Spain: We think the order to stop all non-essential activity is a total farce – Interview with the Workers at the Fertiberia-Avilés Factory

Lucha de Clases has interviewed Jesús Suárez and Pedro García, members of the Fertiberia-Avilés factory committee within the Trade Union Confederation of Workers’ Commissions (CCOO), on the current COVID-19 crisis and how it is affecting the worker and business activity. Fertiberia manufactures fertilizers and industrial chemicals.

Read the original in Spanish here

Fertiberia has been deemed an “essential” business. What’s the work situation like at the factory following the government decree on 29 March?

Well essentially everything’s the same as before the Royal Decree. We’re still producing at full capacity for both our national and overseas markets, serving the interests of the capitalist rather than providing for the country and the population’s “essential” needs.

Does anyone at the company have COVID-19 or have any symptoms? What has Fertiberia’s response to this been? Do you think the protective measures at the factory are enough?

At the Avilés factory where we work, no. But as of 27 March, in Fertiberia’s other branches, seven workers have shown symptoms consistent with coronavirus (without being tested, and self-isolating at home), one case confirmed with a test, and 11 more suspected of having the disease. The bulk of it is in Madrid and Puertollano.

To us, all the protective measures in production areas are just plain marketing. Sure, there’s hand sanitiser, disinfectant, gloves and the like and we’ve been given instructions to keep a safe distance and all, but in practice, these measures aren’t feasible purely due to the nature of the work itself. Some have opted to work from home in other areas; in weighing areas and places where only one person works (control rooms and offices), it looks like measures to contain the virus have been more effective.

The Fertiberia Avilés branch of the CCOO believes that the measure that would be most effective and responsible for the entire population is to stop production completely, and allow the smallest possible number of people to continue working in the factory, as we said in our press release on 16 March 2020.

How would you rate the government’s response to the crisis? Given your experience working at Fertiberia, do you think its response is adequate enough to end the epidemic?

We think the government’s response has been half-hearted; it guarantees profits for businesses and prioritises it over the needs of the general population, and especially over the needs of the workers, all the while prolonging the situation.

We don’t think the government has acted correctly for the reasons stated above, and because industries could become the main epicentres of infection for workers, and by extension for the rest of the population. Occupational hazards, traffic emergencies and environmental emergencies are all possibilities and could strain an already overloaded healthcare system. In industrial cities like ours, a large part of the population works in these industries, which renders any self-isolation measures useless.

graph mask fair useThe COVID-19 crisis will worsen the economic crisis that capitalism was headed for on a global scale / Image: fair use

Furthermore, the COVID-19 crisis will considerably worsen the economic crisis that capitalism was headed for on a global scale.

What would you say is missing from the government’s response, bearing in mind the grim medium-term outlook for the workers?

It needs to take control of the economy. Nothing more, nothing less. Or at least the strategic sectors, including the banks of course.

In view of the government’s decree to stop “non-essential” activity, which still allows production in almost the entire industry, don’t you think that union leaders should call for the other trade unions and workplace branches to push for the total stoppage of all truly “non-essential” businesses?

We think the decree is a total farce; it doesn’t really take control of the situation and leaves the question of what really is essential and for whom largely unanswered.

In practice, the decree isn’t being carried out in the interest of the country, but rather to boost profits. Trade unions should highlight this and even request that these profits be confiscated for the whole of society.

What union representation is there in your business? What type of changes have you seen in recent years and what has been the reason for his?

Employee representatives form a workers’ committee in each Fertiberia Group workplace. At the national level, we don’t have a multi-plant workers' committee, but we do have representatives or a commission (which negotiates agreements) with a number of members proportional to the total amount of delegates in every workplace committee: the General Workers’ Confederation (UGT) 24 delegates, 51.06 percent; the CCOO 14, 29.78 percent; the Independent Trade Union Confederation of Public Servants (CSIF) seven, 14.89 percent; and the Workers' Trade Unionist Confederation (USO) two, 4.25 percent.

At the Avilés factory, to this day, following the October 2019 elections, the shop stewards committee is composed of nine representatives, five from the technical and administrative college (four from the UGT and one from the CCOO) and four from the college for specialists and unqualified workers (two from the CCOO, one from the UGT and one from the CSIF).

