We Need to Escape This Dystopia and Open New Horizons of Hope
- Nicolas Allen
At a time of severe austerity, Spain has made key progressive advances. We spoke to labor minister Yolanda Díaz about her government’s attempts to bolster labor rights, fight climate change, and how the Left needs to build social movements beyond party structures.
- Interview by
- Vicente Rubio-Pueyo
The 2023 election cycle may seem far off, but it’s on the front of everyone’s mind in Spain. The center-left coalition government of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) and Unidas Podemos will finish its term that year, and, months before, Spain will also hold local elections for municipal and autonomous community governments. The coming electoral season hangs heavy over national politics and influences discussions across the ideological spectrum.
Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic fallout of the Russian invasion of Ukraine have hit the country hard. Although limited in its scope and dogged by internal tensions, the coalition government responded to the crisis with policies that have mitigated some of its worst effects. A recent example came when the Spanish government lobbied the European Union to grant an “Iberian exception” to energy price hikes.
Yolanda Díaz, the labor minister and second vice president for Unidas Podemos, represents the best of the government’s efforts to provide social protections during hard times. During the pandemic, Díaz’s management of the furlough benefits plan significantly cushioned the effects of economic paralysis for workers and small companies. Díaz’s labor reform bill, which was just approved in February of this year, represents a major — if modest — milestone that would empower labor by decreasing precarity and increasing permanent work contracts, among other things.
Other achievements under Díaz’s watch include a minimum wage increase, which for the first time reached one thousand Euros per month. Her Ministry of Labor has also championed pioneering legislation such as the “Rider Law,” which would regulate platform work such as food delivery applications. These and other measures have seen Spain’s unemployment rate return to pre-2008 levels.
Trade unions, employer unions, and even the media have praised the minister’s bargaining skills, which have brought diverse social actors to the negotiating table. Díaz comes from a background as a labor attorney and is well versed in labor law, although she is just as gifted in parliamentary debate. These and other talents have earned her some of the highest national approval ratings of any Spanish politician, well ahead of President Pedro Sánchez.
Following his resignation in May 2021, Pablo Iglesias acknowledged that the leadership of Unidas Podemos now rests with Díaz. Indeed, she seemed an ideal candidate to oversee the coalition: beside her personal and professional qualities, her political background made her a perfect consensus builder.
Born into a family of trade unionists, a member of the Spanish Communist Party, and, later, leader of the United Left (Izquierda Unida), Díaz was a key figure behind the 2021 Alternativa Galega de Esquerda (AGE) — an important political precedent for Podemos, where a young Pablo Iglesias served as advisor.
Most recently, Díaz and her team have been building a new political project known as “Sumar,” which was launched this past July 8 in Madrid. In the words of its advocates, Sumar is “a listening process” tuned in to the opinions of civil society, the objective being to create a “new democratic pact for the next decade” in Spain.
In other words, Díaz and her team are trying to build a citizens’ movement that would ultimately gather the momentum necessary to redraw the left-wing political map in Spain — overstepping traditional party structures, if need be.
This need for a reconfiguration of leftist politics in Spain is rooted in several considerations. First, despite Díaz’s and other Unidas Podemos ministers’ important achievements in the government, the party is suffering the usual predicament of junior partners in coalition governments: Unidas Podemos’s successes seem to be lumped in as broader government successes, at least for the general public opinion beyond the Left. At the same time, Spanish politics seem to be slowly turning to a new two-party equilibrium.
The right-wing field is showing a stronger Popular Party, propelled by Alberto Feijóo’s new leadership at the same time that VOX’s success is slowing and Ciudadanos has met its demise. This should benefit PSOE, which will probably try to concentrate large swaths of pragmatic, “useful votes” against the “menace of the Right” while trying to co-opt more left-oriented voters with cosmetic progressive measures.
