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Spain: where trade union leaders are criminalised for striking

Source: Equal Times - Fri 28th Nov 2014
Spain: where trade union leaders are criminalised for striking

With thousands of Spanish workers preparing to take to the streets on 29 November in support of "dignity and rights", protestors will also denounce the prosecution of hundreds of trade unionists over the last few years.

One of the most prominent examples is that of Katiana Vicens, general secretary of the CCOO trade union confederation in the Balearic Islands, who won a bittersweet victory on 29 October.

On the one hand, she is able to breathe easy, having been acquitted of the charges for which the Public Prosecution Service had demanded four and a half years in prison. But, on the other, her version of events has been called into question and she has been ordered to pay a fine of €4,000 for material damage and coercion.

For the judge presiding over the case, it has been proven that Vicens coerced the driver and broke the window of a bus that was providing minimum services during the general strike of March 2012.

The CCOO leader maintains her innocence and repudiates the sentence, which she has appealed against. "I did not hit the window, I did not see it break at any point, I did not insult or threaten anyone," she tells Equal Times.

What is significant about Vicens' trial, held on 13 October, is that the Public Prosecutor demanded the maximum penalty of four and a half years in prison for a breach of Article 315.3 of the Penal Code, which establishes that coercion to join a strike is an offence against the rights of workers.

Based on this same article, two physical education teachers, Ana Outerelo and Tamara Vidal, were sentenced, in May 2014, to 3 years in prison for taking part in a picket, during which paint was poured into a swimming pool. The incident took place in 2010 during a strike in support of collective bargaining demands. The two women are currently applying for a government pardon.

Katiana, Ana and Tamara are not exceptions.

More than 40 legal proceedings are underway against trade unionists who took part in general or sector-wide strikes protesting against the austerity measures imposed by the Spanish government.

Spain's two main trade union centres, CCOO and the Unión General de Trabajadores (UGT), have denounced the criminal prosecution of trade unionists before the Public Prosecution Service and the courts.

"Striking is not a crime"

Some 300 trade unionists are currently facing administrative and penal proceedings.

When added together, the prison sentences demanded come to a total of over 120 years in jail.

At a rally held in Madrid, in July, to defend freedom of association and the right to strike, the general secretary of the CCOO, Ignacio Fernández Toxo, criticised the government's attempt to take Spain 40 years back.

"We are here because striking is not a crime, it is a right that they want to take away from us by using the Penal Code to create fear," said Toxo at the event attended by Vicens and other trade unionists facing prosecution.

Since the beginning of democratic rule in Spain, incidents taking place in the context of labour disputes have generally been dealt with as minor offences or misdemeanours.

Over the last 4 years, however, the Public Prosecution Service has started to refer to Article 315.3 of the Penal Code that establishes penalties of between 3 - 4.1/2 years in prison for workers.

The first cases date back to the general strike of 2010, when Rodríguez Zapatero was still in power, but it is the PP government that is intensifying the trend.

"With Mariano Rajoy it seems that we are seeing the start of a Thatcherist era, aimed at introducing a very specific neoliberal model.

The aim is to put all public services into private hands and the first thing they want to do is to get rid of the unions," said Vicens.

There has been a massive show of support for Vicens – there is even a slogan "We are all Katiana".

More than 20 trade union organisations from around the world have expressed their solidarity with the cause, urging Mariano Rajoy to "put an end to this offensive against workers' rights and to withdraw the charges against the trade unionists being prosecuted," as stated in the many letters sent to the government.

The situation facing Spanish trade unionists is without precedent in democratic Spain, but is similar to the plight of trade unionists in other parts of the world.

Members of the Korean Railway Workers' Union are currently facing prison sentences of up to 5 years and millions in fines for obstructing business during a strike.

In Thailand, all public workers are denied the right to strike. In Turkey, 316 members of the Turkish Civil Aviation Union were fired for taking collective action in protest against their governments.

For all these reasons, it is hardly surprising that the president of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), João Antonio Felicio, should point out that "the right to strike must be defended at all costs", given the unprecedented attack it has endured in recent years from the Employers Group at the ILO.

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