I was waiting for the CNT to arrive; they were holding a picket right outside of a Starbucks by Plaza Catalunya. I went in to use the wifi and double check the address. When I came out everyone was there.
“You lose a point,” said Patxi.
They didn’t really care; Starbucks wasn’t the target, the city council building next door was. It was January but not too chilly, and I took a stack of flyers to hand out to passersby, explaining the content: services for homeless people (shelters and soup kitchens) had been outsourced to private companies that were making a profit off of homelessness.
These services were perpetually understaffed, and a man had just died of alcohol withdrawal at one of the soup kitchens. The worker who found him dead had tried to tend to the man, but had been working alone with 40 other clients. By the time she got to him it was too late; he had collapsed in the bathroom. Had the facility been properly staffed she could have called an ambulance in time to save his life.
It’s a lot to explain in a short conversation, but suffice it to say that private companies are profiting from poverty, and the lack of quality services to those in need can literally cause death.
A group of well-dressed people, looking very serious, approached. Perhaps some were even body guards. They refused the flyers I held out to them, but the woman in the middle took one.
As they walked into the building we were in front of, the picketers threw flyers at the group and yelled “asesina!”
“Who were those people?” I asked Gloria, another union member, after they had passed.
“That was the mayor,” she said.
The mayor, Ada Colau, had promised to make these services public once again, but this hadn’t happened. Ada Colau is a member of En Comú Podem – the Catalan version of the new left-wing party Podemos – and I want to believe she’s doing her best, so I make excuses for her: the city is locked into contracts, she’s up against powerful lobbies. The CNT were not so forgiving, openly calling her a murderer. It was hyperbolic, but the language drove home the point that the city – and privatization – was ultimately responsible for the death at the food kitchen.
Some months later one of the workers at the soup kitchen showed me its budget.
The company, Eurest, charges the city €6.7 per meal, and based on this figure, the estimated budget for the soup kitchen was €738,000 for 2020. However the number of users at Eurest’s soup kitchens doubled during the Coronavirus quarantine as other facilities closed, and the worker told me they were serving around 600 people per day. The number of staff, of course, did not increase, but Eurest saw their revenue double to over €100,000 per month.
Eurest is a major provider of restaurant services in Spain, staffing cafeterias in office buildings, universities, and hospitals. It’s part of the multinational corporation Compass Group, which is based in London and responsible to its shareholders, not its employees or the people it serves.
Why is a multinational corporation running soup kitchens? Why is it profiting from public funds?
As workers organize, we discover more cases like these of privatization and fraud, in addition to exploitation.
Healthcare hasn’t been privatized yet, but many auxiliary services have, such as cleaning or cafeteria services in hospitals. In Madrid, the local government hired Eurest to feed the staff and patients at a temporary hospital site during the first wave of the pandemic. The contract was for €4 million for 97 days, but the hospital was only open for 41 days – meaning that the city overpaid Eurest by €2.3 million.
Where did the money go? To the workers? To provide more services for the homeless?
No, it goes into the pockets of board members and upper management, and to the corporate investors. When the Spanish talk about rampant political corruption, this is what they mean.
And if we didn’t hold Ada Colau accountable for the city’s privatization of social services, who would?
The same goes for companies exploiting their workers.
Just before the state of alarm, the CNT entered into another conflict with Eurest for fraudulent contracts (temporary contracts that should be indefinite), firing union members, and unpaid overtime.
Until these issues are resolved and the workers get their jobs back, we’re picketing at the sites the where the company operates.
Though we don’t rely on it, most of our actions are for grievances that are protected by labor law. After Franco died, the then socialist PSOE championed fairly strong labor laws. These were later weakened after the last crisis when the Partido Popular introduced the 2012 labor reform, which made it easier for companies to fire workers.
In the US, the IWW – the CNT’s North American counterpart – has grown in recent years, but I never saw the level of organization or action there as I’ve seen with the CNT. If a Starbucks member got fired for union organizing – as has happened various times in the US – and they were a member of the CNT, we would be picketing outside their establishments almost every day.
