Fighting Austerity in Spain: A View from Seville
The struggle against austerity in Spain has continued unabated over the last few years. James Drummond of the Anti Capitalist Initiative spoke to Millie, a former resident of Seville, who has just come back from a visit there. Millie currently lives in London, where she is an activist in UCU and the Solidarity Federation.
James D: How deep is the crisis in Spain at the moment, and what problems are people facing in their everyday lives?
Millie: Where I used to live, in Seville, there was always quite high unemployment even during the boom years. But since then there’s been a catastrophic rise in unemployment. Spain has some welfare state but it’s not comprehensive at all, and there have also been cuts to the welfare state since the crisis started.When I lived in Spain I was very much involved in housing struggles. Where you’re seeing really awful results of the crisis in terms of housing are the suicides linked to evictions. People don’t get housing benefit as such – there’s a little bit, but not much – so when you hear of someone maybe getting 400 Euros a month in unemployment benefit, they’re expected to pay the rent with that, but the rent might be 400 or 500 Euros a month. With a whole family being given 400 Euros a month to survive on, people are saying that if they pay the bills they can’t eat, and if they eat they can’t pay the bills. There have been many, many horrific cases of the police turning up to do an eviction and the person is found hanged, or people throw themselves out of their windows. Because I think there’s something about eviction that really makes people feel like they’ve got to the end of the line. I’ve got a £10,000 student loan, but that doesn’t stress me. If I were to lose my home that would be a completely different thing. For a lot of families, an eviction is such a disaster.
I know that in Spain the tendency is to rent rather than own. If people are being evicted, is it people who have defaulted on their mortgages, or tenants who can’t pay their rent?
It’s both. There’s been a shift towards home ownership very recently. There’s a group in Seville who stop evictions for home owners with mortgages. But as well as that, a lot of council tenants are also getting evicted. These are people who are quite poor anyway and have been given council flats as a result, but if they lose their jobs they can’t keep them, because they can’t pay their rent and there’s insufficient housing benefit.
Is the economic crisis affecting people evenly?
The economic boom in Spain was so much based around construction, and from what people are saying it’s the men who are especially being laid off, although from reading the newspapers it seems that women who don’t have a high level of education are actually getting laid off more, but that’s the perception. People who are laid off are doing what they can to survive, but the trouble is, everybody is doing the same things. So if someone’s got a van and is trying to do removals…
So there’s a lot of self-employment?
Yeah, loads. Very bitty self-employment. Spain’s had a very big shadow economy for ages anyway. When I lived there I worked for some pretty prestigious employers and I was getting paid cash-in-hand, and that’s completely normal. Now you can see lots of signs in people’s windows saying ‘sewing and alterations’, or ‘repairs – ring the bell’, but of course, everybody’s trying to do the same things, so everybody in Spain who has a van is trying to do one-off removals, and loads of people can do repairs and alterations, and they’re trying to offer themselves in this casual labour market.
How is the crisis particularly affecting young people? I’m thinking about working class youth, but also the ‘graduate without a future’?
A lot of people in Spain go to university. Parents push their kids to go, people want to go, and until recently the fees were very low. It’s very, very typical for people to have studied a specialism and then never get a job that’s anything to do with that specialism. Loads of recent graduates are working in bars. I once bumped into a friend who is a qualified architect. He was wearing paint-splattered old clothes and he was carrying a bag, and he said, “I’m just off to work, I’ve got a few days work on a building”, and I said, “Oh, are you doing some architecture work?” He looked at me and said “No, no, I’m labouring”. And that’s very typical. A lot of very qualified people are likely to be on very short-term contracts, temporary, going from one contract to another, with bouts of unemployment.
The thing is that the people who haven’t been to university or finished high school depend on those jobs, like bar work, for their entire living. They’re competing with the architects. Young people can’t leave home, either. I remember a really awful story of a young woman I met who was still living with her father, who was abusive. She couldn’t afford to leave.
This sounds like quite a depressing picture. Is the atmosphere one of depression and resignation, or is there any anger and determination to fight?
Actually, I wondered if there would be a depressed atmosphere, but the people I spoke to this time I was there said they felt positive. Some of them told me they were very tired, which is fair enough. I was inspired by quite a lot of things, and I’m not somebody that only looks for things to be inspired by!
Are you talking about particular campaigns or struggles?
During the week I recently stayed in Seville I went to quite a few things. I arrived on the Friday night, and on the Saturday morning there was a big demo organised to demand housing. There were at least 5,000 people and Seville’s not a big town. The demo wasn’t organised by any political party or trade union. One thing I really liked was that it was very much not just the existing organised left and groups of activists; it was ordinary working class people.
