SPANISH AIR TRAFFIC CONTROLLERS SUBJECTED TO MILITARY RULE
By Louis Ryan
This weekend the people of Spain witnessed scenes that are not normally associated with a functioning democracy. On Saturday at midday the government of José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero declared Estado de Alarma – the first time that such a State of Alarm has been declared in the country since the end of the Franco dictatorship in 1975. As a direct result of this declaration, the Ministry for Public Works ceded control of the Spanish airport system to the Ministry for Defence.
The country’s air traffic controllers, who had embarked on a wildcat strike 18 hours previously, were informed that they were now effectively under martial law. Failure to obey the military authorities would be treated as sedition, a charge punishable with up to 15 years imprisonment. In the hours that followed, the strikers were forced back to their posts, virtually and in some cases literally at gunpoint.
The detonator for this explosion of anger and desperation on the part of the country’s ATCs was a Royal Decree issued on Friday 3 December. In Spain, Royal Decrees can be introduced by a government without prior approval by parliament of the measures they contain. As such they are generally considered anti-democratic, and justifiable, if at all, only in very exceptional circumstances.
Yet this was the third such decree targeting controllers to be promulgated by the Zapatero government in under a year. The spontaneous and unanimous strike that followed was to lead to the cancellation of 4,600 flights, causing frustration and misery for hundreds of thousands of would-be airline passengers amidst scenes of unprecedented chaos. In the wake of the twenty-hour stoppage, many of the strikers run the risk of lengthy prison sentences, while the controllers as a body face the prospect of civil claims running to hundreds of millions of euros.
The events of 3 and 4 December were just the latest and most dramatic spike in a conflict that has been simmering since the first Royal Decree issued by the Zapatero government on 5 February of this year. That decree effectively slashed ATC salaries by up to half, obliged control tower and control centre personnel to work longer and more flexible hours, and subjected them to a series of arbitrary changes to working practices, imposed without consultation with the controllers’ trade union, USCA.
One of the principal changes effected by the Royal Decree of 5 February was that hours previously worked as overtime would henceforth be incorporated into the standard working roster. These overtime hours, paid at three times the normal rate, had ballooned over the previous years, as a buoyant tourist industry kept Spanish airports working briskly.
The situation suited AENA, the semi-state employer which runs the Spanish airport system, as it allowed it to neglect the training and incorporation of new ATCs into the system. The ATCs also benefited financially, even if it meant that they worked longer hours than any of their European counterparts. With the entry into force of the 5 February decree, however, the ATCs were left with the worst of both worlds. Their long hours became the new norm, while at the same time their pay and conditions deteriorated sharply.
Just how much Spanish ATCs actually get paid has been a matter of controversy throughout the last year, since Blanco first started his demagogic campaign against this “privileged” sector of the workforce. The most fantastic figures have been bandied about – Blanco himself spoke at one point of annual salaries of 600,000 euros prior to the first decree. But the most common figures cited in the press and media over recent months have been the following: salaries of 350,000 euros up to February, reduced subsequently to 200,000 euros. If repetition could make something true, then these figures would certainly be true by now. However it does not, and they are not.
Spanish ATCs over the last year have got used to living in a kind of dual reality so far as their incomes are concerned. There is on the one hand their virtual income, which is the income they read about in the media, and that gets thrown back at them by the majority that take their cue from media denunciations of so-called privilege. Then there is their real income, which is what they read from their pay slips. The latter is about half of the former.
Annual pre-February pay for a controller of median seniority and responsibility was in the order of 200,000 euros, and currently stands at around 100,000 euros. Of course even now ATCs remain one of the higher-paid sectors of the workforce, but they have qualifications, training and responsibility to match.
Whatever the mere facts of the matter, Blanco’s rhetoric against privileged yet spoiled and troublesome controllers has stoked resentment in a country suffering 20 per cent unemployment. At one point in the softening-up process he actually threatened to publish the names and addresses of all of the 2,400 air traffic controllers in the country. To what end? So that the local populace could take direct action against the pariahs?
