Since early April technicians for the telecommunications giant Telefonica have maintained an indefinite strike across the Spanish state over their precarious working conditions. Over the past few months, the technicians have become well-known for bringing their ladders to demonstrations, achieving the moniker la revuelta de escaleras – the revolt of the ladders.
Their cause could hardly be more just. Thousands of the technicians are subcontracted, facing 10-12 hour days, no holidays, the responsibilities for their own transportation and equipment, all for as low as €600-800 a month. It’s under these circumstances in which a militant, indefinite strike has broken out in an election year that has the ruling Popular Party selling precarious job creation as an economic success story.
The strike was started by technicians in Madrid on 28 March in response to a contract proposed by Telefonica which decreased pay scales. The strike achieved a widespread following in Madrid with upwards of 90% adherence according to the strike committee. On 7 April, the infinite strike expanded to provinces across the Spanish state with similarly high adherence. Flying pickets were maintained and company offices and stores became the sites of demonstrations by workers and their supporters. Within days Telefonica withdrew the proposed contract, but the indefinite strike continued, with workers arguing for genuine relief rather than the continuation of their miserable conditions.
The technicians are demanding eight-hour working days and to be integrated into the salaried workforce of the main company where wages are twice those currently received by some 20,000 workers employed through subcontractors. It’s a set of demands that doesn’t speak to the modesty of the workers but to the severity of exploitation in 21st century capitalism, where workers find themselves engaged in labour battles previously fought and won.
At the other end of exploitation are the vast profits earned by Telefonica two decades after its privatization by the Popular Party. The reduction of 50,000 fixed jobs has turned Telefonica into one of the highest-earning Spanish enterprises, bringing in over €3bn in profits in 2014 and €4.5bn in 2013. All of this drives the strikers to deepen the strike in both its duration and militancy. Strikers have maintained pickets at company facilities and have allegedly carried out sabotage on the telecommunications network – 800 separate acts sabotage according to the company – accusations that have fuelled a police crackdown with the arrest of 16 workers. The strikers demand their release and the dropping of charges, arguing that the alleged sabotage of the telecom network is in fact severe neglect by the company and represents a danger to the technicians attempting to repair it.
While pickets and alleged sabotage have a deep history in labour struggle, this strike has seen workers utilize new tools. WhatsApp, Twitter and other social media sites have made up for the lack of interconnected labour organization across the Spanish state. Through a popular strike blog, assemblies and mobilizations are being scheduled for workers and their supporters to keep track of the struggle and to participate. Lacking the support of the two main trade unions, UGT and CCOO, the workers have been appealing for support to their crowd-sourced strike fund which is prioritized to the families in deepest need.
The role of both CCOO and UGT in the technicians’ strike has been particularly shameful. Weeks into the strike, the two trade unions called their own weekly two-day strike. The two unions then entered into an agreement with Telefonica, bypassing the self-organized workers and smaller unions who’ve done the heavy lifting. The striking workers have denounced the actions of CCOO and UGT as a naked attempt to unravel the strike before its demands have been met. Slogans such as “we fight, we negotiate” have featured prominently in the protests, while union offices have been surrounded by angry workers and struck with eggs, flares, fireworks and other missiles.
The combativeness of the strike was further demonstrated when workers and their supporters occupied the company headquarters at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, forcing Telefonica to concede negotiations with the workers collective. However, the company showed no goodwill in the negotiations, having the meeting place flanked by vans of riot police and insisting workers have to negotiate wages and conditions with the third party firms contracted by Telefonica and not the company itself. The occupation nonetheless brought the workers recognition and showed how the deal with CCOO and UGT was just a ploy to undercut their struggle.
While we don’t know if the revolt of the ladders will achieve its goals, it represents an important evolution of the labour movement. Workers are increasingly opting for the support and backing of smaller unions, such as the anarcho-syndicalist CGT as well as AST and COBAS in the case of Telefonica. The hope is that this is just the beginning of the moderate trade unions being displaced. In autumn left-wing parties, social movements associated with 15M, and smaller trade unions will make the unprecedented effort of organizing a general strike across the Spanish state. This represents a struggle to take a powerful political tool out of the hands of CCOO and UGT union bureaucrats who have worked to contain unrest over austerity, just as they’ve tried to contain the revolt of the ladders. A victory for the technicians of Telefonica would be paving the way.