Thursday, September 15, 2011

Union Bashing In A Balearics Style

Are the Balearics heading for a Thatcher moment? The enemy within given a sound man-bagging by the Iron Gentleman?

José Bauzá and his merry men are indulging in a spot of union bashing. This isn't the end of the brothers' power as we know it, but it might be the thin end of the industrial relations wedge. Where Bauzá leads (or is rather instructed by central office), so a Madrid newly coloured blue come November will follow.

It is becoming clearer why Bauzá has suddenly acquired an hirsute appearance. It is so he can look in the beard the likes of Cándido Mendez, the secretary-general of the UGT union. Mendez's fierce grey number makes Bauzá's designer accessory seem distinctly wimpish, but a man's got to do what a man's got to do, which is to not shave and look as hard as possible when confronting the ferocious Mendez.

The Thatcher moment, not that it actually is a Thatcher moment (yet), involves union worker representatives in the public sector. The Balearic Government is eliminating 89 of these representatives, 31 in the health sector, 34 in education and 24 in general services, along with a fund which pays for them. There are two classes of worker representatives, and the ones affected by the government's decision are those who, in effect, work full-time in their representative capacity.

As with much of anything of a political nature in the Balearics or Spain, there is a symbolic aspect to the worker representatives (found in both the public and private sectors), as they are an embodiment of workers' rights in law and under the constitution. The concept was taken from what was an established model in European countries such as Germany once democracy came to Spain. Prior to this, industrial relations didn't exist. There wasn't much industry to speak of and what relations there were tended to be somewhat one-sided; a snivelling waiter would be hauled out of a bar and a decree from the Generalísimo, announcing a 10% pay cut, would be nailed to his head.

The unions are none too impressed by the decision, and you would hardly expect them to react otherwise. The UGT (general workers) is threatening to break off relations with the government; the CCOO union believes the decision is the fore-runner of far wider cuts in the public service. Both unions accuse Bauzá and his boys of acting unilaterally and undemocratically.

A problem for the unions is that José Public might well not share their concerns. The representatives are known as "liberados sindicales", the liberado bit referring to the fact that they have been freed from their normal work. Yet the liberado tag has become something of a pejorative, as the function is seen as being a bit of a cushy number.

There is also a criticism that it observes a kind of Parkinson's Law. Work doesn't expand to fill available time, rather time expands to justify the work. And what is the work? This is another criticism, that the representative ends up indulging and supporting spurious worker grievances: Juan says that the new toilet paper in the factory loos has given him piles and so demands six months on the sick. This sort of thing.

This all said, the unions do have a legitimate beef. The government appears to have taken it upon itself to rip up an agreement dating back to 2006, and it did so at a meeting to which the unions were given a mere 24-hours notice. If Bauzá is wanting to appear to be playing the hard man, then he is succeeding, but at what price?

The government's action cannot be seen as one it has taken by itself. It may have ignored the unions, but it was a decision almost certainly taken for it elsewhere: in Madrid by the Partido Popular central office. Almost exactly a year ago, the idea of reducing (or scrapping) the worker representatives was getting a good airing. In Madrid. The president of the community of Madrid, the PP's Esperanza Aguirre, reckoned a reduction was a good idea, and so did the party's leader Mariano Rajoy. The idea has been bubbling away ever since, and, as mentioned previously, what the PP plans nationally it will try out, thanks to the compliant Bauzá, in the Balearics.

The government will argue it's all to do with saving money, but the actual saving is very small - a couple of hundred grand. The move is, therefore, political and political alone. It is also, in its own way, symbolic, and you don't need to be an expert in politics or industrial relations to appreciate what it symbolises.

Any comments to please.

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