Do you think the crisis is bringing people on the streets who wouldn’t have taken political action before?
Yes, exactly. I was really interested to visit some corralas [squatted buildings]. I have friends who were involved in setting up the corralas, and I’d been following them. I went to the first one, called corrala utopia. This was set up by people who were facing eviction who had then gone to the indignados for help. In English people often say the indignados, but I never hear anyone in Spain call this movement the indignados, they call it 15M. These are people who were involved in the occupation of the squares in 2011 and continued to be involved in campaigning. So the 15M activists went to the barrios, to the neighbourhoods, and then set up assemblies where people could come and talk about their problems.
So you now have the neighbourhood assemblies. As well as this, they’ve also set up information points where people can come and get advice in each barrio. Not every barrio has them, but the strong ones have attracted people from nearby areas. For example, the villages on the west side of Seville have been going to the Triana assembly, which is a very strong assembly.
Are we talking dozens or hundreds of people?
In my old neighbourhood, for example, you would normally get about 15 people coming to the assembly now, but it started quite a long time ago so there would have been lots of excitement followed by some ups and downs. People come to the information point, they can get legal advice, sometimes they have lawyers, but in order to attract people to the assembly, they have what’s called the affectados, so in this case ‘groups of people affected by housing problems’ which meets directly after the information point meeting is held. And they try and encourage people to stay for the assembly. Then they meet loads of other people with the same problems as them, and they see that they’re not the only person. They try to find collective solutions.
One thing I found quite interesting is that men often won’t got to the information points. They think that it’s their fault for losing their job, they feel ashamed, they’re not providing for their family. Whereas the women are more likely to take the attitude that they’re not going to see the kids put out on the street, and whatever they’ve got to do, they’ll do it. And it was through one of these information points in north east Seville that they started the first corrala. They went to an empty block of flats, newly built I think, in very good condition, and they occupied the block. It started out as eleven families nearly all headed by women. And this was the birth of corrala utopia. There are now six corallas in Seville and three nearby.
So would corrala translate as ‘squat’?
No. A corrala is a type of old-fashioned building in Seville. None of these occupations are corralas if you’re looking at it from an architectural point of view. The old corralas would be small flats around a big central courtyard. You did your washing in the courtyard, you did your cooking in the courtyard, the kids would run around and play all day, you gossiped with the neighbours and borrowed things, and life was in the courtyard. These occupied buildings are just blocks of flats, but they’ve called them corralas. When I went there, people were doing their housework and they had their front doors wide open, and I could hear people calling out to each other. There’s 90 adults and 40 kids, that’s a lot of people, and I was really pleased to see that people were leaving their front doors open.
Before they occupied and set up the corrala they had a three month period of working together, in the group, of talking, and going through a process together. Although people had an urgent need for a roof over their head, they also wanted to make the point that this wasn’t just about their own problems, they wanted to make the housing problem visible. They all said that whatever happened, they were going to face it together. That was very moving.
It sounds like what you’re describing is neighbourhood-based improvised structures that occur as a response to very immediate problems. Do you think this movement can become more organised and political?
When 15M started with the occupation of the squares in 2011, a lot of people in the big assemblies said “no politics!” Actually there were two distinct tendencies. Some political activists were angry that people had decided to have this great big political phenomenon that was on TV around the world, and nobody had asked their permission, or suggested that they might like to be the leaders. And then on the other hand, equally annoying, were people who’d got involved in the 15M for the first time and were totally dismissive of everything that had ever happened before, so for example, they wanted nothing to do with trade unions. They were nicknamed the ‘illuminati’, because they’d been illuminated by the light and they suddenly knew everything.
Sometimes this rejection of politics caused quite big problems, especially when some people turned up to the assemblies and weren’t treated very well. They said “it’s the radicals, we don’t want them”. But the political activists argued that they were also people suffering from austerity. Many activists have told me that this ‘no politics’ thing has really diminished – it would probably depend a lot from city to city – because in the day-to-day struggle, some of the more radical trade unions have been giving lots of support.
Do you mean the anarcho-syndicalists of the CNT or the CGT? Or the UGT and the comisiones obreras as well?
Yes, the CNT and the CGT, and also the SAT. With the big mainstream unions, the UGT or the comisiones, there are rank-and-file people who’ve been involved, but not any officials as far as I know. A lot of older people going to meetings were involved in the comisiones setting up union branches in the 1970s under Franco when it was seriously illegal, but they’d never been involved in anything political since then, they’d just been getting on with their lives. I don’t mean old politicians coming out of the woodwork, just old ordinary working class people from the neighbourhood.
