Austerity International Labor Solidarity Syndicalism

An interview with the Iberia section of the CNT union

Editor’s note: Developments since this interview was conducted earlier this year have borne out the predictions expressed by the CNT-Iberia representative interviewed below. Last week, Reuters reported:
“Cutbacks at Iberia could force Madrid’s Barajas airport to allow other airlines to use the terminal previously reserved for the exclusive use of the Spanish flag carrier and its Oneworld alliance partners, Spain’s industry minister said on Thursday.
Loss-making Iberia, part of the International Airlines Group (IAG) along with British Airways, is undergoing a major restructuring and has shed thousands of staff and a number of routes to cut costs, reducing traffic at the airport. ….
Passenger numbers at Barajas airport so far this year are down by almost 4.5 million on the same period last year, largely because of Iberia’s reduced services.
In the first eight months of the year, 26.6 million travelers used the airport, a 14.3 percent decline year on year. In August, Barcelona’s El Prat airport overtook Madrid in monthly traffic statistics.
IAG said in August that a recovery was beginning to take hold at Iberia thanks to the restructuring. Losses at Iberia, Europe’s biggest carrier to Latin America, fell to 35 million euros ($47.6 million) in the three months to June 30, from 93 million euros in the same quarter last year.”

“Solidarity among the workers must be the cornerstone of our defense as a class beyond the boundaries imposed by states”

Translated and reprinted from El Libertario

On Wednesday March 13 in Spain an agreement was signed between the unions UGT (General Workers Union), CCOO (Workers’ Commissions), SITCPLA, Asetma, USO and CTA-Flight. We interviewed the comrades of CNT-Iberia, who are developing a struggle for the rights of workers.

Part 1

When and how did the process of dismantling Iberia begin?

This is a long process, but it can be said to have begun with the merger of Iberia and British Airways, to form the holdling IAG in November 2009. The fact is that there are previous stages that parallel the process of disintegration of the public sector in Spain since the 80s. For example, considerable business activity has been outsourced as a way to divide workers and gradually destroy social and labor rights previously won by the workers. In 1994, under the PSOE government , European laws forced a liberalization of the aviation market in the interests of “very necessary and beneficial ” competitiveness , which led to the privatization of Iberia in 1996 under the PP government . Since then the company has been outsourcing ever more of its operations and production, such as the management of certain airports, the transportation of goods within airports, flight simulators, catering, security, transportation of flight crews, etc.

Thus we come to November 2010, the date formalizing the merger with British Airways and the creation of IAG, the new holding company that combined the two companies. The merger was presented to the workers as a joining of equals, where both companies would increase their growth potential and strengthen their position in the aviation market, ending up as the third largest airline company in the world by revenue. One year later, in November 2011, the creation of low-cost subsidiary, Iberia Express, was announced, which really has been the spearhead of the dismantling of Iberia, as it has been used to outsource on a massive-scale the productive resources of Iberia. It will lead, almost certainly, to the absorption of Iberia by the English company in 2015.

What is the official reason of the company for the creation of Iberia Express?

According to the company, the creation of Iberia Express was the best and only way to make Iberia profitable and competitive, to improve its competitiveness in the market of short and medium haul flights (national and European-bound flights), dominated supposedly by the low-cost model. In this model, companies like Ryanair have slashed prices thanks to subsidies paid by nations to fly to certain airports. Iberia Express was not only a path to saving Iberia but, according to the company, a way to create 500 jobs at a time when the country is facing a serious crisis, and a means to maintain existing jobs and working conditions in Iberia. A year later, we can see from the results the real direction of the company: 3,141 layoffs, steep salary cuts, and the loss of important labor rights.

What actions did the workers take prior to the first situation? What actions did C.N.T – Iberia take?

