Collective bargaining in the Basque Autonomous Community

Agreements without the major trade unions? Reasons behind the deadlock

  • The limited agreements which Confebask, CCOO and UGT have signed, with the support of the Basque Government, have increased tensions in the trade union world. Spanish reforms have opened the door to state-wide agreements, worsening working conditions and blocking collective bargaining. Apparently the agreements are designed to overcome that situation. But can anything be overcome leaving the major trade unions in the Basque Autonomous Community, ELA and LAB, to one side? In addition to precariousness, another concern has been added to labour relationships: a deficit in democracy.

Urko Apaolaza Avila @urkoapaolaza
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On 20th September, five days before elections in the Basque Autonomous Community, thousands of ELA and LAB representatives demonstrated in Gasteiz. They denounced trade union election results not being respected during collective bargaining (Photo: E

An unusual picture in the digital press set the alarms bells off on 14th July. ELA and LAB announced a joint press conference for that morning. The same day, Berria newspaper published a scoop about work relationships thanks to a leak: Confebask, which represents the interests of the largest companies, had a "formula" for bypassing the two main trade unions in Araba, Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa. According to the report, if there were no general agreement, the "limited" agreement reached with the minor trade unions – and, for the first time, with the approval of the Basque Government – would be accepted.

Confebask denied that the document had come from Confebask; the Employment Department stated that it had only acted as an intermediary. However, ELA and LAB showed a document at their press conference, stating that it was the draft agreement which the Basque Government had taken to the "Social Negotiations Forum". That document, too, encouraged the strategy of promoting limited agreements: "The Basque Government supported that agreement and took an active part in communicating it", the text says, "compiling agreements and publishing them when they do not reach the degree of representation demanded by the Workers' Statute Law."

ELA and LAB stated that this apparent intention was a serious attack on elected trade union representation, and demanded the immediate resignation of Employment and Social Policies minister Angel Toña. They were not wrong about the importance of the leak: ten days later, UGT, CCOO, Confebask and the Basque Government signed the agreement.

LAB's "Coming Together" march against precariousness, Bilbao, 28th May (Photo: LAB)

The two main trade unions saw the determination to reach an agreement on collective bargaining whatever the circumstances as part of the Basque Autonomous Community's business federation's strategy against ELA and LAB: “It is the latest link on a long chain of attack”, said AinhoaEtxaide, LAB's general secretary.

Confebask had previously used ideas which overstep the limits of democracy in order to weaken opposition to its plans. In 2014 the Basque Autonomous Community's business federation sent a document to the Spanish business managers association, CEOE, asking it to make an astonishing appeal to the Spanish Ministry of Work: a request for trade unions which did not limit themselves to activities specified in their statutes to be removed from the trade union register. Confebask believes that ELA and LAB have started to take on "characteristics which are not appropriate" and carry out boycotts.

That idea would, in fact, lead to outlawing trade union organisations which were critical of business federations, and that caused quite a stir. Confebask stated, once more, that there was nothing in that – although the origin CEOE's appeal was later to be clear for all to see – and the Basque Government called it nonsense. Be that as it may, the issue showed to what extent relationships are blocked and just how far from hidden agents connected with economic power are prepared to go. But how has the struggle between the trade unions and business managers reached this point?

When the crisis started in 2007, central banks took advantage of it to cut workers' rights throughout Europe and in the Basque Country. So the work reforms which Spanish governments have carried out have unbalanced collective bargaining completely. ELA's general secretary, Adolfo Txiki Muñoz has put it very clearly: "Not even the business federation hoped it would be given so much power".

