To Get Better Work Conditions, We Have to Be Ready to Strike for Them

Jon Las Heras

Since the 1990s, workers in the Basque Country have gone on strike more than twice as often as any other workforce in Europe. The Basque unions insist that we have to fight for our interests — a strike-fund-centered strategy that has won huge victories even in the age of austerity.

People take part in a demonstration during a general strike called by Basque unions ELA (Basque Workers' Solidarity) and LAB (Basque Patriotic Workers' Union) in the Basque city of Bilbao, 2012. (ANDER GILLENEA / AFP / Getty Images)

Interview by
Ben Wray

The data is clear. Workers in the Basque Country, in the north of Spain, strike more than anywhere else in Europe.

From 1990 to 2017, there were 366 working days lost from industrial action per thousand employees in the Basque Country. Second highest in Europe was the rest of Spain, at 181, less than half the Basque figure. Only four other European states — Cyprus, Italy, Denmark, and France — have over a hundred workdays lost per thousand employees. Figures only from the previous decade, from 2010–17, show the Basque Country joint top with France for strike days lost.

Why do Basques strike more? Part of the answer came in a paper written by economists Jon Las Heras and Lluís Rodriguez Algans in December. Compiling the above figures in the article for the British Journal of Industrial Relations, they sought to explain the high strike rate in the land known as “Euskal Herria.” What they identify is the emergence of a union organizing strategy that goes against the grain of European trade unionism in the neoliberal era, by putting striking at the center of union activity, as opposed to an institutional focus on “social partnership” and delivering services to the rank and file. This is summed up in the slogan: “There is no union renewal without striking.”

In fact, this strategy has been divisive — creating a clear strategic divergence between the Basque unions, which represent almost two-thirds of trade unionists in the Basque Country, and the Spanish unions, which represent the rest. It has also led to intense conflict with the government of the Basque Autonomous Community and the Spanish government, as well as employers’ associations who have grown used to a model of “social dialogue” where everyone sits round the table but capital always has the whip hand.

But for Basque workers, there is clear evidence that what Las Heras and Rodriguez Algans call the “counter-power” model of union organizing, where alliances start at the rank and file, can reap rewards in terms of improved wages and job security. Basque Workers’ Solidarity (ELA) and Nationalist Workers’ Committees (LAB), the two main Basque unions, have scored important victories even during the austerity years of the past decade, and in sectors which have typically been seen as difficult to organize in.

And it is clear that despite the enduring strength of the Basque nationalist left (“izquierda Abertzale”) within Basque society, this shift in union strategy was largely an organic, worker-led process, aimed primarily at achieving industrial victories rather than explicitly political goals.

In the context of a global recession that applies intense pressure on workers and unions, are there lessons to learn across the continent from the Basque counter-power model? I discussed this with Jon Las Heras, industrial economist at the University of the Basque Country.

Ben Wray

What are the origins of this divergence you have identified between “counter-power” unions and “social dialogue” unions?

Jon Las Heras

The era of neoliberal globalization has been linked to the disempowerment of the working class. Greater competition among workers at the international level as markets expand has been related to workers’ greater incapacity. By the end of the 1990s, we start to see the emergence of a “third way” idea: “maybe we shouldn’t struggle in the old way and instead accompany capital, and it could be beneficial for all of us.” Of course, unions continue to struggle and try to maintain their capacity, but they also start to accept the logic of capital and embrace this discourse.

In Spain, and especially in the Basque Country, a strong rank-and-file movement had developed in resistance to the Franco dictatorship. During the transition following Franco’s death, that movement was struggling for workers’ rights, higher wages, and a voice as part of constituting this democracy. The socialist party and the communist party sought to take a grip of this situation and impose quite a vertical system of semi-centralized collective bargaining.

The big Spanish unions, CCOO and UGT, came to a sort of acceptance of this system. The strategy was not to bring too much radicalism to their demands. The strong horizontal movement of workers was then absorbed into this new pact with the post-Franco state. These unions may try to claim they are horizontal, but since their legal appearance they have not been. Spain became a periphery to the core of the European economy, and a lot of factories were closed, including in the Basque Country. The unions, including the largest Basque union, ELA, were critical of this, of course — but they were ultimately accepting the rules of the game.

In the 1990s, ELA goes through an internal critique of its strategy and this ultimately leads to them separating from the Spanish unions and from the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), the largest party in the Basque Country. Over ten years they come to the conclusion that the social dialogue strategy is not useful, either for their own organization or to improve the condition of the workers. The UGT and CCOO go in the other direction, more toward organizing at the higher level — signing big pacts with government.

That’s when the split becomes quite sharp between ELA and LAB [the other big Basque union, closely connected to the Basque nationalist left] on the one hand and CCOO and UGT on the other.

