On 20th June the fifth general strike in Spain since the restoration of democracy in 1977 took place. It was organised by the two main Spanish trade unions (CCOO and UGT) and other minor ones, in response to the approved governmental decree RD-L 5/2002 “Reform of the protection of unemployment and the basic law on employment”, approved in the 27th May with the only favourable votes of the governing People’s Party . This strike led to the reversal of some of the most criticised points of the new law and in that sense was quite successful. But diverse and seemingly contradictory positions within feminism arose in the debate. For some feminist groups one of the major impacts of the general strike was highlighting the lack of a unitary and coherent discourse and thus the need to start a process of reflection and discussion.
The evolution of economic policy in Spain has not differed from the global trend towards freer markets, progressive privatisation and decreasing Welfare State provisions. Among those increasingly deregulated markets is the labour market (national labour markets, but not international ones, where more restrictive migration rules are being established; Spain is relentlessly playing its role of gatekeeper of the “nearest to Africa European door”!). So more precarious and unsafe forms of contracting have emerged, dismissals have been facilitated and became cheaper, unemployment protection has been weakened, and general social protection has been damage. Through this long ongoing process five general strikes have been organised: 20th June 1985, 14th December 1988, 28th May 1992, 27th January 1994 and 20th June 2002. Only the second of the first four strikes achieved its goals, namely reversing the Plan for Youth Employment, the defining features of which were nevertheless approved some years later The last one was the first against a conservative government, while the others occurred under a socialist one. It occurred in a context of progressive erosion of remunerated workers’ rights, some of them sanctified by the agreements reached between the Government and the two largest unions. Thus, although the decree was what triggered the protests, other events such as unpopular changes of the educational system and financial scandals within state agencies meant that the climate was already created for popular unrest.
Among the most controversial aspects of the legal changes were considerable tightening of eligibility for unemployment benefit, early retirement and agrarian subsidies. The success of the strike in terms of the number of participants was highly debated. Numbers ranged from 84% according to the trade unions to the official 17%. Nevertheless, the political effects were very important, with the dismissal of the Minister of Labour and the recent reversal of most of the conflicting measures.
Although responses from feminism were diverse, two main trends could be observed. The first emerges from the Women’s Secretaries of the two largest unions. The centrepiece in their analysis is the labour market around which the problems, solutions and ways of political response are articulated. They highlight women’s disadvantaged position in all the variables that measure labour achievements. This includes women’s much lower labour market participation (female participation rate is 41,68% and male rate, 66,70) and much higher unemployment rates (female unemployment is 16, 26% and men’s is 7,67%; i.e. 58,38% of total unemployed are women). Also 55% of unemployed women do not receive any benefit (versus 25% of men), women hold 79% of partial time jobs and earn almost 30% less than men. Approved legal reforms would undoubtedly worsen women’s already weak situation.
The proposed alternative the two main Women’s Union Secretaries is the active seeking not only of full employment but also all jobs carrying work security and good conditions (what they call “full high quality employment”). In order to achieve it, three main goals should be encouraged. Firstly, increasing women’s participation rate to the threshold of 60%, the objective that the European Union in Barcelona Summit proposed to all its members by the deadline of 2010. Secondly, reducing female unemployment. And thirdly, decreasing the precariousness and temporary nature of employment that disproportionately affects women. The achievement of these goals would require active labour market policies, currently almost non-existent; changes in labour market regulations, in the opposite direction to recent trends; and the provision of public services allowing the reconciliation of family and labour lives. All this should be accompanied by an adequate benefit system that would cover those in unemployment and other precarious situations, such as lone mothers. Summing up, the discourse is still centred around the labour market, no references to the caring sphere are made -except to show the limits that it poses to full labour market integration. The extent to which women are able to participate in the strike is not questioned. Women are told: “employment and social protection are your rights, do not let them be removed”, which means, “support the strike”. These trade unions asked feminist groups to join their manifesto without calling for a previous debate, assuming that theirs was the political line generally shared by most feminists. However, some feminist groups felt quite uncomfortable with it and preferred issuing their own.
Although disagreements were diverse there were some common features. A primary conflict was a legacy of earlier trade union consent to the previous labour market deregulation measures and social benefits cuts. This conflict could be linked to the progressive institutionalisation of feminism and the increasing narrowing of trade union activities to the support of a privileged core of workers. Within both trends, a logic of asking just for feasible changes had become the logic of defending the rights of those already privileged, whether women or workers.
