Friday, May 02, 2003

Well, yesterday was Labor Day, May 1. The turnout at the demonstrations was tiny. Some guy from Simtel, a company in Madrid whose workers are on strike for some reason, whacked the Workers' Commissions' (CCOO's) president over the head with a stick and made him bleed profusely for, like, not being radical enough or something. CCOO is the Communist-linked union; the UGT (General Union of Workers) is linked to the Socialists, the CGT (General Confederation of Labor) is linked to the Trots in the POR, the Revolutionary Workers' Party, and the CNT is what's left of the good old anarchist National Confederation of Labor.

This actually means something because in every company with more than a certain number of workers, there has to be a company labor committee (comité de empresa), and I was on ours at the Institute for a year. Your job on the labor committee is to negotiate any complaint the workers have with the management. Frankly, often it's an important body; it can call a strike, for example. If there's a dispute over someone's contract, the committee's lawyer takes charge. If the company wants to fire a worker, the committee acts like as big a pain in the neck as it can and makes sure he gets the biggest severance pay possible.

The positions on the labor committee--ours was made up of five people--are elective. We were always cooperative enough that pretty much anyone who wanted to be on the committee got on, but in larger companies--there are upwards of several thousand people working at the Seat factory in Martorell, for example--the elections are quite competitive, with the various unions each running a slate of candidates. Anyway, though, the committee has to choose a union to represent it, and we went with the Socialist UGT, I think mostly because it's generally the least radical and because the dues you have to pay are the lowest.

This system, by the way, is one of the many leftovers from the Franco regime. The Franco government was very paternalistic. Spaniards--Latins in general, I think--are historically averse to the risks involved in raw capitalism, and the Franco government was not too bad about giving the people more or less what they wanted. What they wanted was a guaranteed job for life, health care, a pension, and to be left alone. The Franco regime provided that. None of the jobs were real good or anything, and people didn't make a lot of money, but after 1946 (when World War II finally ended and the international economy started getting back on track; '39, '42, and '46 were the three hardest years of the postwar period) nobody went hungry, and if you didn't shoot off your mouth too loud the police wouldn't bother you.

That system of entitlement of cradle-to-grave security is what a lot of Spaniards believe is the most important facet of the government. One of the reasons Spaniards like Fidel Castro is "he gave his people doctors and schools", and Spain has historically had both a literacy rate and a life expectancy considerably higher than its economic position would make you think. Though Spaniards have always earned a good bit less than the French and the Italians, and Spain has been unable to mount a real military since about 1714 due to lack of funds, important quality-of-life factors in Spain like infant mortality, life expectancy, literacy rate, and years of schooling have always been at around French and Italian levels and well above, say, Greek and Polish and Romanian levels. Doctors and schools are important here.

And the Franco government provided them, though admittedly not as lavishly as those provided today. It did its paternalistic jobs with its anti-employer labor laws and its establishment of the current health care and educational system and pensions, and the people were more or less happy. They certainly didn't do the slightest thing to overthrow the Franco regime and, apart from a few very unpleasant cases, the Franco repression was not anywhere near as constricting as a truly totalitarian regime's.

Now, of course everyone in his right mind prefers the democratic system of parliamentary monarchy we have today to Franco's military dictatorship, but there were some things Spaniards decided they very much liked and wanted to keep from the old system; one of those things they kept and have jealously guarded is the welfare state. They have an awful lot of security in Spain, much more than the individual does in the United States. Your freedom is more limited in Spain, though, especially economically; the bureaucracy chokes back what should be the most booming economy in Europe. Jeez, if we had a liberalized economy without all those regulations, the growth rate here would be 6% every year. On the other hand, we wouldn't have the almost complete security for life the Spanish welfare state gives us. Couldn't afford it. And, given a choice, the Spaniards would overwhelmingly go for the security at the expense of the freedom.

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