But perhaps the most important factors here are in the social, ideological, and cultural realms. After the exhaustion and pain caused by the pandemic, and amid concerns about the effects of inflation on Spaniards’ everyday lives, Spanish society looks deeply apathetic, exhausted, and even cynical and nihilistic toward politics. This is especially so among leftist and progressive circles, which are suffering from a profound demobilization.
An important cause of this situation lies in the way so many mainstream media have framed political discussions through outright manipulations and ad hominem attacks to Podemos leadership, as Pablo Iglesias explained to Jacobin recently. But for the Left to be able to go beyond a reactive position, and to recover the political initiative, it needs to present a renewed and appealing project for the whole country.
Díaz’s initiative recalls the tactics of the 15M “Indignados” movement of more than a decade ago, which led to the municipalist movement in cities like Barcelona and the foundation of Podemos itself. Sumar is backed by the United Left, left-wing regional parties like Catalunya en Comú and Coalició Compromís in Valencia, and even shares common ground with Más Madrid, the political formation founded by Íñigo Errejón following his departure from Podemos.
Despite being the main party of Díaz’s Unidas Podemos coalition, Podemos leadership has been less than enthusiastic about the new initiative, and has made clear its intention to limit engagement with the process until a later date, when it can reach an agreement with the formation resulting from the Sumar process.
For Jacobin, Vicente Rubio-Pueyo spoke with Yolanda Díaz on the heels of her visit to the United States, where she met with Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, Bernie Sanders, Ilhan Omar, and trade union representatives of Starbucks.
Díaz spoke about her work as Spain’s labor minister, provided an analysis of the current Spanish and European political situation, offered ideas for the international left, and explained why the Sumar movement could be the shot in the arm that the Spanish left needs. The conversation has been translated from Spanish and edited for length and clarity.
What is the current situation in Spanish politics, and what should we expect from the governing coalition in the months ahead? What factors will define the coming election cycle in 2023?
I think we’ve entered a new phase that will mark a departure from earlier periods in Spanish politics. We’ve emerged from a health, economic, and social crisis showing that we can manage things in a radically different way. It’s the first time that such a crisis was not managed with austerity in Spain — that’s the only way to explain the positive figures around employment, taking into account that we have high structural unemployment.
In other words, unlike the 2008 financial crisis, in which Spain reached 6,278,000 unemployed and with youth unemployment rates at 56 percent, we’ve shown that we can lower youth unemployment by 11 percent, and that the work of the Labor Ministry can actually be effective.
Everything that was said at the beginning of the crisis — that raising wages would destroy employment, that we would bankrupt the state — turned out to be dogmas. We’ve shown that our approach can save workers’ lives and even rescue the entire productive base: we’ve demonstrated how, on scientific grounds, there is more economic efficiency in the way we handle things, and that when you sufficiently protect workers, the economic chain actually remains more intact.
That said, the outlook for the rest of 2022 is extremely uncertain. We’ve already noticed a slowdown in employment figures — not necessarily around hirings, which remain positive and are a good sign that the labor reform is working. But the data we currently have is full of signs that the recovery is cracking. If Russian gas were to stop flowing to Germany, for example, that would be a very concerning development. Now is a time for cautious forecasts, especially during the final months of the year which are traditionally poor months for employment in Spain.
Setting aside the economic data, the crucial issue is the social unrest that all this could inspire. Inflation is not just a number: it works its way into households, puts everyone in a bad mood, and gets everyone talking incessantly about money troubles, feeling negatively about grocery shopping, or buying school supplies for their kids.
Every national government has to ask itself: How should we offset the effects of inflation? This is a major talking point in international discussions, as we recently had a chance to discuss with Bernie Sanders in the United States — how to offset the effects of inflation in the everyday lives of workers.
As labor minister, you passed an important labor reform bill; laws like the Rider Law for platform workers; regulatory measures like the ERTE, which provided vital relief for furloughed workers during the pandemic, and others. What remains to be done with what’s left of your term?
