Leaving Lockdown, Entering Recession: Strike in Spain Shows Workers’ Fears

BARCELONA, Spain — This week’s reopening of Nissan’s main assembly plant in Spain was meant to be a moment of celebration for an industry that is a pillar of the Spanish economy.

It proved very short-lived. The car factory was forced to close on Wednesday — just over two days after restarting — because of a strike called by labor unions to demand that the Japanese company commit to maintaining its presence in Spain.

In a country that has been under lockdown since mid-March, the strike is the most visible labor conflict in Spain. Despite social-distancing rules, the authorities allowed up to 10 workers at a time to picket outside a Nissan plant on the outskirts of Barcelona.

Labor unions in Europe have recently voiced concerns about the safety of employees who have been returning to work. But the strike at Nissan highlights what may be the next major concern of organized labor: protecting jobs in a post-pandemic economy.

The coronavirus has brought about a recession that is expected to be the worst ever in the European Union, one that will most likely push companies to close down struggling factories.Automakers in particular are believed to have excess capacity, as demand for new cars has slipped in recent years. About a fifth of carmaking capacity worldwide is not being used.

The Nissan strike “can be seen as an example of things to come,” said Anna Ginès, the director of the Institute for Labor Studies at Esade, a Spanish university.

She said that she expected more labor conflict, particularly as some companies sought to turn temporary furloughs and salary reductions into permanent cuts, “even before they are able to see exactly the coronavirus impact on their business.”

Nissan has about 4,000 employees in Spain, about three-quarters of whom work in the Barcelona area, mostly in its Zona Franca assembly plant, which makes the NV200 van and pickups. Labor unions, who are trying to pressure the company to protect jobs, decided to strike at a smaller Nissan facility in Montcada, outside Barcelona, that supplies doors and hoods to the Zona Franca plant.

Workers at the smaller shop went on strike on Monday, creating a bottleneck in Nissan’s supply chain that forced the Zona Franca assembly line to grind to a halt after its morning shift on Wednesday.

By avoiding a broader walkout, the unions ensured that Nissan itself would stop production, rather than having most workers forfeit their wages by going on strike.

Javier Hernández, the lead representative of the U.G.T., or General Workers’ Union, at the Zona Franca factory, said he had never seen a strike organized in that way, targeting a link in the supply chain rather than the main plant, but he argued that it was an innovative way of adapting to a lockdown that has barred workers from holding mass street demonstrations.

“I guess unique circumstances like this coronavirus require an unusual response,” he said.

Automakers around the world, like other industries, have been crushed by the lockdowns, which have shuttered factories as well as auto dealerships. The Spanish Automobile and Truck Manufacturers’ Association, known as ANFAC, called on the government to provide immediate relief to the car industry, which accounts for 10 percent of Spain’s economy. Without such help, “the automotive sector in Spain is seriously endangered,” José Vicente de los Mozos, the president of the association, said in a statement.

ANFAC said it was expecting vehicle sales to plunge this year to levels last seen after the 2008 financial crisis, which forced Spain to negotiate a European banking bailout.

After that bailout, the automotive sector was a critical part of an export-led economic recovery in Spain. Car factories benefited from falling labor costs compared to Germany and other European production centers, which helped convince Ford and some other carmakers to make fresh investments in Spain.

However, Nissan was not among them. Instead, the Japanese company has steadily reduced its footprint in Spain as it sank into a management crisis, including the 2018 ouster of its chairman, Carlos Ghosn. Nissan’s annual production in Spain fell to about 50,000 vehicles, from 200,000 a decade earlier.

Nissan would not comment on “rumors and speculations about the future of the plants.”

The company, which posted a quarterly loss of 26 billion yen, or about $244 million, in February, is set to unveil a new global operational plan on May 28.

Local lawmakers have recently pledged to fight for the autoworkers’ jobs. But Javier Adalid, a representative for the Comisiones Obreras union, argued that Spanish officials had limited influence over foreign carmakers.

“We have a huge industry that is controlled by outsiders,” Mr. Adalid said. “Executives in Tokyo will be more responsive to the pleas coming from within Japan rather than from here.”

Ford, PSA Peugeot Citroën, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen also have factories in Spain, some of which have performed strongly. Volkswagen recently reopened its main Spanish plant outside Barcelona, which makes vehicles under its subsidiary brand Seat, and last year lifted production there to the highest level in two decades.

The Nissan conflict comes at a time of fragility for Spanish labor unions, which have gradually lost membership. Their collective bargaining position was also reduced in the aftermath of the financial crisis, under a 2012 law that gave companies more leeway to fire workers. Ms. Ginès, the professor of labor law, said her research showed that Spanish unions were now among the weakest in Europe.

As he stood on the picket line, Mr. Adalid, the union official, said he was ready to fight for a Nissan job he had held for 20 years. He wore a T-shirt with the slogan “Never forget” and illustrations of a cassette tape, a VHS video cartridge and a floppy disk. The job uncertainties coming out of the lockdown “give me a sense of nostalgia,” he said. “We have certainly worked in better times.”

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