ELA and LAB have denounced the state trade unions' hypocrisy, saying that while they defend sectoralagreements in the Basque Country, they are also taking negotiations to Madrid, hurriedly imposing general agreements which monopolise and impose worse conditions

Spanish work reforms: the rules of play in the business federation's hands

In June, 2011, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero's socialist government accepted a bill on collective bargaining reform. Amongst other things, it gave each company more powers to be able to change previously made agreements, prejudicing sectoral agreements. In addition to that, our work relationships area was hard hit, state-wide agreements taking priority over provincial ones and giving the Madrid trade unions (CCOO and UGT) and business federation (CEOE) agreements the possibility of removing or limiting autonomous community agreements. In a single word: centralisation.

In the construction sector, CNC business confederation was the first to take advantage of this bargain. In January, 2012, it signed an agreement with UGT and CCOO, covering wages, mobility, the working week and several other important issues, emptying the much better agreements which Basque workers had of their contents; its objective was the "standardisation of work conditions". There have been many other such agreements since then.

Workers in the Basque Country responded with a powerful general strike to the savage work reform which Rajoy imposed with the movement of a single finger after the December 2011 elections. Even so, the end of the intensive work regime, which business managers so much wanted, was finally imposed: firstly, if new agreements were not signed, the old ones remained in place, even if they had expired; now, state-wide agreements are automatically imposed or, if there are none, the Workers' Statute is put in force.

In this bleak panorama, Basque trade unions have lost all their weapons against the suit-wearing Goliaths. The only sling left to them is union activity, and street confrontation is the only stone they have left.

But they have a different strategy. ELA, seeing the weakness of sectoral agreements, is concentrating on companies. LAB, on the other hand, is working to protect general agreements in many areas, although without much success: "The business federation wants cheap agreements, and it's a lot easier to get that in Madrid", states LAB's head of collective bargaining, GarbiñeAranburu. She says, however, that they will carry on supporting initiatives in favour of sectoral and autonomous community agreements.

an unusual picture: AinhoaEtxaide (LAB) Adolfo Muñoz's (ELA) shared declaration after finding out that there was an objective to exclude major trade unions from work agreements (Photo: Argazki Press / Aritz Loiola)

The deadlock can also be measured in data. As can be see in the Work Relationship Committee's latest social-labour bulletin, in December almost half of the workers (46.2%; 253,993 workers) had not yet renewed their agreements; a further 110,167 (20%) had no agreement; only a third (33.8%; 185,472 workers) had up-to-date texts about their work conditions.

The end of the intensive work regime is directly connected with this. On 7th July, 2013, 300,000 workers' agreements ended, the business federation asking business managers not to negotiate until 8th July so that they would then enjoy the advantages of Rajoy's work reform. But acting like that, there would be wage reductions and precarious conditions for workers.

All of that led to taking work conflict to court because many agreements include protective clauses about intensive work regimes. The Supreme Court overruled the work reform, but business managers still hold onto it in order to condition general negotiations. 

Take part in the Social Negotiations Forum?

In December, 2014, the Basque Government set up the Social Negotiations Forum, the then Minister for Work and Social Issues, Juan Mari Aburto, stating that "straightforward confrontation only serves for identifying enemies". But the Forum got off to a bad start, LAB and ELA refusing to sit down with the business federation which was "plotting to outlaw them"; they thought that it would only serve to "legitimise" the cuts. CCOO and UGT, on the other hand, saw reasons to take part in the forum from the start, with "the objective of creating employment and improving people's welfare".

Zapatero's reforms hit hard in the Basque work relationship area, imposing state agreements over provincial ones. In a single word: centralisation

Over two difficult years, the Social Negotiations Forum has taken very few steps in the work relationship area; CCOO trade union has left the Forum more than once, the Basque Government not having put into practice the measures agreed there. The main Basque trade unions have denounced CCOO and UGT's hypocrisy, saying that while they defend sectoral agreements in the Forum, they are also taking advantage of Zapatero's reform to centralise negotiations in Madrid, monopolise them, and impose general agreements which worsen conditions.