There are three things. First, from summer until the end of the term, we will work toward ratifying the domestic labor regulations outlined in Convention 189 of the International Labor Organization. I will file the endorsement of that Convention in Geneva, along with the endorsement of Convention 190 for labor harassment. This will provide us with the first regulatory measures for domestic labor in Spain, along with the provision of rights for women in that sector, who are regularly subject to discrimination and deprived of basic rights.
Second, we will finish the stated goals of the misnamed “scholarship status,” which is vital to combat precarity. I say misnamed because a “scholarship” disguises all kinds of abuse and fraud in our country and around the world. Third, we need to promote more work training, co-parenting, and measures that allow for a fairer balance between work and family life.
Thinking more long-term, you often mention in his speeches the concept of “economic democracy.” For example, during your visit to the United States, you introduced a proposal at the United Nations to promote what could become the first-ever UN resolution on the social economy. With debate growing today around the possibility of universal basic income and models for worker participation and comanagement, what long-term measures need to be advanced to move toward this true economic democracy?
This is a key question. Honestly, I was surprised that our social economy proposal was met with such positive reception. This just goes to show that there is a growing global awareness that the economy can be about more than just boards of directors, shareholders, and dividends — there is a growing awareness that other approaches are necessary. The resolution may very well be approved at the United Nations before December.
Taking the long view on economic democracy: for a labor lawyer like me, the fundamental thing is how we can refashion the very idea of labor for the twenty-first century. Work no longer follows the Fordist model as it did during the twentieth century. People work on digital platforms connecting, for example, Australia and a city in Galicia, Spain. And a good part of that work is self-employment; more than 3,200,000 workers in Spain are self-employed. Therefore, we need to take a long look at the transformations in the world of labor, and how those changes are related to other social, economic, technological, and ecological changes.
Second, as everyone knows, ever since the nineteenth century, the great conflict between capital and labor has always been around a specific concept of value, whose key variable is time. I think this idea of time is now the great debate: how to legislate the use of time. This is anything but simple and is more complicated than just reducing the working day. It is essential, of course, to reduce the working day, but we need to legislate a use of time in which care work is also placed at the center of our notion of labor.
In this law, we would move toward an approach closer to that of the Nordic countries, in which there are two-way compromises: you do not just adapt yourself to the time demands of the workplace, but the workplace adapts its time demands to you. This is even more important in a country like Spain where social infrastructure is sometimes lacking and where, for example, there are few education centers for children from zero to six years old, or care centers for the elderly.
Currently, there are eighteen countries in Europe that refer to some form of economic democracy in their laws or constitutional documents. Curiously, despite the fact that the 1978 Spanish Constitution directly mentions the participation of workers in companies, such a thing has never been developed in our country. Obviously, it is no coincidence — they want to exclude the workers.
If a worker loves their job and company, then they should also have much more responsibility for decisions regarding those companies, especially because they would make those decisions with criteria based in the productive needs of their company, not the dividends of stockholders. A worker’s view of a company is very different from that of an entrepreneur or a shareholder.
Then, of course, there is the issue of self-employment, which needs to be completely rethought. For example, we need to rethink how self-employment figures within the need to reconcile a work-life balance.
When I worked in my law firm in Ferrol, I only struck a balance because my mother came for a few hours and took care of my daughter. How do we make it possible for the self-employed to reconcile work and family life? It is a complicated question, but one for which we need to find an answer.
Finally, there is the minimum wage issue. I have already called a commission of experts to update wage data and continue raising wages. We are working simultaneously to take the focus away from minimum wage and put the focus on wages in general. This is something I have discussed with the European Commissioner for jobs and social rights, Nicolas Schmit, and with the Italian minister Andrea Orlando. I also mentioned it in the press conference with US labor secretary Marty Walsh, which he found very interesting. We have to talk about wages in general and not just minimum wage because, while we are content to increase the latter, we need to raise all wages of working people.
You mentioned the economic effects that Russia’s interrupting gas supplies to Germany could have on the whole of Europe. What is your assessment of the Russian invasion of Ukraine? What needs to be done from a European perspective?