From the beginning, the workers have been skeptical at the creation of Iberia Express. In fact, the situation is understood by most workers as a process similar to that of a few years ago, between 2006 and 2009, with the creation, also by Iberia, of the low cost carrier Click Air. This resulted in the covert outsourcing of much of the production and of the productive means of Iberia (in the form of aircraft and commercial routes) and the virtual disappearance of Iberia from the Barcelona airport. In 2009, the low-cost subsidiary created by Iberia, Click Air, merged and was absorbed by Vueling, a Catalan low cost airline headed by Josep Piqué, a former Minister of Industry in the People’s Party. Vueling has now become the leading Spanish airline as measured by the number of destinations offered, the second by fleet size, and the third largest airline by passenger numbers.

Faced with the threat posed by the creation of Iberia Express to the future of our jobs, the CNT union section in Iberia took the initiative by reaching out to other unions in the company with the goal of creating an alliance, through labor unity, that could face this new threat posed by Iberia Express.

The majority unions did not respond to this call for unity. Nor did any of their offshoots, leaving the CNT with, initially, the CGT, the CESHA (that would later abandon it following an agreement signed by the CCOO and UGT), the CTA (ground employees), SEPLA (the pilots), and STAVLA (cabin crew and flight attendants). That led to various protests, demonstrations, rallies and call for strikes between February and May 2012.

What has been the role of the majority unions in creation of Iberia Express and the merger of Iberia with the British?

Here it is necessary to show that the majority unions in Spain, are in reality state institutions in the service of the incumbent government, more a state institution than all those agencies funded primarily by state budgets. These organizations do not operate in the interests of the working class, but rather according to their own interests as organizations and in the interests of their ruling bureaucratic elites. Where these bureaucratic elites are transformed into professionals defending workers’ interests, funded and supported by agents of power, they have come to be an important part of the process of legitimation of the system of capitalist inequality itself.

Typically, as has been done for many years in Spain, they played the tactic of demobilizing the workers. Since December, the minority unions among the ground-based workers – the CNT, CGT and CTA CESHA (land) – denounced the consequences that would follow the creation of this low-cost air carrier. This culminated in the January 2012 announcement of a demonstration of several thousand workers of the company and with a call for imminent strikes scheduled for February. The situation was good and the workers were well disposed towards the idea of increasing pressure upon the company. Then, two days after the demonstration, the CCOO and UGT as a unit signed an employment security agreement which entailed the preservation of jobs and working conditions through 2015. The agreement has now been revealed as worthless and as a mere instrument for social peace for as long as necessary, as the company continues to cement its strategic plan, leading the company into a position of economic losses that could justify the labor restructuring facing us today in Iberia, and the future dismantling of the company.

Although the CNT section in the company continued to denounce this corporate strategy and the majority trade unions and tried to keep pressure on the company by calling for intermittent shutdowns over the course of more than three months, together with CTA on the ground and with STAVLA and SEPLA in the air, the efforts to demobilize labor militants were effective, making it impossible to recover the needed pressure upon Iberia and obliging us to call off the strikes in May of that year. What hurt the CNT section was a lawsuit by the company for the illegal strike. Although Iberia won the suit initially, there remains the possibility of taking the company to the Supreme Court and appealing the dismissal of the entire strike committee of the STAVLA union (flight crews). Currently, thanks to alternate means, 5 of the 14 dismissed are back.


Part II

Does the economic crisis in the Spanish state have to do with the dismantling of Iberia?

Although the economic crisis logically could have something to do with a reduction in company profits, it does not justify in any way the proposed restructuring, much less the dismantling of Iberia. This as I said before, was a plan drawn up in advance with the aim of using Iberia to prop up British Airways, which has a debt of some 4,500 million for the pension fund of its employees. It is designed to increase the short-term profits of their shareholders, most of which are financial institutions. Demolishing working conditions and workers’ rights Iberia, at a time when the Spanish laws have changed, with the excuse of the crisis and of incentivizing employees, actually encouraged layoffs of the workers, the lowering of wages, and facilitated dismissals and removed obstacles that prevented companies from escaping collective agreements.