Up until 2015, even though there was a workers’ committee (by law, obviously), the reality was that the responsibility of representation fell to the shop stewards of the workplace branches that existed at the time and the signatories to the agreement (CCOO, UGT, and the Independent Workers’ and Trade Union Confederation of Public Servants (CTI-CSIF)); they themselves oversaw this whole strange affair and said the committee was “unionised”. This whole thing in practice involved no union action and a host of pacts with management behind the workers’ backs. Over time this led to an increase in subcontracting, temporary employment agencies entering into production en masse, and so on. As a result, the workforce was reduced until they were outnumbered by technical and administrative staff. Since much of the workforce is subcontracted or filled with temporary employment agencies, they’ve essentially applied this policy of casualisation to most of the factory workforce.

During the Factory Committee elections in 2015, the betrayal from CCOO Fertiberia national leadership (the majority union in the factory up until that point) and negotiations for a collective labour agreement brought about a new predicament. On the one hand, CCOO splintered, and a part of the confederation formed a workplace committee in the General Confederation of Labour (CGT) (which at the time had two delegates that it later lost, as we will explain later on). On the other hand, we’ve left the most critical sector of the CCOO and were elected to join the ineffective “unionised” committee just as decoration.

Here, after years of the aforementioned critical sector “preaching in the wilderness” about the need to get the workers’ committee up and running (which the workers saw as a façade), we put up a fight within the CCOO. With the help of the CGT (there are four representatives between the two of us) we managed to twist the UGT and CSIF’s arm to start putting the committee to work. The factory’s whole sham was brought to the fore and, with the help of the factory assemblies, the worker’s voice and vote really were acknowledged in decision-making discussions.

Last year you went on a 15-day strike in your factory. Could you give us a summary of the situation?

The situation earlier caused a lot of issues with the business (and with CCOO Fertiberia national leadership, it has to be said), which culminated in 12 days of strike action in 2019 (three strikes: two days in April, five in May and five days in October).

The 12 days of strikes were the result of casualisation, job insecurity, the business’s disregard for the worker and so forth. The workforce has also had enough betrayals from trade union leaders to last a lifetime. These were the problems:

Security: Multiple accidents/incidents at the sulphuric acid facility that the business decided not to prevent, because it didn’t want to use suitable materials or implement security measures (methacrylate screens or plastic curtains to serve as a splash guard) which would have come at virtually no cost to them at all. Workers had been pressured to put the factory in operation with leaks unrepaired.

Only one person was present at the liquid ammonia storage terminal, four km away from the factory, each shift, even though it was claimed that two people would work the shift as before.

Casualisation: temporary agency staff were subjected to abuses. Their breaks were not respected and they weren’t getting paid for the overtime they put in. On top of that, multiple job posts were being filled by the same temp worker, which exposed the lack of available staff for production. This shows that there should be permanent and not temporary staff.

Breached Workers’ Statute and grievances between shift workers and permanent staff: this was a turning point. It was to do with the failure to respect “workday breaks” for shift workers, as production is continuous. What happens in production or with factory safety dictates whether or not these workers can go on a break. Historically, the breaks would either take the form of financial compensation for shift workers or four to six days of holiday throughout the year for permanent staff.

When the last cohort of employees were changed over, this compensation disappeared for shift workers, which put their annual working hours at 1,736 hours (1,728 after the last agreement). This translates to about six days of work and four days of rest for nine months, which changes to a seven/two-day work schedule in the summer and 16 days of consecutive holiday days. However, permanent staff had about 1,690 hours of work a year (Monday to Friday, with bank holidays and a month of holiday). Since us shift workers wanted a break too, whether or not they were daily or in the form of compensation, they accepted our request, or rather, incorporated temp workers into the permanent workforce.

Company attitude: it didn’t meet with the committee, nor did it meet its demands to solve these issues. It also didn’t sign the Health and Safety Committee’s minutes, which were where these irregularities were reported.

In light of this situation, the staff in the workers’ assembly decided to raise the break and temporary staff issue in the upcoming agreement negotiations (which was due to start) and, with regard to the rest of the issues, file complaints with the Labour Inspectorate.