Of course, we have to call for peace. But more than ever, in cases of war such as these, we have to do so through diplomacy and open dialogue. I am extremely concerned about the definition of peace given at the recent NATO summit in Madrid. I would have preferred to see a commitment to European strategic autonomy. I am questioning why a country like Spain has to subordinate its security to the domestic policy of a country such as the United States.
Another thing that should give us pause is that the European Union spends three times more than Russia on defense policy. We need to think about what we are doing, because it is not a good idea to spend more and more in an unlimited arms race, influenced by the interests of very large multinationals. We need to spend in a correct and strategically adequate way.
Beyond these matters, I also believe that countries deserve respect and space for democratic dialogue. That means changing our understanding of migration, from the current NATO strategy that sees migration as a “hybrid threat” to a single encompassing vision of migrants as the subjects of human rights.
You recently visited the US and met with Bernie Sanders and Ilhan Omar, as well as representatives of the new Starbucks trade union drive. What did you discuss?
In my conversation with Bernie Sanders, we shared common concerns. I was able to tell him, for example, about the Rider Law for app workers. We also talked broadly about the need to reclaim the world of work as the center of our politics, and the need to put women workers at the center of that vision. We are all workers, whether we are researchers, doctors, cleaners, whatever. This universality gives us a shared agenda, as opposed to the figure of, say, the rentier, whose interest is much narrower.
Hence our shared commitment to trade unionism. Just as in earlier visits to Brazil and Chile, during this last visit to the United States our agenda was really focused on organized labor.
In fact, another achievement of the trip was to sign a memorandum with my counterpart Marty Walsh, secretary of labor of the Biden administration, to work together on issues of economic democracy. We have to strengthen organized labor, both traditional as well as new forms of unionism. It is not by chance that the Right and the extreme right, both in Spain and in the United States, fight so hard against trade union forces: trade unions are the essential tool to make us strong and to expand our democracies.
On the topic of international politics, could you speak about your connections with the Left in Latin America? What do you make of the current political moment in Latin America? There is talk of a possible new political cycle with Chile’s constitution and the government of Gabriel Boric, as well as the victory in Colombia of the Historical Pact of Gustavo Petro and Francia Márquez.
Bearing in mind that the Spanish left is in constant dialogue with Latin America, especially in recent years, how do these experiences and victories impact the Spanish left? What are the “Latin American lessons” that can be drawn?
I have just come from Brazil and Chile and in due time I will visit Colombia. I am a strong internationalist, and I believe that social transformations depend on shared agendas across borders. What I have learned from my travels and from conversations with Boric and his team, or [Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva]’s team, or with Francia Márquez, is that we can only achieve broad transformations with citizen movements. This means we have to mobilize the citizenry.
Without a citizen movement that overcomes fears, sectarianism, and old dogmas, there is no possibility of broadening democracy. In Chile, they told me this emphatically: without a strong citizens’ movement, without the feminist movement, without the Indigenous movement, without the environmental movement, it won’t be possible to win. Parties, of course, are necessary in any democracy, but they are not enough.
We need to put into practice useful policies that create a framework in which the citizenry can feel hopeful and engaged. Just yesterday, when I was taking a plane in Spain from Galicia to Madrid, several people at the airport told me: “I have just received a permanent contract.” We need more of this: people feeling that politics has become something useful and worthwhile.
With neoliberalism and austerity, the world became very dystopian. That dystopia isn’t a coincidence — they want us to live in a dystopia and have no hope. This was what Thomas Hobbes taught, when he concluded that fear was what gave rise to the state, or Machiavelli, who said that there was no greater tool for mobilization than fear. I actually believe this is not the case, and that love and affection can do much more. In our jobs and daily life, we do not build things through feelings of fear or hatred, we build them with affection and love.