With the crisis that lies before us, we need to be thinking of more ways to form communities, collectives, and act in solidarity. Unions are one way to do this, and it’s so much more personal when you feel a part of your union, which can be hard – though not impossible – when you’re a member of a big business union. Here the workers themselves can decide if they want to take direct action. More experienced members might provide counsel, but in the end we come out for other workers whatever they decide.
What’s stopping American workers from doing more pickets and taking part in other forms of direct action? From standing up for ourselves when we’re fired? What’s stopping us from learning labor law, and advocating for stronger ones?
In my case, I didn’t have coworkers, but it wasn’t necessary – in the CNT any one worker could form their own ‘sección’, which is kind of like a local.
I had been employed as an autónoma (independent contractor) illegally – not only did my boss tell me when to work, but he had me working unpaid overtime, meaning I couldn’t do other work on the side.
I was happy to ignore it at the time, but when I had to pay extra taxes, had no support moving, was being stolen from after moving to a new city and then being harassed at work, my life started to fall apart.
When I started working from the office, my boss would deny me even 15 minute breaks, reprimanding me when I reminded him they were required by law.
I should have stood up for myself more, but I was alone and felt powerless.
Finally I decided to join the CNT – the Confederacion Nacional de Trabajo, that anarcho-syndicalist union famous for its militancy during the Spanish Civil War. They became like my coworkers – and that’s what we call each other, companeros. They listened to my case, helped me feel supported, and understand the law and what I could and couldn’t do in my situation. I started to read labor law on my own, starting with the estatuto de trabajadores.
“The workers’ statute is like our Bible, ” one comrade told me. “You have to learn it by heart.”
In addition to the statute, each job is governed by a convenio colectivo – the collective agreement decided upon by unions and employers every couple of years. The document regulates behavior in the workplace, the responsibilities of the employer, what infractions one can be fired for and not, and the standard pay for each job category.
In Spanish law, it’s illegal to fire someone for joining a union (and doing so carries a €6,000 fine, if you can prove it), so it’s often best to officially inform your employer as soon as possible. A couple of compañeros helped me write a letter, along with a tabla de reivindicaciones – or grievances that I wanted regularized. With each grievance, we cited the corresponding labor law.
The fact that we have the law behind us makes us stronger, because it’s in the companies’ interest not to go to court. It reminds me how much of a difference social democracy can make. In the US we can’t rely on labor law, since there isn’t much of it, but it’s in our best interest to learn those laws that do exist and might protect us. One right that we still have is the right to collective action and to form a union, and if documented adequately, this should hold up in court. We should use and defend it more.
I sent the letter by certified mail but it was too late; I received my boss’ letter first. I had broken down from stress, and had to coger una baja médica (take medical leave), but hadn’t been able to see the doctors I needed because I wasn’t empadronada – I didn’t officially live in Catalunya yet. While I waited for an appointment, my boss asked me every day when I would return to work – so I knew he was going to fire me, even though it’s illegal to fire someone for being de baja, or even while they’re de baja.
So I went to see the union lawyer and together we built a case. We threw the book at him – being employed as a ‘falsa autonoma’, illegal dismissal, and some 200 hours of unpaid overtime, sent him la demanda by certified mail, and got a date for a trial for early 2021.
My boss initially denied all charges. He didn’t negotiate in good faith until my compañeros until we took direct action on social media. “Have you harassed any of your employees today?” they commented on one of his tweets after he had attended an important event in his sector. My boss finally restored to me my old Twitter account, which had been linked to my work email, and he offered me an agreeable settlement. He was probably afraid of what we might do next. Direct action and the law complemented each other – one wouldn’t have held up without the other. In any case, if you’re a worker, you need other workers to have your back.
As they often do, my boss expected to get away with his behavior – spying on me, harassing me, overworking me and not giving me enough time to complete tasks, as is common in what was meant to be a ‘constructive dismissal’. He didn’t expect me to fight back; few workers do. But I couldn’t have done it alone.
So just as they supported me, I come out for other compañeros when they lose their jobs.
As they say in the IWW, “direct action gets the goods”. But it helps to have labor law to back you up.