In negotiations for the agreement, these demands “fell through” (they were also eventually taken to the Inspectorate) despite the heavily-attended assemblies demanding to fight for a decent agreement.

The Labour Inspectorate agreed with us, but said there was little it could do. Up till now, the entire Workers’ Committee has conducted proceedings as a united front (the CCOO, CGT, CSIF and UGT). Nonetheless, following mass approval for initial mobilisation in the workers’ assembly, the UGT was disbanded.

ccoo logo Comisiones ObrerasThe strikes called by the CCOO have been a success will make a significant difference for workers / Image: Comisiones Obreras

Shortly after the last strike, which lasted five days, another round of trade union elections took place; they were highly polarising. Technical and administrative staff, who were the business’s “strike-breaking brigade”, turned to the UGT who didn’t support mobilisation. By contrast, the CCOO had most of the workers’ vote since we were the ones who wanted to get the dispute over and done with. We found favour with a critical minority of the CGT who continued to take part in the Strike Committee.

We say a minority of the CGT because at the peak of mobilisation, after a successful second five-day strike with the morale of the strikers at its highest and the business losing its footing, the CGT and the CSIF proposed to postpone the next round of strikes for after the summer (they argued that summer would take away our strength). This led to some confusion in the assembly, and the postponement went through only by a small margin. The company is taking advantage of this impasse, by taking the initiative to bring negotiations relating to the conflict to Madrid (using negotiations concerning the new Spanish law for companies to register employee working hours as an excuse.) We’re completely against it. We thought that postponing the strike was a mistake, as well as taking negotiations out of the factory and the strike committee.

After the summer period, and seeing as the company was playing for time until elections on 30 October, a workers’ assembly was called and workers mostly called for another five-day strike. A strike was called by the CCOO and a minority of the CGT (which, looking at the three secretary generals it’s cycled through in three months, is clearly suffering from a lack of direction), and the CSIF broke off. These strikes are a success and will resolve the conflict.

Throughout this process of mobilisation, the strike committee was the only body with the power to negotiate a resolution for the conflict. But due to the summer break and the transfer of negotiations to Madrid, all the committee could do is show that the conflict shouldn’t be resolved in Madrid using one last strike if they didn’t reach a reasonably satisfactory solution for the staff’s demands.

The issue of sulphuric acid and hiring more people in the ammonia terminal was solved with the strike. As regards the casualisation which affects temp workers, an investigative commission has been set up to fulfil the needs of the factory, where the issue currently continues to be debated. They managed to get equal pay in all areas and their overtime paid. They also got the business to use the job boards as they are intended, and to hire more people rather than one person for various different job posts.

They will be compensated with a “break” of a measly 30€ gross per month. Toilet breaks and the changeover delays were recognised as actual working time for shift workers which results in a reduction of five working days a year.

We believe that if we had not made the mistakes described above, we would have had a better resolution for the conflict. But we continue to fight all the same for an end to casualisation in Fertiberia.

What trade union policy are you developing here in CCOO-Fertiberia Avilés for your fellow workers?

We’re still trying to achieve the aims we mentioned earlier to end casualisation and stop subcontracting. In this regard, we have taken action to support them in their conflicts and they have “returned the favour” by supporting us at strikes. Our ultimate goal is to get both our representatives and theirs to coordinate, but it’s a bit hard.

With unemployment rising at an alarming rate and working and economic conditions continually worsening, what direction should the trade union take in light of the needs of the working class?

To organise and fight for the general objectives that we mentioned. We want our government to be the one to take control of the economy. We need to push for a viable alternative to the current economic system and not accept the “lesser evil” principle which has led to lower productivity and also casualises and atomises the working class.

In the crisis of 2008-14, it took over three years for people to react, beginning with the youth in Spain and the Spanish anti-austerity movement (15-M). Do you think the same thing will happen now?

This crisis seems to have “unmasked” the system of privatisations, individualism, corporations’ looking for quick money whatever the cost, etc.

It has brought those who truly run society out into the open. What happens will depend on the course of action that the left and the unions decide to stand by.