Especially in the corrala, a lot of people had never done anything political before. One activist I spoke to argued that whilst they don’t have any overt political experience, the people in the corrala could look after themselves, that they were quickly getting pretty savvy about political issues.
I’ve also heard about direct action that’s occurred where people have stopped evictions from taking place, and that some of the fire brigades’ unions have passed resolutions saying they won’t help out in evictions. What impact has this had on the occupations you were involved in?
In terms of morale it’s definitely a boost. Firemen were called to an eviction in Galicia because a demonstration of 200 people was stopping the eviction of an 85 year old woman. Supporters chained themselves to the doors of the building and the police wanted the firemen to cut the chains. When the firemen arrived they said that they weren’t going to have anything to do with it. One of the firemen took a ‘stop evictions’ sticker and people clapped him. There was a possibility that the firemen would be disciplined for refusing orders to help carry out the eviction, but then other firemen in various areas, in Catalonia, in Madrid, in various places, said that they also wouldn’t participate in any evictions. Fire fighters all over Spain have taken photos of themselves with their fire engines with banners saying “We rescue people not banks”. And the firemen seem to be one of the groups which are taking quite a stand. I mean, they’re suffering job losses too. People tend to look up to firemen, they’re seen as popular heroes, and there certainly seems to be an air of that.
I’ve also heard lots reports of firemen defending demonstrators and directly confronting the police when miners from Galicia came down to march on Madrid last year. The police attacked the demo very badly, there was one kid that was shot and badly injured with a sort of rubber ball, an anti-riot weapon that the police use, and elderly retired miners being beaten up. In terms of other groups of workers, in Zaragoza the Professional Association of Locksmiths said that they won’t change the locks during any evictions. There are also currently large mobilisations of public sector workers. The miners call their movement ‘black tide’. The health workers have started their own mass mobilisation which is called ‘white tide’, to defend public health care and keep it free and accessible. Now, in education, there is ‘green tide’, because in Spain the ‘blackboard’ is green.
What’s the relationship between these new ‘tide’ movements and the existing unions?
That’s a really interesting question. When I was in Seville I occupied a primary school – more of a sit-in – we stayed the night. There were about 100 people. I spoke to people from marea verde (‘green tide’) and they told me that it’s not organised by any particular union or group but the more radical unions are involved, with some rank-and-file from the mainstream unions. There’s also USTEA, a radical teachers’ union. But no one union has control.
How is it organised? Is this happening in other parts of Spain?
I can talk about the primary school near Seville because that’s the only one I know. They have an assembly in the school, which is made up of both teachers and parents. There are non-teaching staff as well, but it tends to be in practice more the teachers. But yes, each school where there is an organised presence of ‘green tide’ has an assembly, and they’ve had meetings at the level of Seville and then some Andalucia assemblies. It’s only been going a year or 18 months, so it’s developing, and as far as I know it started in Madrid. I think it’s becoming pretty big and effective.
Can you tell me more about your experience of the primary school occupation?
During the assembly at the sit-in everybody spoke. We went around everyone in the meeting, and people said why they were there and what concerned them. And everyone was saying, “Enough pissing about, we need an indefinite general strike”. And this really was everyone. I was asked to speak about the situation in England and our fights in education, so I talked about the academies, privatisation, the Halesowen Four dispute, and people were really interested. They saw what’s happening in England as what’s coming to them further down the line, with more privatisation and less equality for kids in schools. In fact, people talked about the proposed introduction of an 11+ system which sent shivers down my spine, because of course, the 11+ was very bad for working class kids.
During the occupation there was always some kind of meeting going on somewhere in the room. People constantly talked, from 3 o’clock in the afternoon until midnight. If you were involved in one discussion you could drift off and talk about something else. I spoke to some young teachers who told me that in Spain, teachers who get a permanent job have an awful lot of job security, but they have to pass a very difficult entrance exam first, and then they’re allocated a post. The problem is that teachers are passing this exam but there’s no post for them to go to, so they’re given temporary posts, maybe covering maternity leave or something like that. Now the government in Andalucia is making 4,500 of these ‘interim’ teachers redundant, and increasing the working week of the other teachers to cover for the people being made redundant. And they also need this ‘interim’ experience to get more points so they can eventually be allocated a permanent post. The way they were speaking up for themselves, it was all from the heart. They spoke for hours and hours.
Did you get a sense that people have changed through fighting back?
Yes, I did. Definitely. In the corrala one of the women had had loads of trouble with her back, her knees, I got the impression these were quite depression-related symptoms. But since she’d moved into the corrala, she said “Now I’ve been cured of everything!” She wasn’t having these pains any more. She had more self-esteem. So I think through taking direct action to improve their situation, people have definitely increased in confidence.