Of course it is a tried and trusted formula: single out a well-paid sector of the workforce, subject them to unremitting vilification in the media, establish a precedent for slashing salaries and imposing draconian changes in working conditions – and then when the formula has been widely purchased throughout the country, generalise it to other sectors, so that many who applauded when the medicine was applied to the original target group find now that they have to take it themselves as well.
No professional body or group of workers is likely to enjoy having their incomes slashed by 40 or 50 per cent. And yet neither the strike action threatened by the ATCs in August, nor the stoppage actually carried out this weekend, was about salaries. What has fuelled tensions the most throughout the last ten months is the high-handed and arbitrary behaviour of AENA management, combined as it is with a rank incompetence which has greatly worsened an already difficult situation. All of these features were very much in evidence in the issue that triggered the wildcat strike over the weekend.
The problem goes back once again to the measures introduced in February by the first Royal Decree. These ensured the abolition of paid overtime by setting a new limit on the total number of hours an ATC could work in a given year. Yet by the end of November it was becoming apparent that some ATCs in the smaller airports were already approaching their 1670 hour annual limit. With Christmas looming, AENA and the government found itself hoist with its own petard: the limit they had themselves imposed on the workforce was now threatening a shortage of controllers with hours still left to work in the final weeks of the year.
The response of AENA, aided and abetted as always by Blanco, was to introduce a new concept called “aeronautical hours”, as distinct from normal working hours. Aeronautical hours were to be computed on the basis of the time that controllers spent “plugged in” to their frequencies. They excluded everything else – sick leave, maternity leave, stand-by shifts, on-the-job training, even breaks for rest within shifts. In effect, the ATCs were being told they had to work without remuneration through the last weeks of the year in order to make up for a shortfall arising out of measures imposed on them arbitrarily and without negotiation back in February. Once again AENA and Blanco were demonstrating an arrogance matched only by their own incompetence and lack of foresight.
The Royal Decree issued on Friday 3 December was promulgated with the ostensible aim of ensuring the free flow of traffic through the busy Christmas period. Yet there is a time in Spain that traditionally is even busier for airports than Christmas. Both the 6th (Constitution Day) and the 8th of December are public holidays, and together they form the so-called Puente de la Constitución, the Bridging Holiday of the Constitution. So the Government had chosen the day immediately preceding the busiest long weekend of the year in Spain to decree an inflammatory measure against a sector of the workforce that was crucial to the smooth functioning of air traffic. It did so, moreover, fully aware of the simmering anger and resentment of the ATCs after 10 months of unremitting attacks on their reputation and working conditions. Was this sheer stupidity and incompetence on the government’s part, or was there a secret agenda of provocation and reprisal lying behind their apparent ineptitude?
Both interpretations have something going for them. Certainly stupidity and incompetence are factors not to be lightly underestimated when considering the actions of Señor Zapatero and his Socialist Party acolytes. The issue of the 1670 hour annual limit, for example, was a perfectly foreseeable problem, and indeed it had been flagged up repeatedly by USCA in the preceding months. No response of any kind either from AENA or the Government, until matters started to come to a head in the latter half of November.
This lack of foresight is very much of a piece with the makeshift reactions of the Zapatero government to the recession that is ravaging the Spanish economy as a whole. It might seem rather far-fetched, then, to attribute to this bunch of incompetents the ability to devise and see through a machiavellian plan for stitching up the ATCs once and for all.
And yet a strong case could be made for the existence of just such a plan on the part of the Government. First, it is hard to find a reason why a set of measures which could easily have waited until the middle of the following week should have been decreed precisely on the day previous to Spain’s most important bridging holiday, unless we factor into the equation a desire to provoke a response in the heat of the moment from the ATCs. Certainly if that was the calculation on the Government’s part, it has paid its dividends, for the ATCs in the wake of their wildcat strike have effectively been smashed as a collective body. But there are other factors also which support the thesis of a secret agenda.
