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9 August 2001 Edition

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Momentous victory for Spanish telecom strikers

Squatting workers won hearts and minds of Madrid


Spain's longest-running industrial dispute came to an end on Sunday night last, not with bread and roses but with champagne and fireworks. Striking telephone engineers, who had set up a massive shanty town in the heart of Madrid's financial district to protest the elimination of their jobs, winning the wholehearted support of ordinary Madrileños in the process, finally emerged victorious after six months of struggle.

Their story proves the cliché that fact is often stranger and far more interesting than fiction. A year ago, the telephone engineers, all employed by Sintel, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the privatised Spanish telecom giant Telefonica, learned that their company was no more. Sold by Telefonica to a US-based company run by Jorge Mascanosa, son of a famous Miami-based anti-Castro leader, Sintel was asset-stripped and collapsed. The workers were left high and dry, with nothing.

After months of fruitless efforts to secure justice, the telephone engineers resorted to desperate measures last December. They descended from all corners of Spain on the Financial Ministry in the heart of the capital's financial district, situated on Madrid's central boulevard, the Castellana, close to Real Madrid's stadium, the Bernabeu.

The strikers arrived with tents in the middle of winter but this was only the beginning. At the successful conclusion of their 11-month struggle, the last six of which were spent in Madrid, their camp stretched for a full kilometre. The engineers had constructed far superior temporary dwellings, had tapped into the city's water and electricity supplies and boasted toilets, showers and even three swimming pools.

Within a week or so of their arrival, the strikers had won the support of the vast majority of their new neighbours, who were moved by the injustice of their plight and impressed by their discipline and respect for the local populace and environment. The widespread support enjoyed by the strikers across the city prevented the authorities from moving against them. A local bakery was soon donating 1,000 loaves to the strikers every morning, local bars and restaurants allowed access to their facilities, local residents gave strikers their house keys when going on holiday in case anybody fell ill. In bars across the city, those wearing the Sintel uniform found themselves unable to pay for food or drink (a combination of the generosity of Madrileños and their not having been paid since the start of the dispute).

For the past three months, at the invitation of the Archbishop of Madrid, the men's wives and partners have been occupying the city's main cathedral. There were precedents of such protests last year when churches in Barcelona and Madrid were opened to asylum seekers protesting their inability to secure work and residence permits. Archbishop Connell take note.

The strikers were ignored by government until recently, their position not aided by the fact that the ruling Partido Popular also controls the city and regional governments. This ended when the leader of Madrid's Chamber of Commerce made a highly publicised and unpopular call for the strikers to be forcibly removed. Politicians were forced to intervene to resolve the dispute and on Sunday last, after a deal with the finance and social affairs ministries and a local savings bank, the strikers' were given assurances that they would receive 11 months' back pay. Many have been promised jobs elsewhere, others will be permitted to take early pensions and some hope to refloat the company. Six former directors of Sintel, meantime, have been ordered to deposit bail totalling £50 million while they are investigated by state corruption prosecutors, who say there are signs that they illegally asset-stripped the company.

The victory is reward for the determination and persistence of the strikers. They picketed the Finance ministry every day for the past six months. ``We are all much better people for this experience,'' one of the strikers commented afterwards. One of the strongest symbols of the solidarity that has been the heartwarming trademark of this dispute is the support offered the strikers by an 80-year-old Madrid resident. The elderly women participated in every demonstration with the telephone engineers, so moved was she by their plight. On Sunday night, as the champagne corks popped, one of the loudest and most passionate rounds of applause was reserved for the now famous Granny of Sintel.

Death Toll in Turkey reaches 30

The death of Muharrem Horoz (28), on Friday 3rd August, brought to 30 the number of hunger strikers who have died in Turkey on the ongoing death fast against the introduction of isolation prisons.

Muharrem Horoz, who had been fasting for 236 days at northwest Kandira prison,

died in Izmit hospital in northwestern Turkey.

Solidarity with Hunger Strikers held a vigil protest at the Turkish Embassy in Dublin to mark Muharrem's death on Tuesday 7 August.

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