Ben Wray

The outcome of that division is a sharp polarization in method. The paper you copublished in December shows that ELA and LAB become financially and politically independent from government and rely on strikes for their strength. Strikes on average last twice as long as UGT and CCOO strikes (twenty-four days versus twelve). During the austerity years since 2010, ELA and LAB workers have increased their number of strike days by 49 percent, while in CCOO and UGT strike days have fallen during that period by 17 percent.

Jon Las Heras

Our paper is trying to critique this idea that the best way for unions is always to make big pacts which include all the workers, but then in the rank and file you see workers which have no connection to these unions; they see them as defenders of those workers who are well-positioned.

It’s clear that by engaging workers in action, in organizing the rank and file, the Basque unions are making efforts that the other ones are not. They are engaging carers in elderly residencies, hotel workers, and cleaners in action. It’s not that it’s perfect, far from that, but they are making a systematic effort in this sense.

Ben Wray

Your research finds that a powerful strike-fund, especially in ELA — where members on strike can receive up to €2,205 per month from the union while on strike — has been critical to advancing this strategy. It cites examples of this success, for instance hotel workers who won a 40 percent pay increase after a forty-one-day strike, and workers in elderly residencies who won a minimum monthly salary of €1,200 and a maximum thirty-five-hour week after a total 374 days of strike action.

Jon Las Heras

If you are an organization of people working in a difficult setting, you need successful victories. You need to be exemplary. You need to show that by organizing you will get something better than by not. The strike-fund allows the union to bring the resources of all their workers to a strike, through monetary means, which allows the strike to last longer. This, I think, has proved to be an effective way to build the union. Because if you are a cleaner, and you are getting even the minimum standard strike fund amount in ELA, of €1,102.50 per month, the financial pain of going on strike significantly decreases.

Of course, it’s not only a matter of you bringing along money and then people will strike. The union must help prepare people to strike: they must bring solidarity of course, but also political, legal, and strategic support. And this process of striking and supporting strikes builds the capacities of the workers, but it also transforms the union, because it has to adapt its operations completely to make this way of working a success.

Ben Wray

What has been the response of employers and the Basque government to this counter-power model of union organizing?

Jon Las Heras

Spicy. The Spanish employers’ association, CEOE, talk in a really positive way about the Spanish unions: they say “they are responsible,” etc. When they talk about the Basque unions, they say “they are irresponsible, they don’t want to negotiate, they just want to strike.” They have even said that they should be banned.

In 2017, global consultancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, produced a report on the Basque economy for the autonomous regional government, and found that the biggest problem was the Basque unions. Based on that report, the Biscay employers’ association said that the unions were “seeking to return 100 years in history [and recovering] a discourse of striking and struggling,” they “limit corporations’ room for maneuver,” and “force companies to accept their demands.”

The report also found that the 2012 neoliberal labor reforms had been more or less implemented across Spain, but not in the Basque Country. Of course, in the end the employers are willing to reach agreements, but what you see in the media is this spicy attitude.

Ben Wray

Spain has one of the most precarious workforces in Europe. It has the highest rate of temporary employment, at 27 percent, and the largest number of digital platform workers, at 18 percent. The Basque Country is slightly better in this respect than Spain as a whole, but the number of temporary workers has still risen in recent years to a quarter of the total.

Can the Basque unions’ counter-power model be applied to these workers, considering that many would struggle to pay the high union membership fee that ELA, for example, charges to finance its powerful strike-fund?

Jon Las Heras

In 2015 subcontracted technicians for Telefónica, the big telecommunications company in Spain, were hired as freelancers. There was a big strike across Spain of forty thousand workers, and they were asking just for a collective agreement. They did many things: squatted in a Telefónica shop to use as a base, organized crowdfunding, etc. The region where the workers lasted longest was in the Basque Country. And it was not related to the two big Basque unions, ELA and LAB, they were organized in ESK, which is a smaller Basque union, only of around five thousand members. However, it has a strike-fund which is worth around about the minimum wage. This small union was capable of delivering because of the strike-fund.

Can a gig worker pay €22 per month membership fee? I agree, it’s a problem. Maybe unions can engage one worker as a member and start to organize activity on that basis. I’m not sure, but we need to be clear that these precarious workers like at Telefónica who maybe feel like they cannot pay union membership fees, later they have an increase in their wages which by far exceeds any fee.

What we know is that unions need to be constantly changing their practice to evolve. By doing it, you realize how it can be done.

Ben Wray

Your paper emphasizes the “subjective component” in shaping industrial relations, over the contextual factors — economic, legal, institutional, etc. Can the Basque counter-power model be applied elsewhere in Europe to strengthen trade unionism across the continent?

Jon Las Heras

The context matters. For example, the legal rules in Germany mean a corporatist logic has been embedded into industrial relations. In other countries the right to strike has been weakened, for example in the UK, so I cannot say that the Basque model there would definitely be the best, because the conditions are not the same.

Nonetheless, we have provided an example in this paper of a big organization, ELA, which has changed its method. Unions, responding to pressure from the rank and file, or a reorientation at the leadership level, can change. All organizations can have a critical analysis of their work — and challenge themselves to do better.