European trade unions in calling for the objectionable Franco-era Article 315.3 of Spain’s Penal Code, which entails prison sentences for trade unionists who take part in picket lines during a strike, to be struck down.
Across Europe there is a lot we can do if we stand together to protect trade union rights. The ETUC will launch a campaign in February aimed at increasing awareness at Member State and EU level about how trade union rights – including the right to organise in a trade union, the right to collective bargaining and the right to strike – must be respected.