Labor unions become the battleground for political control in Spain

The most striking feature of Spanish trade union elections -- they began Oct. 15 and last until the end of November -- is the degree to which they are political.

Economic issues, such as maintaining the purchasing power of wages against inflation, and halting unemployment (which is now affecting over 11 percent of the active population), are prominent in the campaigns of the different unions.

However, the main issue behind the banners is political: Spain's labor movement has become a battleground between the country's three principal parties -- the ruling Democratic Center Union, the Socialists, and the Communists -- and this is profoundly affecting their relations. Indeed, the results of these elections are expected to put the finishing touches on a strategy jointly pursued by the first two parties aimed at weakening and isolating the Communists.

Both the government and the Socialists have long appreciated that the strength of the Spanish Communist Party does not rest on its 21 deputies in the Cortes (parliament) but on the fact that the Communist-dominated Confederation Of Workers Commissins (CCOO) is by far the largest and most organized in the labor movement. At the moment this union represents some 45 percent of affiliated labor while the Socialist union, the General Workers Union (UGT), claims to represent 30 percent.

To counteract this, the Socialist union last year radically switched its tactics. In the first democratic union elections held in 1978 the Socialist union had pursued a more radical line than the CCOO. But this scared away hundreds of members and alienated employers. There was a real risk that the Socialist union would fall into extinction, and that the CCOO would become labor's chief negotiator.

This set of circumstances temporarily made the government and the Socialists partners. Halfway through last year the General Workers Union started presenting itself as a moderate force signing an outline agreement with employers.

The fruits of this agreement were held up this autumn when divisions in the labor movement became just as obvious as a split between the left-wing parties. One example was the extremely heated debates in the Cortes on new labor legislation that relaxed hiring and firing laws, which were defended jointly by the government and the Socialists against strong Communist opposition.

Not surprisingly, in January this year the CCOO refused to endorse a two-year wage and work conditions agreement signed by the employers association and the General Workers Union, and later backed by a smaller union, the Workers Syndical Union. However, this agreement left the Communists out in the cold. In subsequent factory elections in SEAT, Renault, and in the steelworks Hunosa in the Basque country, once considered bastions of the CCOO, the General Workers Union made gains for the first time.

This development paradoxically led to speculation whether the Socialist Party , which now is the second biggest in the country, may not also eventually command the largest trade union.

To safeguard against this, and in preparation for the present elections, the government started backing a third force. This is the small Workers Syndical Union, which is opposed to both socialist and communist ideology.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.