In trade union leader UnaiSordo's opinion, however, collective bargaining is not snared up by what statute laws and agreements state but, rather, by the "harmful" strategies which ELA – and, to an extent, LAB – are following, taking confrontation from company to company. In his words, they signed limited agreements in July in order to try to solve that situation.

The agreement which CCOO and UGT have signed with Confebask and the Basque Government seems to be opposed to centralisation, mentioning "being in favour of territorial agreements". Another matter is the type of guarantees and conditions which they offer. Can a Basque labour relationship model be defended if the power to take decisions is in Madrid?

Limited agreements "condition nothing"

If there is no general agreement in a company or a sector – and we have seen that many are in that situation at present – minor trade unions can reach agreements with business federations, and workers will able to sign up to them. That is what "limited agreements" are. The Basque Government will register and publish them, making them official.

"Anti-democratic means", "deceit", "unprecedented"… LAB and ELA have described the agreement signed in no uncertain terms. In their words, it goes against what workers have voted for and aims to impose what a minority wants on the majority.

On 20th September, during the Basque election campaign, thousands of representatives of ELA and LAB – elected "in a wholly legal way by Basque workers" – demonstrated in Gasteiz  At the end, Muñoz explained how they felt to President IñigoUrkullu with a moving comparison: "If somebody said to you that your party's 27 members of parliament are next to nothing, would you think that was ok? Well, that's what they want to do to us".


The agreement to reach limited agreements was signed in Laku on 22nd July. From left to right: Roberto Larrañaga, president of Confebask, the business managers' association; Arantza Tapia, Angel Toña and Cristina Uriarte, Ministers for Economy, Work and Education in the Basque Government; UnaiSordo and RaúlArza, general secretaries of CCOO and UGT trade unions (Photo: Argazki Press / Jaizki Fontaneda)

In Minister Angel Toña's opinion, on the other hand, calling the agreement anti-democratic is "ill-intentioned" because it asks the workers to come together individually and does not affect workers who do not sign.  "Democracy means taking part", says Toña, "and making commitments too, and to reach agreements you have to go to forums where solutions may be found". In other words, they want to offer the 380,000 who have no agreements or references an alternative.RaúlArza, head of UGT in the Basque Autonomous Community, is of the same opinion: all workers will be able to "update" their conditions.

But the major trade unions are unlikely to swallow that: "The agreement does not offer any protection", according the extensive document about it which ELA and LAB have drawn up together. "Confebask has no need for any agreement protecting the framework of our collective bargaining". In their words, centralisation still offers the business federation the opportunity to "blackmail" thousands of workers.

The storm and another work reform on the horizon

What about the medium-term? With no solution foreseen, there are dark clouds in the distance. Limited agreements have already begun to be imposed. CCOO and UGT have recently signed an agreement in Araba in the metallurgy area in with the SEA business managers' association; and the Basque Government has published it in the official provincial bulletin even though those trade unions only represent 30% of workers.

Basque trade unions, on the other hand, will use all the resources they can in order to limit centralisation. ELA has also stated its intention to go to Europe to oppose the state-wide hotel and catering agreement. One of the clause of the agreement signed in Madrid prevents the sector from negotiating anywhere without a controlling committee's permission and, consequently, the workers lost 50% of their wages and 50 hours were added to their yearly working timetable. ELA has taken the case to Strasbourg, believing that denying a trade union the right to negotiate in its own sector goes against international law.

But the thickest mist is something else, and further behind. Trade unions have often protested that the economic powers that be are preparing another work reform which will put workers under even more pressure. There are signs of that. For instance, Judge GarbiñeBiurrun believes that they will use the European Court of Justice's ban on provisional redundancies as a "pretext" in order to change laws about work contracts.

And, above all, the Troika is making demands once more. Brussels has recently said that Spain has to make cuts of 5,500 Euros in order to meet deficit objectives. And it does not look likely that money will come from the pockets of the people who make the rules.

[This article was translated by 11itzulpen; you can see the original in Basque here.]

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