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Precariat spring: Spanish social movements get ready for a new cycle of mobilisation

During the last month pensioners, women and housing activists suffering from precarious conditions have taken to the streets with one key demand: an end to the precarity of their lives. Español

Felipe G. Santos
15 April 2018

Las Kellys pregonan mañana las fiestas de San Cayetano, August 2017. Wikicommons/ Diario de Madrid. Some rights reserved.After the enormous demonstrations led both by Catalan and Spanish nationalists some people feared that social issues would be removed from the Spanish political agenda. Despite the great increase in income inequality, the government has proudly presented the last macroeconomic figures as the end of the crisis, and it sometimes seemed that those who had not felt this recovery were more focused on the territorial dispute than on confronting these claims.

These impressions were misguided. During the last month pensioners, women and housing activists suffering from precarious conditions have taken to the streets with one key message: they want an end to the precarity of their lives and to recover the rights some of them had before the economic crisis.

Even if these collectives seem to be very different, their protests should not be viewed as independent events. Rather, they represent the seed of a cycle of mobilization of the precariat that will continue during the months to come.

The precariat refers to a new social class formed by people who, having the material conditions that provided stability to previous generations, live unpredictable and insecure lives. Pensioners are precarious because, despite having worked their whole lives and earned their right to their retirement funds, their pensions are not enough to make ends meet. Women live precarious lives because they are underpaid in comparison with their male counterparts, and after their workday they have to do the unpaid labor of caring in the household. Other groups are precarious because despite having a house, they experience utility cuts because they cannot afford paying their bills, or they just simply fear losing their shelter because they expect that they will be unable to pay for their mortgage or cover a rent rise. All these groups represent a key feature of the precariat, a social class that has grown in numbers during the economic crisis.

Despite them receiving pensions, having jobs, or housing, they do not live with the dignity that those conditions are expected to provide. Now, they have taken to the streets to reclaim their rights and demand stability, turning this season into the spring of the precariat.

During the last week of February, thousands of pensioners surrounded the Spanish Congress to protest against the 0.25% yearly raise in their pensions for the fifth consecutive time. As in the previous four years, this raise would result in a loss of their purchasing power, given that prices rose more than that percentage. According to the trade union UGT, the average senior citizen has lost 3.368 EUR in purchasing power since the beginning of the crisis – a considerable sum if we consider that it is equal to 3.6 months of average pension. The consistent yearly raise below inflation during the last five years is especially unjust because pensioners have been key contributors to Spanish social stability during the crisis. Many households have relied on the retirement funds of their grandparents as the only income while the rest of the family members were unemployed.

This demonstration outnumbered the expectations that most people had, including the Spanish government, which would not otherwise have allowed the protest to take place in front of the Parliament. Since then, pensioner protests have taken place every week, showing a considerable capacity for sustained mobilization. They promise that they will not stop protesting until the government passes a law that assures stability in their purchasing capacity, and that links the rise in their pensions to inflation, as was the case before the crisis.

Two weeks after the first demonstration of pensioners, on March 8, International Women’s Day, 5.3 million women stopped work during the first feminist strike in the history of Spain. Reasons for the mobilization of March 8 went well beyond precarity, but this issue was a central part of the strike and the other demonstrations. Women stopped working that day because their jobs are even more precarious than those of their male colleagues and they demanded to be paid equally. Beyond the work strike, they also organized a care strike, because they are fed-up with the unpaid labor they do every day in most households.

One social movement organization of precarious women that made it into the news in recent weeks is ‘Las Kellys’ a collective of chambermaids that mobilize against their precarious working conditions. After two years of mobilizations, they managed to force the Spanish premier Mariano Rajoy to listen to their demands during a meeting. They are calling for respect for the collective consensus of the hospitality sector and the end of externalizations, further facilitated by the labor reform of 2012. Many hotel companies have used this labor reform to pay their chambermaids for each room they clean, instead of per hour. Many of them are payed 2.15 euros per room, while the average price of a hotel room in Spain is 78 euros per night.

Finally, housing has been another field where people have mobilized against precariousness. The Platform of Those Affected by Mortgages (PAH by its Spanish acronym), the biggest housing movement in Spain, presented a draft bill to Congress in January to tackle what they identify as a housing emergency. However, the government has vetoed the bill, which could not even be debated at the Parliament. The ruling party and its allies held that the bill violated congress regulations that prohibit debating proposals affecting the current budget, something that the activists claim is not the case of their bill.

Thousands of people gathered to protest against the veto. Now, more mobilizations are expected, including PAH’s famous ‘Escraches’. These actions consist of non-violent gatherings of people following one specific political representative each time to show them that their unwillingness to represent those that elected them does not pass unnoticed.

For the social agenda to regain its importance, other progressive groups who enjoy more secure lives should join these mobilizations. The Hungarian political economist Karl Polanyi conceptualized countermovements as spontaneous reactions that appear against pushes towards the free market, defending a moral economy that serves the needs of society. 

The precariat was already the dominant social class during the 15M/Indignados mobilization cycle, which appeared at the beginning of the crisis of neoliberalism under the slogan that society should not be “merchandise in the hands of bankers and politicians”. Seven years later, the same social class is initiating another cycle of mobilization aimed at protecting society from the instability brought about by market liberalization policies. Now is the moment for all progressive forces to build a successful countermovement that will put the social agenda back at the centre of political life.

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