(Your health is not a business)
This is a translation of a piece posted on the Madrilonia website on 10th January. It is about trade unionism, and the problems of defending public services as things that belong to everyone in the face of the neo-liberal assault from government and mainstream media on the one side, entailing the demonisation of public sector workers as overpaid, lazy, inefficient and self-seeking; and, on the other, union bureaucracies and structures that seek to maintain their position of privileged interlocutor, whilst simultaneously unable to convey any kind of sense that they stand in defence of public services rather than simple defence of their members’ living standards.
It describes how the forms of networked democratic participation that spread after 15M have been a feature of the Marea Verde [Green Tide] and Marea Blanca [White Tide] – massive militant mobilisations in defence of public services, in education and health, respectively.
Of course, none of this is of any relevance to Ireland, because there is no Troika-backed government seeking to cut, outsource and privatise public services, there is no mainstream media waging a propaganda war against the public sector and public sector workers, union structures in Ireland work perfectly adequately to protect public services, particularly in terms of how they operate with political parties, and there are sufficient examples of mass democratic participation in Irish society, promoted by existing political formations whose activists are adequately experienced in such matters, to ensure that this kind of situation never arises, and the battle of democracy is conclusively won.
I shall lay off the sarcasm now and publish the translation.
Are the Mareas a new trade unionism? Last September one year had passed since the birth of the Marea Verde in defence of public education. A year later we can say that the phenomenon of the Mareas is not an isolated thing, but rather constitutes (with the Marea Blanca as its best expression) a new organisational reality. We want to identify some of its peculiarities so as to answer the initial question: do the tides prefigure a new trade unionism?
1. From defence of what is public [lo público] to communities
The essential difference in the movement of the Mareas from the traditional conceptions of trade unionism is in having abandoned the defence of public services as corporate conflicts linked exclusively to the immediate pay demands of professionals. The success of the Marea Blanca and Marea Verde mobilisations is due to the fact they have managed to open up the problem of cuts to society as a whole. By appealing to communities as the ultimate defenders of public services, there is an introduction of the idea that health or education are common matters that by necessity must be defended by everyone. By opening up the problem to society as a whole, the frontier between users of a service and the professionals who provide it begins to break down. The basic notion is established that health centres, schools and hospitals are spaces for and belonging to everyone. This breaks with the idea that a public service is the sole responsibility of the government.
In recent years, the neocon discourse of attacking public servants had rested upon the privileged condition of such professionals in relation to everyone else, on account of better and more stable working conditions ‘paid for by everyone’; the Mareas have shown, as pointed out, that they do not struggle just to maintain such social benefits and moreover they have made visible just how advanced precarity has become in public employment (interns, temps, sub-contracting, outsourcing). Conservative-liberals also accused them of being ‘lazy’, of ‘doing nothing’, of being on a gravy train; the Mareas have shown that many public servants care very deeply about what they do and are prepared to forego wages (with strikes) and status (with resignations from positions of responsibility) to defend the service.
This opening up is full, moreover, of affection, of complicity and constant nods between communities and professionals, which build a social bond, a link that sustains support and turns each person into a co-participant in the mobilisations.
2.- Intensive strike, taking the city, and communication
In weeks of late we have seen an intensifiying of the campaign to ‘regulate the right to strike’ for one reason only: the Mareas have made the intensive strike [huelga intensiva] central, as one of the essential mechanisms for conflict.
There is an understanding that in order to block the reproduction dynamic of public services, it has to be blocked in a more or less constant fashion. This, which was an intense debate at the beginning of the Marea Verde (indefinite strike or time-limited strike). In the case of the Marea Blanca, the indefinite strike is favoured and it has proven sustainable because it has incorporated two elements that are fundamental to understanding its success: a system of rotation that shares out the financial burden of the strike, and a special zeal in scrupulously maintaining health care coverage for those people or events that require it the most.
This intensive strike is not confined to the stoppage of the service, but is accompanied by another series of questions that present victory in conflicts opened up with the government as a matter of democracy, governability and control of urban space. The Mareas occupy the city in major demonstrations that block traffic and penetrate mass media, showing how the situation is ungovernable. It is a matter of producing disorder, of demonstrating abnormality.
Hence the strike is accompanied by occupations, acts of civil disobedience and even direct pressure on institutions, by surrounding the Madrid assembly, ministries, etc.
All of this is built around an independent communications potency capable of reaching all sectors of the public via communications networks which link up the different centres and an awesome deployment of traditional formats (posters, banners, stickers, t-shirts…). The use of social networks this is of particular importance in the Marea Blanca, where instead of there being an ‘official Marea account’ there are accounts opened up centre by centre and the idea of Marea is an open logo, common to all and in which anyone can take part. What is more the communications strategy in both Mareas has relied upon a wide production of theoretical-technical knowledge to attack one by one the arguments used by the Comunidad de Madrid [Madrid regional government] to justify the cutbacks.
3. Union paradox and organisational democracy
There is a paradox – the more structured and powerful the traditional union structures in public services, the more difficult it is for the dynamic of the Mareas to unfold fully. Thus, the Marea Blanca, which at the outset would have less classical union power (despite the presence of professional associations and corporatist-type unions) than spaces such as public education, is able to generate a dynamic of greater conflict. It is much more difficult in public services such as transport or communications, which have higher levels of union membership, for this type of practice to develop and for this ‘professionals-users’ alliance, which is key to the development of the conflict, to come into being. In the latest strike in the Madrid Metro, we have seen how these differences receded slightly because social networks have activated those bonds of mutual recognition, but it has not been configured as Marea. There are no handmade posters in the tunnels explaining the conflict, they do not invite us to imaginative mobilisations such as “I’m not paying” [Yo no pago] to make participation in the conflict something that people can do themselves, or staff at Metro exits explaining that they are mobilising for the defence of a public service, not just to maintain certain working conditions. Something similar has happened with the mobilisations in defence of Telemadrid [Madrid television station], where it has proven very difficult to portray as a common concern a television station that has been the spearhead for media manipulation in the Madrid region (albeit with the opposition of the professionals who work there).
(Health is our right. Not their business)
The Marea Verde was marked from the beginning by the conflictive relationship that has been occurring in different spheres between the traditional political institutions and the new forms of political expression that have emerged from the 15M. Organised in an assembly form within the frame of the mobilising explosion of the 15M among interns, civil servants and latterly a section of the educational community, it encountered major teaching unions which, whilst adopting a stance of listening and facilitating meeting spaces, sought to keep themselves at all costs as the visible head and vital interlocutor with the Madrid regional government, despite the fact that the latter systematically ignored them. The mainstream trade unions, who had looked upon the Marea with interest (because of its potency) and suspicion (because this potency could place their hegemony in crisis) opted to limit the reach of the mobilisation, for fear of a possible defeat that might leave them in a worse position.
4. Can we dream?
Let us imagine a development of these Marea dynamics as social-trade union institutions of a new kind. Can we think of union structures in which communities not just of professionals, but of service users, might have a voice and vote? Is it possible to democratise union institutions so as to place them in the service of a community dynamic? What kind of aggressive demands might emerge? Can we envisage a new trade unionism that not only entails the defence of living standards for professionals, but also the defence and development of the public services that they supply? What power can communities have there? Can the approach of the Mareas extend to sectors beyond public employment? Can trade unionism as we have hitherto known it survive if it does not adopt these stances?