Wednesday 30 June 2010

Madrid's Metro Goes On Strike

In the past couple of days I have witnessed great patience and great anger in Madrid. I have seen tired resignation and very vocal frustration.

On Monday employees of the Madrid Metro began what was meant to be a three day strike in protest against a cut in wages. All workers for government departments, both local and national, have had to take a five percent pay cut in the face of Spain’s severe debts. Despite an attempt by the unions of the “funcionarios” to organise demonstrations of protest, which were not well attended, and a day long strike which the vast majority of the civil servants ignored, government departments have continued more or less as normal.

But the staff of the Metro, despite working for what has to be the most subsidized public utility in Spain, do not consider themselves “funcionarios”. They claim that they are employees of a public company, but not a government department. Years ago they reached an agreement over pay and conditions which stated that in the event of a dispute they would continue to operate “servicios mínimo”, a much reduced service which would at least allow the citizens to get to their jobs. This agreement carried the weight of law.

On Monday, this was what happened, and despite grumbles on the platforms, people did get to work. But negotiations between the comunidad, who own Metro Madrid, and the unions broke down. So on Tuesday the workers refused to provide even the minimum service they are required by law to do.

According to comments on Facebook, tweets on twitter, TV and newspapers, Madrid “Colapso”. Well, not exactly. The people of Madrid are made of strong stuff. But when, at a stroke, the means of moving two million people a day disappears, confusion is bound to result.

Yesterday, luckily, I did not need to use the Metro, but I did have to take three buses. I stood at the stop and watched as two buses passed me by as they were already bursting at the seams. One, after failing to stop for passengers had to come to rest a few metres further on because the traffic lights were at red. Some of my fellow would-be travellers rushed to the bus and began pounding on the doors. But you cannot put a quart into a pint pot and the driver refused to open up.

As well as the bus service, which is excellent but subject to traffic delays, Madrid does had the Cercanías, a suburban network of trains that come right into the heart of the city. These were running as normal and today have been augmented, as have the buses. And I would imagine it’s been a profitable time for the taxi drivers.

If I remember correctly Madrid buses have seating for 33 and standing room for a further 66. That’s 99 people squeezed into one bus. There were scenes on last evening’s news that showed that figure was being exceeded in many cases, but I remember the large lady attempting to board a bus at the Plaza de Castilla which hadn’t a spare inch to spare hanging out of the door and expecting the driver to take her. The resulting argument was far too fast for my slow Spanish, but demonstrated that tempers were beginning to flare.

Not the least because the drivers of the Madrid Metro are reputed to be among the best paid in the city. One comment on Facebook yesterday was quite scathing that drivers on €40,000 a year were making life very difficult and creating lost wages for those paid hourly for workers who earned far less. Those of us who have to move about the city to do our jobs were experiencing journey times four times longer than normal, which led to cancelled meetings and lost earnings.

Of course the politicians are getting in on the act. The vice president of Spain, María Teresa Fernández de la Vega, has criticised Esperanza Aguire, the Presisdent of the Comunidad of Madrid, saying, “One has to know how to manage these conflicts”, when all Espe has done is to follow the government’s decree of introducing the five percent pay cut. Giving that these two women are on opposite sides of the political spectrum there is bound to be mud-slinging. The secretary general of the socialist party of Madrid, Tomás Gomez, hold Espe totally responsible, claiming she has been provoking this strike “for weeks”.

The mayor of the city, Alberto Ruiz Gallardón, has reminded the drivers of their “legal and moral obligation” to maintain minimum services. But then no one pays him much attention anyway. It seems this illegal strike will have no early solution.

There had an attempt yesterday. The police were called in to restore service on line 8, the line that runs from the airport to Nuevos Ministerios. The television showed lines of policemen patrolling the station and even one train leaving the platform. But no passengers were carried and they couldn’t find enough drivers. So the attempt was abandoned.

And I am not sure that would be a good thing. Our TV screens have been showing scenes of the rioting in Greece caused by confrontations between the police and the people. We do not want that here.

According to the latest reports this strike will be indefinite. Next weekend Madrid celebrates Gay Pride week. There will be tens of thousands of people on the streets and wanting to move about the city. At a meeting of the drivers this morning (Wednesday) they were asked to return to work over the weekend and resume their strike on Monday. For some of the drivers this was seen as a further opportunity to push their case and if the Gay Pride weekend was ruined, so be it!

However, it seems cooler heads have prevailed and from tomorrow the servicios mínimos will resume. I wonder if the fact that four members of a picket line were attacked by angry commuters this morning had anything to do with that.

Angry comments from both sides have been all over the internet. There are those who habitually complain about the metro, who claim the drivers have an easy job as much of the work is actually automatic. “All the drivers do is open and close the doors”, said one. Another, who points out that drivers can often be seen reading the newspaper as they supposedly control the train (something I have seen!), and that the employees at the ticket counters do the same and never want to serve their customers.

Meanwhile a driver points out that being stuck underground for eight hours a day is no picnic. That they have the stress of wondering if someone is about to throw themselves off the platform and the nuisance of idiots who pull the emergency stop because they are drunk. Often drivers are alone on the train. Some evenings there might be a guard with a dog on board, but a hundred and fifty metres of train is difficult to police. A ticket vendor complained that travellers have ten day to buy their monthly “abono”, a month’s season ticket, but 95% queue up to buy it on the last day and then complain about slow service.

According to some very quickly generated statistics, on Tuesday the EMT, the bus service, carried 2,092,000 passengers. A 45% increase over normal days. And taxi drivers claim to have had a 30% increase in business.

Meanwhile, Espe has stated she “admires” the people of Madrid for their forbearance.

Since 1976 the Madrid metro has had around twenty strikes, only two of them, in February ‘84 and January ’91 have the servicios mínimos been withdrawn from service.

Well, we are back to a 50% service tomorrow, Thursday, and hopefully it won’t be long before the “best metro in the world” is back to normal.

Reading all the comments has been good for my Spanish. Now I know that “Huelgo salvaje” mean wildcat strike. I learnt a few other words too that I could not repeat here. Although I did read one that used good old Anglo Saxon. I can only say that should the author of that comment repeats it here, she will be censored!!!!! But then, of all the days she chose to move house. What rotten timing.

I have my own thoughts. What do you think??


  1. I'm very angry with the employees of Metro,I remember them.."%&$"/&%¿?"

  2. Tu lo has dicho Richard, es ilegal dejar a la ciudad sin servicios mínimos. Para mi los sindicatos han perdido el norte (lost the North???) y el problema sigue sin resolverse...

  3. Hi there!
    Great blog!
    I've been talking to many people about the strike.
    Thankfully it now looks like it'll be off now until September...fingers crossed!
    It's really bad for those traveling back and forth to work and school, last week I saw a huge fight over taxis in Plaza España!
    Luckily for tourists, Madrid is also one of the most walkable cities in the world...once you're in the center you can really do everything.
    Awful for those of us who actually have to get things done, though!
    Does anyone know if it's definitely off until September?