Basic disagreements over women’s roles underlie this conflict. As the alternative manifesto stated: “This reform is not just related to unemployed people, it is not even just related to employment. Because it belongs to the establishment of a model of society where the economy, free market and corporations’ benefits are put before any human need.” Thus the problem rests on a deeper conflict, which is the fundamental contradiction between the logic of accumulation and the logic of care. Markets, including labour market, operate on the basis of the unpaid work undertaken by women. Feminist groups accuse trade unions of continuing to rely on a “clearly masculinised conception of the labour market” which invisibilises unremunerated work, exempts men of their responsibilities, and avoids challenging that crucial underlying conflict.
In a society guided by the logic of accumulation, full high quality employment is neither possible nor desirable. On the one hand, it is not possible because of the dominant logic that is always privileged over any other social objective. It means that any feminist discourse would be co-opted and its rhetoric would be used in a way that markets rather than women would finally benefit. This is the case with the debate about the reconciliation of family and working lives. Possible ways of reconciling them include flexibilising paid labour times, a fairer gender distribution of work, and increasing public services to care for children and other dependents. Instead we have seen a greater flexibilisation which serves corporations’ interests instead of workers’ ones, an increase in private rather than public care services; and greater differences among women. Low-income women continue to face the problems of double burden and high and medium income women rely on the underpaid, often illegal, immigrants’ work. The conflict between working and family lives thus reaches a global dimension with the creation of transnational families. Migrated women cannot care for their families (who often remain in their home countries while some other woman –mother, sister, any neighbour- looks after them) while their work enable a Western woman –and of course, man- to attend her paid job. A gender redistribution of work is still a myth. Men’s time devoted to domestic labour has increased in seven minutes in the last five years in Spain, according to the survey of the Ministry of Social Affairs, “Woman in Figures, 2001”. Full employment is itself a masculinist concept, relying on unpaid, unrecognised work. On the other hand, the undesirability of full employment within the logic of capitalist production arises from the fact that it would only apply to a privileged set of workers, marginalizing a whole range of people, mainly women, immigrants and young people.
The objective of the second group of feminists is no longer full (high quality?) employment but rather a shift in social priorities from accumulation to the sustainability of life, where work and richness could be redistributed.
Another crucial insight is the acknowledgement that the majority of women are excluded from generalised appeals to support the strike. Immigrants, informal workers, highly precarious workers, housewives, self-employed, sex workers... none of them can stop working and thus make a public statement of their political position. A general strike, as actually conceived, is not their political tool. And increasingly it is not many men’s adequate political tool, as the process of feminisation of labour occurs. Nevertheless, feminist groups supported the strike. They did this because they shared the concern of women in trade unions’ about women’s disadvantaged position in the labour market and the anticipated even more negative consequences of the reform They tried to make a more inclusive appeal, making references to the other side of a strike, which imply not consuming, not using services such as schools, the health system an public transportation... As the Women’s Secretary of another trade union (CGT) stated: “let’s stop all work –productive, caring, domestic and voluntary work”. However, it did not resolve the problem. The non-execution of a huge amount of female work is simply not possible or could lead to negative consequences suffered only by the workers (women) themselves. Theirs is a struggle already lost or still not begun.
While these ideas were clear, a lack of a collective, unitary discourse became visible. Feeling uncomfortable with official and trade union’ discourses is not enough. An example of this feeling can be found in those feminists who firstly met to decide a common response to the strike and then discovered that, instead of having any answer, they had lots of questions. From there they created the so-called “Women Workers’ Laboratory Productions”, which is a project still in its embryonic phase. They argue that precariousness is the common factor within the heterogeneity of women’s situations. Precariousness is a weak basis for collective struggle because of its many negative –vulnerability, insecurity, poverty...- and ambivalent –mobility, flexibility- implications. But some positive factors can also be recovered through a process of resistance. So starting from this common precarious location we should begin to share and understand our differences in order to: “[…] escape from neoliberal fragmentation, which divides us, weakens us and turns us into victims […]. We want to facilitate the collective construction of different possibilities of living through a joint and creative struggle”.
Thus, the event of the general strike helped the feminist movement to perceive a quite clear division of opinions. On the one hand, there are feminists who still believe in the possibility of achieving full high quality employment for all, both men and women. They have reasonably coherent ideas about the problems and the concrete policies that should be implemented in order to surmount them. On the other hand, there are feminists who highlight the incompatibility of actual social organisation with a society/economy that cares about life sustainability and in which all women could really be fully empowered. Their discourse and proposals are being debated in order to integrate these ideas that need further development.
Amaia Pérez Orozco
 I will mainly refer to the context of Madrid, so different questions could arise when looking to other places, for example, where employment and feminist issues intertwine with nationalist ones.