That leads to the next question, which is about Sumar, a platform you presented on July 8 with the stated purpose of coordinating a “listening process” of civil society. The event in Madrid marking its launch was representative of its ambition, with people from new trade unionisms (representatives of riders and Amazon workers), migrant care workers, environmentalists, public education advocates, and others.
There, you also explained what the listening process will consist of: a series of meetings in different formats with organizations, associations, and civil society that will lead to the creation of a “new democratic contract” for the next decade. What exactly is Sumar, how is it going to develop, and could it assume any electoral form later on?
It is an open source process, in the sense that we are building it collectively. Sumar is a citizen movement — in which I am a very small part — that tries to think about our country for the next decade by tackling the big issues and thinking about what kind of country we want.
We on the Left sometimes feel too comfortable being in the opposition. But doing opposition is more or less easy; the more difficult thing is to build. Sumar is about creating a citizens’ movement in which the protagonists are the citizens themselves, the ones who are participating in the process right now. In September, we will announce working groups, on specific issues ranging from food to technology.
Sumar is about thinking collectively and creating a tool for transformation, starting with a basic awareness that Spain needs to change. It needs to change in order to establish a new democratic contract.
What direction does that change need to take? What does that new democratic contract consist of?
For example, the first listening event we did was with young activists against climate change, which really filled me with pride. Many were brilliant young professionals with an absolute commitment to solving the ecological crisis.
One of the phrases that made an impression on me is that we can’t make progress in the climate crisis as long as the cashier or the supermarket cashier is not involved. The climate crisis must be viewed from a social perspective. We have to do it from below in a way that brings everyone on board. Combating climate change is therefore a question of building politically, knowing — as Naomi Klein tells us — that all politics is already climate politics.
Another example: with Marty Walsh, I was talking about how heat waves mean an increase in occupational hazards, as seen, for example, in the recent cases of dead sanitation workers in Spain. Existing labor regulations already force companies to comply with these issues, but in our new labor inspection plan, there are measures specific to heat waves that anticipate these new circumstances.
In other words, this is what Sumar is all about: all of us thinking about our country with a long-term view for the next ten years. Above all, Sumar tries to bring public affairs closer to the citizens and close the gap that exists in our country between citizens and politics, which is huge. When politics is just noise and politicians are a problem for citizens, something is wrong. Therefore, Sumar is a tool intended to expand democracy, which is the most valuable thing we have.
Boaventura de Sousa Santos has spoken of how access to the labor market used to be synonymous with access to the rights of citizenship, and how today this bond has been broken. The challenge today is to think about citizenship differently, and I believe we are doing this in Spain. We have shown that we can raise the minimum wage, increase labor protections, and advance reforms.
As I understand it, Sumar is meant to be a citizens’ movement but also a movement that goes beyond parties. You have a long experience in building similar alliances, as was the case with the AGE in 2012, a very interesting project that in a sense inaugurated the post-15M era of the Left and in which Podemos emerged. What lessons did that experience teach you?
AGE was a very interesting experience. In a sense, the political changes in Spain of the past decade began in Galicia in 2012. In Galicia, there are two political worlds: the world of federalism or confederalism, and on the other hand, a nationalist or independence movement. What I did was to cross that divide, something that would have been impossible if I had remained within the party.
This is what Sumar is about, forging a new national collective project, free of dogmas and prejudices. It’s like that song by Rubén Blades, “Caminando”: let’s start walking, because it doesn’t matter if we think differently; what is necessary is to create a country in which we all fit. Especially because the country proposed by the Right is a very small one, where there is only room for white, heterosexual, Catholic men.
But how will Sumar relate to the existing political parties on the Spanish left? Will there be room for them in the space opened up by Sumar? How will parties like Podemos, Más Madrid/Más País or the different plurinational iterations of the Left, such as [Coalició] Compromís in the Valencian Community or Comuns [Catalunya en Comú] in Catalonia interact?