The Royal Decree of Friday 3 December dealt with other matters besides the working hours of the ATCs. It also abolished the pitiful allowance of 426 euros a month for those workers who have come to the end of their unemployment benefits. It substantially increased taxes on fuel, alcohol and tobacco. It advanced a controversial reform that would raise the pension age from 65 to 67. It lowered taxes on businesses. And it announced the privatisation of the national lottery and – touching more closely on the big issue of the weekend – the country’s two biggest airports, Barajas in Madrid and El Prat in Barcelona.
Yet all through the latter half of Friday, and then Saturday and Sunday as well, there was only one news story in the country. ESTADO DE ALARMA was emblazoned on a red background across the bottom half of the screen on both Spanish CNN and the State-run 24 hour news channel throughout the weekend. In between ministerial denunciations of the strikers, distraught passengers were interviewed by sympathetic reporters anxious to learn how the dastardly air traffic controllers had ruined their holidays.
The misery inflicted on tens of thousands of would-be holiday-makers was of course incalculable. Instead of family reunions or vacations in the countryside or by the sea, thousands spent much of the weekend waiting in airports or, if they were lucky enough, in some improvised hotel accommodation.
If there was indeed a machiavellian plan on the part of the Government and AENA, here surely was the greatest risk – that the stranded multitudes might blame them rather than the striking controllers for ruining their holidays. For this reason the ATCs had to be kept unremittingly in the frame. While one Socialist Party spokesman described the controllers as “delinquents and mafiosi”, the squeaky-voiced and pugilistic Blanco vowed retribution on the strikers.
A curious side-light on the character of José Blanco emerges in the latest revelations from Wikileaks, which includes US embassy assessments of the leading figures in Zapatero’s government. Blanco is reported to be “an untrustworthy individual” who has “a particular unfailing idiosyncrasy: he does not look his interlocutors in the eye when he shakes their hand.” USCA representatives, among others, will no doubt be familiar with that experience.
The Americans have rather a different opinion of the Vice-president and Spokesman of the Government, Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, whom they judge to be easily the most capable and intelligent of Zapatero’s ministers. If anyone is fitted to play the Machiavelli in the present government, it is surely this astute and devious politician.
From Friday afternoon onwards he effectively sidelined the crude Blanco, becoming the Government’s front man as he delivered updates from the crisis cabinet into the early hours of Saturday morning – with Zapatero himself, strangely enough, nowhere to be seen. The prime minister had earlier cancelled his attendance at the annual Ibero-American summit held last week in Argentina. This highly unusual step has strengthened many in the view that the events of the weekend were at least anticipated if not actually planned in advance by the government.
Rubalcaba’s current pre-eminence on the Government side is a reflection of more than just his own personal capacities. For the Vice-President and Government Spokesman also holds the key post of Minister for the Interior, which means he is entrusted with vital issues pertaining to state security. As such he has considerable experience in the techniques of counter-terrorism that have been used to defeat the Basque separatist group, ETA.
Not that the Government at any time used the T word against the controllers – delinquents and mafiosi will do for the moment. Even so, scenes of large-scale military and armed police activity together with convoys of armoured vehicles generated an atmosphere familiar to Spanish television viewers from the more intense moments of the Basque conflict. Beyond that lurks the living memory of the Franco dictatorship, based as it was on the coercive power of the armed forces. It has taken an ostensibly Socialist government to raise that spectre once again.
The controllers themselves were under little illusion as to what awaited them once they embarked on their desperate course of action. Following their refusal to work (there was no formal declaration of a strike) ATCs met throughout the country in permanent assembly, so as to keep their spirits up and strengthen their solidarity.
On the island of Majorca, a popular tourist destination with the third largest airport in the country, the ATCs adjourned on Friday evening to a hotel in Palma, the island’s capital, before decamping en masse and taking literally to the hills. They eventually holed up at an isolated hostel in the mountains so as to avoid the attentions of the Judicial Police, despatched to serve notice on them to return to work.
