Handling Worker Strike-Madrid

Workers at the handling company Groundforce at Madrid airport took part in targeted strike action Monday 8th February. The strike was set to continue every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday of February. However, due to lack of effectiveness, the strike was suspended by unions on Monday 15th February. 

Since the start of the pandemic the company has made workers conditions increasingly precarious. Bosses are cutting hours and demanding greater flexibility, in an effort to push the companies losses onto the workers. Under what is called the ERTE (Expediente de Regulación Temporal del Empleo), staff are given their shift pattern and the amount of hours they’ll be working each day, at the start of each week. However, sometimes they are given a days notice of changes. It means temporary laid-offs and part time work, of an already part time contract for many. Workers are not happy with the reductions or with the way they are shared out by management. Their strike action is hindered by the fact that legally the union’s must agree to provide “minimal services,” even during a strike. Meaning a large amount of staff still need to go in even on strike day. This makes organisation amongst the workers extremely important. The strikes effective hinged on what the attending staff, forced to provide the “minimal service,” are willing to do.

The Ministry of Transports in Spain decide the level of minimal service. They decided that for each route, of each company, the following services needed to be maintained:-

  • 100% of flights with destination to Spanish islands (Canarias, Baleares).
  • 39% of flights with destination to Spanish or foreign airports more than 500 km away from Madrid.
  • 18% flights with destination to airports less than 500 km away.

In “normal times” the possibility of disruption to flights is reduced by these measures, but still attainable. During the pandemic, with a lot less flights taking off, the opportunity for disruption is greatly diminished. To compound the situation, workers cannot choose which flight in particular will be protected or not. For example, one strike day there were 2 flights of Air Europa bound to Barcelona. As this city is more than 500 km away from Madrid, the rate of protection is 39% for this route. So 1 of these 2 flights could be affected by the strike. But the workers cannot choose which one, it is the company who makes the decision. 

Given the percentage of protection established by the government, the company submits a notification to the workers who will be forced to work on the strike day. From a staff of around 850 people, there are just around 70 who are allowed to strike. Obviously, not all 850 staff will be rostered on for the strike day, but it’s clear a lot of staff are not legally allowed to withdraw their labour. 

On strike day, the workers who are performing minimal services (forced to work) must attend the protected flights (flights that the company and government say must be attended). In theory, the non protected flights should go unattended and not take off or take off empty. But given the small number of non protected flights, the company have had their own resources to attend these flights. For example, making the lower management load and unload the plane. 

Under these conditions, workers would need to be heavily prepared, with an extremely well thought out strategy for this strike to be a success…..legally. The situation is made more difficult by the unions (6 unions, coordinated by a works council with 23 members) reluctance to gather workers together in assemblies, to talk about the problems and possible solutions. With the severe legal restrictions and management tactics to contend with, how else would these issues be dealt with, unless the majority of the workforce are on the same page. It’s easier said than done, but unless we’re attempting to build widespread solidarity, we’re setting ourselves up to fail. The strike wasn’t a success. It was neither a complete failure. Some disruption was caused and forcing lower management to work loading and unloading is satisfying. But given the conditions, there were many difficulties. Many Groundforce workers in Madrid intend to learn from these struggles and strive to find solutions, none the less.

These are very familiar problems to workers at Heathrow- Companies taking advantage of the crisis to attack workers terms and conditions. An increase and normalising of precarious employment. Frustrations and resentment about the way the JRS (furlough) has been shared out and implemented. Too many unions and not enough unity. And burdensome legal barriers to workplace actions.

The details may be different but the problems are the same. From employment law, that forces HAL workers onto small, isolated picket lines when they’re on strike, makes it hard for their security section to ballot for action and allows management to train scabs[1], to British Airways staff suffering attacks to their pay and conditions[2], to Mitie cleaners fighting bullying and harassment at T5[3], to the Passport Control staff striking against the implementation of unworkable roster changes[4], workers all over Heathrow should have no problem identifying and feeling solidarity with the workers at Groundforce Madrid. We will always have more in common with our fellow workers, than with our employers. Our governments and bosses will encourage us to fight and compete with each other, as they keep us jumping threw the hoops of their employment law.

The last year should have made clear to workers everywhere the simple truth that, as long as workers aren’t organised enough to resist, the bosses will keep pushing their losses onto us. Workers direct control of their disputes is a global necessity. We need more workers involved in planning, strategising and carrying out actions to defend and improve their conditions. 

Solidarity from Heathrow to the workers at Groundforce Madrid. 

Heathrow Workers Power





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