We have already tried with parties and electoral coalitions. In Galicia, we tried with En Marea, and in Andalusia with Por Andalucía. It didn’t work. Instead, Sumar is about building from the momentum of the citizens and from the conviction of a political project. The discussion now is not over where party candidates are ranked on a common list, or how many funds or resources does every organization get, or any of those things. Those discussions distance citizens from politics.
In Chile, they told me that party affiliation there is at 2 percent. In other words, they wouldn’t have achieved any change without citizens’ movements that totally overwhelmed the parties. The parties, on the other hand, have the blunt capacity to make noise and get all the media attention. If parties become an end in themselves and end up fighting because some want a coalition and others want this or that position and resource, that will only discourage the citizens even more.
In that same sense, Sumar could be understood as a response to the crisis of the party form. One of the pitfalls of this crisis is the emergence of “hyperleaders” — media-friendly figures upon which a party depends. You have been emphatic that you are just a part within Sumar, but how does the construction of citizen-led movement square with your very prominent public profile in Spain?
For me, there is a clear mandate for this type of movement. As I said, parties cannot be ends in themselves. Second, parties, of course, are necessary in democracy. But they are insufficient for social transformations. The leaders of the parties must always be up to the tasks presented by a given historical moment, and the key now is to launch the citizens’ movement that will decide collectively the direction the country will take.
I do not believe in hyperleaderships, which tend to be hierarchical and a very patriarchal way of understanding power. I am not like that and I believe that people recognize me as just one of them and call me by my name. So I don’t think the issue is hyperleaderships but rather a much more complex one: I think that citizens want to participate, and there is a whole series of urgent, crucial problems that we must think about collectively.
The European and American lefts are arguably in the midst of a discouraging moment, filled with weariness, fear, sometimes even cynicism. To take the Spanish case, today we are in a radically different situation from the previous decade, which saw the 15M movement, the emergence of Podemos, and radical municipalism.
One thing we are finding is that political disaffection is a perfect breeding ground for the far right. My question then is twofold: on the one hand, what political concepts or terms do you think can carry over from that previous period to our own? On the other hand, what do you think are the crucial obstacles and goals for this moment?
First, we need to be clear that the conceptual framework in which we live and act has been neoliberalism, and that neoliberal model has been weakened or interrupted because of the pandemic. However, I believe that neoliberalism is more than an economic system; it is also a cultural system, a way of life and consumption. On that score, there is still work to be done to move toward more cooperative forms of social life.
The social economy is very important in a country like ours. We have to work to expand that model so that democracy reaches the workplace and affects economic decision-making centers. Right now, there is an opening, even if neoliberalism remains intact, to try to change things in that sense. I believe, for example, that we must make the austerity measures that have caused so much suffering a thing of the past.
Second, I believe that the challenge is to work from a common ground. And what is common is democracy, what is common is human rights, what is common is to talk about goods and fundamental rights: housing, energy, water. These are resources that have to be at the service of people — the economy has to be at the service of citizens and not the other way around. And above all, we have to rediscover something very important, which is the right to be happy and develop as human beings.
Also, we can neither understand nor address something as urgent as the climate crisis if we do not place care work and feminism at the center. Women are somehow excluded from part of the economy in that the work we do, the reproductive work we do, is not regarded as labor. The crucial thing to do now is turn our economic vision upside down and place care at the center.
I like to speak about widening democracy. And this can mean something like guaranteeing decent housing in a country where housing is inaccessible. Just look at what we have done in recent negotiations amid the crisis: we have placed caps on the mark-up of urban property value to just 2 percent. Imagine in a city like Madrid or Vigo, or Valencia or Barcelona — what would have happened if rents went up 10.8 percent?
Again, I believe that democracy is the key to mobilize the citizenry and to move away from a politics of fear. Together we need to escape this dystopia and open up new horizons of hope. If they rob us of our ability to dream, they have stolen the most valuable thing we have as human beings. This may sound naive, but it is not naive at all. This is real, this is politics, and this is what politics has to be for.