At the behest of Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, Spain's congress last Thursday extended until Jan. 15 the "state of alarm" that has kept the Air Force in charge of the country's airspace ever since an air-traffic control strike paralyzed airports in early December. If that seems like an unusually militaristic step for a Socialist to take, chalk it up to hard times: the Zapatero government has learned that cracking down on air-traffic controllers is a good way to garner support.
The lesson began on Dec. 3, when the government declared that air-traffic controllers would each be responsible for working 1,670 hours a year rather than the 1,200 previously agreed upon. For the controllers, who had spent the past year in fractious contract negotiations with the publicly owned airport authority AENA, the imposed increase was the last demoralizing straw: a majority of the 420 or so who showed up for the 5 p.m. shift that evening stated that they were too mentally distressed to work and had the medical certificates to back them up. Within hours, air traffic through the country had ground to a halt, and AENA was forced to closed Spanish airspace.
"What [the air-traffic controllers] did was a crime," says Jesús Cruz Villalón, professor of labor law at the University of Sevilla. "They have the right to strike, but they have to do it legally, by notifying the proper institutions, and guaranteeing minimum services. And they didn't do that, because the government would have demanded a high level of minimal services that would have diluted the impact of the walkout."
The controllers have apologized for their actions, but assert that the government's decision made them feel cornered. "It was a mistake," says César Cabo, spokesperson for the Syndicated Union of Air Controllers (USCA) of the wildcat strike. "But it was a desperate cry from a collective that didn't see any alternative, that felt itself under attack."
The controllers' desperation was soon matched by that of some 650,000 passengers, as thousands of flights were disrupted just as a five-day holiday weekend was getting underway. As the strike neared its second day, Zapatero intervened, declaring a state of alarm for the first time in the history of modern Spanish democracy. That permitted the government to militarize the country's air towers, and oblige the controllers to return to work. "We had to take unprecedented measures to re-establish normalcy," said Development Minister José Blanco at the time. "Because [the strike] was an unacceptable attempt at blackmail that we've never seen before."
The prime minister's decision also made a government that has struggled to appear effective in the face of a dire economic situation look suddenly forceful. Despite the fact that 85% of the nation's air-traffic controllers have signed a statement promising not to strike if the state of alarm were lifted, last Thursday Blanco again took a hard line, scoffing, "To suggest that some signatures should determine the action of a government is to return to sabotage and blackmail."
And with public opinion on its side for the first time since the economy began its freefall, the government isn't stopping at extending the state of alarm. Recently, Spain's attorney general Cándido Conde-Pumpido brought charges against the controllers for sedition; if the court finds them guilty, they could be sentenced to up to eight years in prison. And the state is also investigating whether the controllers can be fired for their participation in the strike a tactic that Ronald Reagan adopted when U.S. controllers staged a massive strike in 1981.
Meanwhile, a group of affected passengers, which now numbers over 5,500, plans to file a civil suit before the end of the year demanding 10,000 euros per passenger in "moral damages." "One boy in the Canary Islands was supposed to fly to Madrid for heart surgery," says David Gómez, one of the lawyers at Cremades and Calvo-Sotelo, the firm that is representing the group (and which, not incidentally, also represented Spanish claimants against Bernie Madoff). "They had to cancel the operation. Shouldn't those who decided to abandon their posts have to compensate him?"
Union members suggest that, in fact, the government's unilateral decision to increase work hours was a trap, designed to direct the public's attention away from the country's financial woes and AENA's misguided policies. "They counted on us overreacting to cover up the problems with their own mismanagement," says Cabo. "And we fell into it."
Jesús Lehera, professor of labor law at Madrid's Complutense University, thinks there could be some truth to that. "The government may have acted illegally by breaching the collective agreement and increasing the number of [work] hours. But by doing what they did, the controllers have lost their legitimacy," he says. "And they've only strengthened the government's hand."