That the precautions taken by the Majorcan ATCs were not excessive was demonstrated all too vividly by the scenes being played out at the same time in Madrid. There the ATCs had gathered in a hotel near Barajas airport, only to be surrounded by the quasi-military Guardia Civil, who at the same time served as a buffer against dozens of irate passengers. Towards midnight on Friday night the Guardia Civil proceeded to identify the ATCs gathered there, and demanded their return to work. Still the strikers held firm. Shortly afterwards, at 2 am, Rubalcaba threatened in another press conference to introduce a State of Alarm.
On Saturday morning the Majorcan ATCs reassembled in the Palma control centre. I had the opportunity to speak by cell phone with one of them who is very close to me. Moderate both by temperament and conviction, she had always been opposed to radical measures which would have a negative impact on airline passengers.
Yet like so many others, she felt this time that AENA and Blanco had pushed them beyond the limit. Now they had gone this far, there was no turning back. She was still determined to fight on after a sleepless night in the mountains with her embattled colleagues. And there was even a little good news: French and Portuguese ATCs had declared they would refuse to handle aircraft sent to them from Spain by the military controllers that the Government was drafting in to replace their civilian counterparts.
Also she had just come across a couple of cleaning ladies, who knew better than most the real conditions in which the ATCs worked. She was moved to tears when they told her to keep it up, that they had their support. For all the poisoned rhetoric of Blanco, the government and the media that presented the controllers as privileged, pampered and overpaid, workers at the bottom of the heap were still willing to express their solidarity – all the more so since they would certainly have been aware, if they happened to work at an airport, that the Government had plans for them as well.
Any faint hopes the ATCs may have held to, however, were soon dashed. The declaration of the State of Alarm shortly after midday on Saturday was followed two hours later by letters from AENA delivered to each and every striking controller. With the airport system already effectively under army control, these letters informed their recipients that failure to comply with military orders would lead to prosecution under the Military Penal Code. The maximum penalties resulting from a charge of sedition could be up to fifteen years in prison.
Anyone challenging the authority of the State, Rubalcaba was saying now on television, would lose. He has a peculiar way of moving his hands up and down and sideways as he speaks, as though weaving a spider’s web. The ATCs were trapped. There was no way out, except to troop back to their posts under the watchful eye of the Guardia Civil. Slowly through Saturday evening and Sunday the air traffic began to flow again. By Monday it was back almost to normal.
However there is no sign of normality returning for Spain’s air traffic controllers. Following the events of this weekend, they now have to defend themselves on three fronts. First, AENA has already undertaken disciplinary action against 442 controllers, or about a fifth of the total. Penalties could range from heavy fines and retention of salary through to outright dismissal and loss of their controller’s license. Next, criminal proceedings are likely to be initiated against large numbers of controllers – a figure of 500 is being talked about.
In Madrid, a hundred have already been served with notice of such proceedings. While it seems now that they will be tried in civil rather than military courts, they could still incur heavy prison sentences. These are likely to range from three months to three years for minor offences, and three to eight years for the more serious charges. And last but by no means least, civil actions are set to be taken by businesses and individuals claiming compensation for personal inconvenience and loss of earnings arising out of the events of last Friday and Saturday. Since figures in the hundreds of millions of euros are already being bandied about, and since the actions will presumably be taken against the controllers collectively, no one who participated in the events of this weekend can consider their home or personal assets safe.
In the medium term, there are signs that the Government plans to replace sacked ATCs with military controllers. The civilians would thus be obliged to work side by side with under-qualified military personnel who have supplanted colleagues that have fallen victim to the post-strike purge.
What seems likely to emerge from this traumatic process is a workforce that is fractured and browbeaten, with pay and conditions eroded still further, and with the esprit de corps which has seen them through the last nightmarish year finally broken. All in all, a most enticing proposition for the private operators that Zapatero and his cronies wish to attract into the system. And a grim prospect for those left to make the system work.