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Thursday, June 20, 2002

Spain Starts Summer Holiday Two Days Early

So today is the 21 July, the summer solstice and the longest day in the year. I'll be celebrating by getting in the car and heading, not for Stonehenge, but for a quiet corner of the Spanish Pyrenees. I'll probably also find myself sitting in some of the years longest traffic jams as hundreds of thousands of other 'Barcelonins' all try to leave town at the same time to celebrate this long holiday weekend - Monday is Sant Joan (or John in English) and one of the highpoints of the festive year, a special and magic day when Catalans light bonfires, make a lot of noise with fireworks, eat a special Coca (or cake) and swill it all down with lashings of the local Cava.

But what makes this year different is that fact that for very many people here the party actually started not today, but on Wednesday night. This is due to the fact that yesterday there was a general strike in Spain. This strike was called by the Spanish Unions to protest at a new law being proposed by Jose Maria Aznar's Partido Popular government to reform the system of unemployment benefits and labour contracts. But for millions of young Spaniards it was the perfect excuse to start the party early, and all the disco's were working overtime. I happen to be able to confirm this personally as I was working into the early hours of Thursday morning trying to learn Blogger pro, and playing around with skins from Blogskins. And the cars kept roaring past my door, just like any other Saturday night. Of course, young people in Spain tend to live at home with their parents till they are nearly thirty these days. This means that they have more money than any previous generation to spend on cars, clothes, music and entertainment generally, and are an important factor behind Spain's consumer driven economic expansion. Of course they are also going to be asked to inter-generationally sacrifice on a big scale to pay for the massive population of old people Spain will have in ten to fifteen years. They are going to pay a lot into the pension funds, but, chances are, they will receive very little. So perhaps it is appropriate that they enjoy themselves now.

I'm not going to comment here on the actual issues behind the strike, except to point out that from the people I have spoken to it's not so much the substance of the reforms that is causing the problem as the way they are being presented. Most people accept the need for change, understand that Spain's future is going to be complicated, and are willing to make some sacrifices. But they don't like receiving orders. It's the governmental style here that is at the heart of the problem, and this is an issue which unites protesters about the proposed national water plan (an explosive issue in the rural areas of North West Spain), university teachers and now workers across Spanish industries. And in particular workers over fifty are nervous about this law. European labour market participation rates are down to about 25% by the time we get up to 60, and the recent Barcelona summit targeted participation rates of up to 75% at 65 (and later extension of working age up to 70) as part of the alternative to increased immigration in the face of population ageing. What this means is that if you have or take early retirement you may be asked to go to work in another occupation, and, of course, for less money. This may well have to happen. But it is important to remember that many who are in this group today started working in the 1960's, often as early as at 13 and 14, and often in physically challenging occupations. These people are tired, and the politicians need to understand that this situation needs to be handled with sympathy and understanding. This is not a circumstance which is present in today's Spain. My feeling is, that just like during the last years of Thatcher Britain, this government is surviving because the electors have no credible and coherent alternative.

On the other hand, most of the debate in Spain focuses on the ability of this society to mature in the way it handles information:

The Spanish government and the unions gave differing versions of the strike's effects.Finance Minister Rodrigo Rato said an average of 17 percent of workers honored the strike. "There has been nothing even approaching a generalized strike," Rato said. Labor federations said the figure of participation during the strike was a whopping 84 percent. They called on Aznar to withdraw his unemployment reforms, passed by decree last week. Source: Yahoo News LINK

These numbers are pathetic on both sides. For a modern society to function well, it's important that its citizens are able to trust the information they receive (Bush administration please note). For this to be the case numbers provided need to be at least half-way realistic. We can all see from Argentina what can happen in a critical situation if confidence in the veracity of a government is lost, even when there's really no money there, the people may still refuse to believe it.

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