According to state and private media, Iberia is no longer profitable and it is almost impossible for it to sustain itself – it is true? Or this situation is being artificially generated and if so how?

The media are also funded by different elite groups, when not directly belonging to them, and the confidence of the media in the information provided by the government or businesses limits the information we receive, establishing a bias favoring the interests of these groups.

This particular view of the economic situation of Iberia promoted by the media is the expression of the interests of Iberia management. It is a way of generating more favorable public opinion, as much among the workers as in the general population, toward the supposed need to restructure the company, so that it is understood that the only way to keep thousands of jobs is by accepting the measures proposed by Iberia.

However, the reality is quite different. Iberia has been a fully profitable until this new direction for the company was taken, led by Sánchez-Lozano and Antonio Vazquez, who were elevated to leadership of the company by the financial group Bankia (the majority shareholder of Iberia). Previously, the company had accumulated more than ten years consecutive profit and had generated some 2,500 million euros in cash reserves. In fact, it can still be a profitable company with good growth potential if it were to change its current economic and trade strategy. The outsourcing of its productive capacities has made it third among its competitors, Vueling, Iberia Express, Air Nostrum and British Airways. So that can explain the looting and the imminent labor restructuring, the function of which will be to decrease labor costs to the minimum through the destruction of the labor rights won by the workers and as a prelude to the partitioning and dismantling of the company.


Part III

What are the consequences for the workers?

No doubt thousands of layoffs will be added to the already agreed upon 3,141 layoffs; and there will be a gradual loss of labor rights and a cheapening of our work.

What actions is CNT – IBERIA taking?

The CNT has actively participated in the strikes called by the majority trade unions, understanding that our participation in these mobilizations was necessary. But we had little confidence in the CCOO and UGT. We called for a further three day strike over Easter after it was called off by the CCOO and UGT as a result of the government-mediated agreement reached by these unions and their affiliates on March 14. We called it because we understood that the agreement did not solve the underlying problems and did not guarantee the viability of the company, and, therefore, the future of our jobs. Nor were that the sacrifices demanded of us in any way adequately made up for by what the company offered us in return. But it was called off a few days before it was to happen, reminding us once again of the demobilizing function of these so called majority “unions.” They had ended the labor struggle again, signing – with the encouragement and approval of the workers – a deal brokered by the government and tailored to the interests of Iberia.

Here it is necessary to explain that contrary to the general data which place the membership over 14% in the Spanish state, in Iberia the percentage may be around 80%, of which CCOO and UGT can boast 70% on land. So fear, patronage, and social submissiveness and reluctance towards disobedience make the work of the union a tough task.

In the CNT, we continue working and organizing with the other minority unions and worker militants within the company. This is done with the aim of creating the necessary awareness that we know we will need sooner rather than later to continue resisting the future that we have foreseen – to try to defend ourselves against the real violence, generated by capitalism with its system of exploitation.

How can we act in solidarity with your struggle from other countries?

The truth is that the best way of showing solidarity with us is to publicize and spread the conflict in all those places where Iberia still has presence. In fact, sometimes the conflict has been promoted through the AIT so that comrades can develop actions as they see fit. This is done with the intention of raising awareness of the conflict outside of the Spanish airports and of putting pressure on the company by extending the labor conflict beyond the national boundaries that characterize the company, though not the scope of its activity.

In the CNT we understand that workers’ solidarity must be the cornerstone of our defense as a class, beyond the boundaries imposed by states, because we are all of the same class, the working class, and all of us should share the same desire: for the elimination of this system of oppression and exploitation, of this inhuman system based on the inequality of peoples, capitalism, to be replaced by a system of equality and justice, by which human beings can develop freely. What is essential in this globalized world, dominated by a global labor market, is to find a joint strategy between revolutionary organizations both within and outside our borders that can give strength and substance to the workers’ struggle.

Working translation by Steven Fake – please send corrections to info (at) workersolidarity (dot) org.

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