Spain: Air Control Under Martial Law By Popular Demand

What a long weekend it’s been in Spain! A bona-fide 5-day weekend extravaganza with holidays on Monday and Wednesday, locally known as el puente de la Purísima (the puente or bridge being the silent Tuesday). Hundreds of thousands of short trips are planned months in advance by Spanish families to enjoy this traditional pre-winter break with family and friends.

But this year something went horribly wrong. At 5PM on Friday December 3rd, when the first wave of travellers were getting a head start on the exodus, the air traffic controllers in the airport of Barajas Madrid started walking out of their jobs, followed by the ones in El Prat Barcelona and the rest of national airports. In half an hour, the entire Spanish airspace was closed down, and tens of thousands of passengers trapped, many of them en route to other destinations. Needless to say, joy and happiness were not the predominant vibes for the estimated 250 thousand passengers grounded in Spain and worldwide.

This “covert” strike was just another round in the ongoing joust between the controller unions and the government regarding the benefits and salaries of the controller collective. The controllers have fought tooth and nail as the government tries to break the union monopoly por las buenas o por las malas, by any means necessary.

In the end, it seems the government has been sly and cunning and the controllers greedy and stupid. There are reasons to suspect the government hoped to provoke the walkout at this particular time in order to completely bury the image and PR efforts of the controllers. For example, the very day before the strike, new legislation was approved to limit the number of working hours for controllers by law, unilaterally imposing this key negotiation issue. Infuriated, the controllers could think of nothing better to do than walk out on their jobs and straight into the trap. Because the government was one step ahead and had its master play ready to gain a decisive victory in the ongoing struggle.

The figure of US president Ronald Reagan and his firm stance in the 1981 controller strike has been cited profusely in the Spanish media during these days. However, due to labor laws, in modern Spain a 48-hours-or-you’re-fired ultimatum could not be enforced without some sort of an emergency situation to justify waiving these rights. Amidst the chaos, drama, indignation and despair caused by the controller walkout, brought home by 24-hour TV coverage, the government found its emergency and played its hand: “State of Alarm” and air control under martial law. This decree was passed at 9PM on Saturday, given the thumbs-up from the King as head of the Spanish state, and implemented at once by sending soldiers to the hotel where the controllers were gathered. The soldiers weren’t there to round anyone up, but rather to serve notice of the new situation, and inform the controllers that anyone missing from their next turn would be arrested for sedition under the military code.

The government declares the alarm and breaks the controllers

This was the master play, the ultimate gambit. The stakes had suddenly gone ballistic, and the controllers never saw it coming. Now it wasn’t about maybe losing their job for a while, it was about military prison for 3 to 8 years. Any remaining notion that the walkout had been a good idea fizzled like a wet firecracker, and soon thereafter they were seen filing to the control towers, heads hung, some even crying, as the overall public opinion cheered and made unflattering comments about their mothers.

Now, almost a week since the walkout, the dust is still settling, and there are many loose ends still flapping in the wind. The airport situation is normalized, but the state of alarm will be in effect for another 10 (extendable) days, 400 controllers have been summoned to declare in court (update: they have refused to declare, cleverly arguing that as militarized assets they cannot be judged in civilian court), and thousands of POed passengers are coming together for a class action lawsuit against the controllers and their personal assets. Meanwhile, air force coronels politely stroll through the control towers to ensure the controllers don’t get seditious and shit.

A perro flaco todo son pulgas: it’s all fleas to the skinny dog. The ride is starting to get bumpy in Spain, and we’re probably going to be living through more similar situations, or worse. If any positive reading can be made of the situation it is 1) the fact that the airports weren’t razed by suitcase-bearing mobs and 2) the fact that Spain has reached a point of democratic maturity that allows for the armed forces to take over civilian responsibilities without folks freaking out and heading to the borders.

Actually, that last reading is probably NOT positive, but it is a fact. As long as the exception doesn’t become the rule, Spaniards in general will sleep better knowing that they will not be randomly taken hostage by the controllers next time they have to travel. All we can hope is that this isn’t what it’s going to take to keep this country going. Been there, done that. Better to let the whole shithouse go up in flames than go back to that… or are we going to have to draw the lines in blood again?

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