Advertisement

Spain Explained For Members

Why the Basque Country is the strike capital of Spain

Conor Faulkner
Conor Faulkner - [email protected]
Why the Basque Country is the strike capital of Spain
People take part in a demonstration called by Basque nationalist union LAB. Photo: RAFA RIVAS/AFP.

Around half of all strikes in Spain take place in the Basque Country, but it wasn't always that way.

Advertisement

Though airport workers are currently striking in Valencia and Madrid, and trade unions have played a leading role in the farmers’ protests across the country in recent weeks, there’s a specific part of Spain that stands head and shoulders above the rest when it comes to industrial action — the Basque Country.

According to figures from the Basque government's Labour Relations Council (CRL), in 2023 almost half (46 percent) of the total strikes called in Spain took place in the Basque Country.

In 2022, that figure was 50.36 percent. That is to say, a region with less than 5 percent of the country’s total population had half of its strikes. More specifically, 342 of the 679 strikes that took place in Spain in 2022 were in the Basque Country alone, according to data from the Ministry of Labour.

READ ALSO: What are the pros and cons of life in Spain’s Basque Country?

What explains this phenomenon? Is there an underlying explanation? Are the Basque people particularly organised or more radical than other Spaniards?

Part of the explanation for this trend comes from the fact that Basque trade unions have grown, or maintained, at least, as union activity has declined in the rest of the country.

As Spanish trade unions slowly began waning in power and membership over the years (like in many countries around the world) the Basque Country became a hotbed of trade unionism activity and industrial action in Spain from the early-2000s. In more recent years, the 2020s in particular, the proportion of strikes in the Basque Country versus the rest of Spain has grown ever higher due to an overall decrease in the number of strikes around the rest of the country.

Jon Las Heras, Professor of Political Economy at the University of the Basque Country and expert on Basque unions, says that this high rate of strikes compared to the rest of Spain is due, above all, to the trade union model and strategy adopted by the region's two major unions, Eusko Langileen Alkartasuna (ELA) and Langile Abertzaleen Batzordeak (LAB).

"ELA and LAB have formed a ‘counter-power’ bloc in opposition to CCOO and UGT [the traditional, major unions in Spain] that are more prone to engage into social dialogue,” Las Heras argues in his paper Striking to Renew: Basque Unions' Organising Strategies and the Use of the Strike-Fund.

This strategy, he argues, is “based on organising workers ‘deeply’ – especially with ELA’s recurrent use of a strike-fund that fosters membership participation and affiliation through confederal solidarity.”

Advertisement

In short, whereas Spain’s larger national unions are, Las Heras suggests, more inclined to dialogue to resolve industrial disputes, Basque unions prefer more direct action. “This has produced very high strike rates since the 2000s, perhaps the highest in Europe,” he adds.

It is worth considering that the Basque Country, in addition to effectively using strike funds, is also one of the wealthiest parts of Spain. In other words, that workers in the Basque Country take home the second highest salaries in Spain on average, behind only Madrid, could mean that union members are more inclined (or have the financial flexibility) to take strike action than if they were from poorer regions such as Murcia, Extremadura and Andalusia.

READ ALSO: Why are the Basque Country and Catalonia so rich compared to the rest of Spain?

At the very least, being wealthier on average means that Basque workers can afford to stay on strike longer than workers in other parts of the country, something essential when settling disputes through industrial action.

However, trade unionists would no doubt point to their strong trade unionism as one of the reasons they are comparatively well paid, rather than the other way around.

But it wasn’t always like this. According to Las Heras, ELA, LAB and other Basque unions formerly relied on dialogue and sector-wide collective bargaining agreements, as many unions still do, but began to develop "a strategy of political autonomy and trade union action at a level closer to the grassroots" between the 1990s and the 2000s.

Advertisement

This came about partly as a result of changes to the labour market and industrial changes in the Basque Country (which began from the 1980s onwards, notably the types of industry and engineering in the region) as well Basque unions distancing themselves from national unions

“The rise of the second Basque union (LAB) allowed for the two Basque sovereigntist unions to form a new alliance that stood in opposition to the two main Spanish unions,” Las Herras argues.

But it’s also about strategy. Elena Pérez Barredo, Deputy Minister of Labour and Social Security in the Basque government, told La Vanguardia that the fundamental reason strikes are so common "lies in the trade union difference that exists in the Basque Country."

“The ELA has a union strategy and culture that encourages confrontation… a very marked strategy in favour of the strike as an instrument of confrontation," she adds.

Advertisement

There seem to be several plausible, inter-connected reasons that the Basque Country became Spain’s (and possibly Europe’s) strike capital.

It has strong regional trade unions that exist separately from the larger confederate national unions; these unions have effective strike funds, meaning they can strike for longer; their employees are, on average, likely to be better paid than elsewhere in Spain, meaning they could be more inclined and financially able to take strike action; and finally, Basque unions take a more direct, confrontational approach to industrial disputes, whereas other unions rely more on dialogue and border collective bargaining agreements.

Perhaps Unai Rementeria, a local Basque politician, summed it up best after widespread strike action in the region in 2019. Basque unions, he said simply, “seek permanent confrontation.”

More

Comments

Join the conversation in our comments section below. Share your own views and experience and if you have a question or suggestion for our journalists then email us at [email protected].
Please keep comments civil, constructive and on topic – and make sure to read our terms of use before getting involved.

Please log in to leave a comment.

See Also