SchNEWS Of The World


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SPAIN'S most successful industrial dispute ended victoriously for a group of telecommunications workers on the 5th August 2001. Champagne and a night of singing, dancing, and fireworks marked the end of El Campamento de Esperanza "The Camp of Hope", built in the centre of Madrid by 1,000 protesting telephone technicians. The workers' defiant six month occupation of one of Madrid's poshest streets earned them the respect of the nation and forced the transnational politicing that shafted them to be held accountable.

In 1996 Sintel, the company these people had worked for was sold by its owner Telefonica (the Spanish equivalent of British Telecom) to Mastec, a US cable installation firm. In December 2000, after months of non-payment of wages, everybody in the firm was laid off with no financial compensation and no new jobs on offer. Most blamed mismanagement and Mastec's aggressive policy of asset stripping and knew they had good grounds to refuse their forced resignations and a claim to around $10 million in unpaid wages between them. Normally such cases might work their way through the courts, perhaps supported by a lobby group and a few noisy demonstrations: Sintel's ex-employees chose an altogether more direct and radical approach.

The action started in the middle of winter, when the disgruntled workers set up a ramshackle collection of tents and blue tarpaulin shelters outside the Ministry of Finance. The smell of breakfast and wood-burning stoves mingled with traffic fumes as the techies quickly made themselves at home on Castellana Boulevard. Putting their redundant skills to good use they improvised along with the best of sorted squatters to set up their village with all mod cons: Using the boulevard's underground road-sensing equipment and overhead cables they pirated leccy; water was blagged from underground pipes and they connected up to public sewerage pipes for their waste.

As the months went by their dwellings became more permanent, as they got more cosy bringing in televisions, washing machines and the rest. By late spring the improvised and self-sufficient community became a settlement stretching a kilometre long of nearly 1,800 people, with a meeting hall, library, museum and three small swimming pools (sounds like luxury) - and even a barbershop!

Although the squatters had taken limited defensive precautions against forced eviction - collecting rocks and other missiles in shopping trolleys - an attack from the city's police force never came. The camp enjoyed active support from some local companies, workers and churches who supplied the community with food, building materials and moral support. Real Madrid football club gave away hundreds of free tickets to their home matches. Even the nation's media seemed to take a largely favourable view of the Sintel workers' defiance.

By March, there was the first news of real progress: anti-corruption prosecutors opened a case against six of Sintel's senior managers and board members, with charges of driving the company into punishable insolvency. At the same time Rodrigo Rato, the finance minister who walked past the camp every day on his way to work, set out to broker a deal: the workers could receive the money due to them and be given the choice to take early retirement or new employment with the firm's old owner, Telefonica.

As the issue climbed its way up the national agenda, Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar became personally involved. In August, the government offered to finance early retirement for some of the workers and to find jobs for most of the others. Aznar also promised that the government would guarantee a 2.5 billion peseta loan, which would cover the 11 months of unpaid salary due to the ex-Sintel employees. Payment would come from liquidation of the company's remaining assets in bankruptcy proceedings (though it was an earlier bid to avoid bankruptcy which precipitated the lay-offs in the first place). With this deal struck the workers claimed a victory, and packed up the camp disconnecting the illegal electric and water connections.

Residents said they would miss the technicians. "At first we were outraged that they had been allowed to camp here, but then we heard how they had been sold out and we began to see them in a different light," an elderly lady walking her dog said.

As they packed up and prepared to head back to homes in 35 different provinces, the campers were digesting the lessons of their protest. "One thing is sure, and that is we are all better people now than [when] we arrived here," Aniceto Diaz said. "There were times when we thought we were not going to achieve anything. No back pay, no jobs and no future."' Mr Diaz added. Some were not quite sure how they would re-adapt to normal family life. Some could not wait saying "Now I am just going to devote my time to the wife and kids."

The Sintel saga demonstrates the power of imaginative self-sufficiency, resourcefulness, determination - and of course solidarity.