Students and teachers in Madrid and around Spain participated in mass strikes and protests last week in a demonstration against a recent law that slashed government funding for public healthcare and education.
Protesters said they were demonstrating against the Ley Orgánica para la Mejora de la Calidad Educativa (“The Organic Law for the Improvement of Educational Quality”), also known as LOMCE or the “Wert law” after Spanish Education Minister José Ignacio Wert. The law was passed in May 2012 and will go into effect in 2014, and it is estimated to cut public funding towards education and healthcare by over 10,000 million euros.
Wert and representatives of the Spanish congress said at the time that the cuts were necessary in order to meet deficit targets set by the European Union. Opponents of LOMCE say that the law endangers the future of public education in Spain.
Protesters took to the streets on Thursday, Oct. 27, to voice their displeasure with the measures. The demonstrations began at 6 p.m. in Plaza Neptuno, just off the city’s center at Puerta del Sol. The demonstrations lasted for hours and wound through the streets, past the Museo de Bellas Artes and the Banco de España until culminating in front of the Ministry of Education building.
Protesters were enthusiastic throughout the march. Some carried megaphones or drums, others with flares, and many more just marched with signs. Protesters alternated between periods of unified chanting, quietness, and playful dancing.There was no clear estimate in Spanish media of the size of the turnout: Protesters said almost all teachers participated in strikes earlier Thursday, while government officials deemed the protests a failure.
In my personal opinion, I felt like there were tens of thousands of protesters out on Thursday evening. I’d estimate somewhere around 60,000 people were at the protests, with most participants being university students or grown adults. I was really amazed by the turnout at the demonstrations; there was even steady rain throughout the night, and it hardly affected the size of the crowd.
Strikes and protests, however, happen all the time in Spain, and in Madrid especially. Literally every day, you can witness some sort of protest against something in Puerta del Sol. Prior to the demonstrations, most Spaniards I talked to were skeptical that many people would participate in the education manifestación last week. Many Spaniards said because protests are so common here, they don’t even mean anything to the government officials anymore.
The street demonstration followed nearly a week of strikes by students and teachers alike against LOMCE. On Oct. 25 and 26, most secondary school and university students coordinated a strike and did not go to class (primary school students didn’t strike, as they likely wouldn’t be able to stay home alone). In talking with some fellow auxiliares at secondary schools, it seems that the strike was successful: On both Tuesday and Wednesday, so few secondary students showed up to school that there was no teaching that the auxiliares could do.
On Thursday morning, many teachers in primary and secondary schools coordinated a strike. At my primary school, I’d say about 80% of the teachers stayed away, which is pretty significant considering that striking meant giving up their pay. Even the teachers who did show up had told their students to stay at home, to make the strike appear stronger, and in my class there were only five students in attendance. I had some work to type up, but there was literally no work for the other auxiliares at my school to do other than to draw and play with the kids who were present that day. It was a pretty powerful demonstration.
I feel that Spaniards definitely have a right to take issue with the LOMCE law. The strikes and protests last week were geared solely in opposition to the education aspects of the law, not the healthcare parts. Some of the cuts to education include:
- Major increases in the number of students per classroom: from 25 to 30 pupils in primary school, from 30 to 36 in secondary school and from 35 to 42 in the Bacceaulaureate.
- Increase in the number of hours worked by teachers.
- Decrease in teachers’ pay and benefits, in most of the autonomous communities.
- Increase in university fees. Regional governments were allowed to raise public university tuition fees by up to 92 percent.
- Decrease of funding for supplies, e.g. cardboard paper, decorations, etc.
- Diversion of some funding from public primary schools to colegios concertados, which are privately-run primary schools that still have 80% of their funding paid for by the government.
- Prohibition to cover sick leave that lasts fewer than 15 days.
That last measure about sick leave was a very strange yet horrible measure that I got to see firsthand. At my school, one of the 3rd grade teachers is six months pregnant. She recently had some complications with her pregnancy, and she had to take some days off; it was day-by-day, so the school never knew in advance if she would show up for class. Anyway, she had been gone for about seven days when I started to work at the school.
But because of LOMCE, my school was prohibited from hiring a long-term substitute for her classes, which numbered about 60 students between two classes. Instead, whichever teacher happened to not be busy during any period, would be required to go watch over the 3rd grade class. This system was inane. The kids were having a different teacher not just every day, but every single class period! As a result, the kids were learning absolutely nothing, because there was little consistency in the lesson plans, and none of the teachers could get the students to behave well.
The LOMCE cuts are estimated to take away about €7,200 million from public health funding and about €3,700 million from public education.
Protestors I spoke to on Thursday were hopeful that the strikes and demonstrations would convince the Spanish government to repeal the LOMCE cuts. I interviewed one university student, who declined to provide his name, in Plaza Neptuno, and he said he is confident that because the demonstrations show the government that all Spaniards are in agreement against LOMCE, that there will have to be changes in the law.
However, strikes are extremely, extremely commonplace in Spain, to the point of being banal. My Italian roommate told me that the number of strikes and protests Spaniards make is ridiculous even to Italians. My bilingual coordinator at school said there were five teachers’ strikes last year, and she said she thinks they did have an effect on policy. Moreover, this week, there has been a big strike by the Cercanías regional train workers in the autonomous community of Madrid. They have been running trains at only about 75% of frequency for Monday, Tuesday, and Wedneday of the week during the morning rush hour. As the average commute time to work, more or less, for most Madrileños is one hour, thousands of people depend on the Cercanías trains to get to work on time every day.
Thursday is the beginning of a long weekend in Spain (Nov. 1 is All Saints’ Day), so the Cercanías workers decided they would make a really big impact by holding an even bigger strike that day. So, they will be running trains at 50% of normal frequency (or at least one can hope it’s that high), for all 24 hours of the day. And just to top things off, it’s also Halloween. My co-workers and I who love in the city were freaking out over the implications of the strike (“huelga” en español) today. Right now, we’re considering either splitting a €50 taxi to/from our school in Getafe each way (which would therefore eat up my entire day’s worth of pay), or transporting via the regular metro, which would take 2 hours each way, for Thursday.
What really got me, though, is that this Cercanías strike happens every single year! Apparently the Cercanías workers’ contract expires at the end of November, so this is how they negotiate their contract. And it’s just accepted as a normal part of the Spanish culture.
Many Spaniards I spoke with agreed that there are just too many strikes and protests in Spain. They said the protests never really achieve much, because they are so frequent, and that there would be more success if Spaniards could come together in one large protest against the entire system. That was the view shared with me by Jorge Arzuaga, a 25-year-old Spaniard from the Basque Country who was on the twelfth day of a hunger strike in Puerta del Sol when I spoke to him. Arzuaga said he was protesting vast corruption in the entire Spanish government, specifically the allegation that the government stole millions of euros from Spaniards’ bank accounts through the Bankía bank — an allegation that many Spaniards I spoke with accept as true. Here’s an excerpt of what Arzuaga said:
The strikes here are just a part of another world. But yet again, they’re not. We like to think that these kinds of regular strikes would never happen in America — but didn’t our federal government just shut down for 16 days?
I guess one of the main things I’m learning here is that yes, there are a lot of differences between Spain and the U.S., everything from normal meal times to the language to the manner of instruction. But more than anything, we are all just people, and we all just want the same things: Better lives for our children, strong education options, enough benefits for the taxes that we pay. Really, we are more alike than we are different.