Whether enjoyed as a glass of red after work or a copa of fino with friends, wine is a beautiful thing. But there is in every glass a drop of some grape-picker’s or bottler’s sweat running from their brow to your lips, and this salty note should be savoured as much as the wine itself, but some disagree on how much value it adds. Today, in Jerez de la Frontera, home of sherry wines, conflict ferments over bodega workers’ pay.
Workers of Jerez’s great wine houses have been on strike over the past several days, demanding a return to contractual normality after having survived through sacrifice the worst days of Spain’s economic crisis. Their principal demand is, specifically, the recuperation of a contractual article stipulating additional compensation for long-service workers. One worker told me he had been working on the warehouse floor for over forty years, and that while he wouldn’t been affected so much by the new regime his younger workmates, young fathers now, certainly will be when they’re old grandfathers, and that’s why he was picketing: solidarity.
Thanks to hard times in Spain and even harder times in Jerez, the long-service compensation rate was, consensually, frozen in previous bargaining rounds, but its recuperation was promised upon the recovery of profits. The workers say that management has reneged on this promise, and thus they have revoked their labour. Participation in the strike has been high, and even the hostile local newspaper cedes this point and reports that production has been paralysed. Administration and tourism continue to function, but the bottling machines are silent.
This conflict illustrates the paradox of labour conflict: conflict is at its peak not in times of decline, but in times of recovery. Organised labour, despite all the bad press, systematically sacrifices its returns in order to ensure the survival of a given firm through hard times. They do this in hope of one day restoring former remuneration and conditions, but should capital – tempted by a more lucrative budget structure and compelled by competition – renege on this agreement, conflict becomes inevitable.
In economies where the ‘rules of the game’ are well regulated, where stability allows for long-term and good-faith negotiations, where labour is strong and where markets are less cut-throat, these declines into outright class conflict are less common. The question is, how do you get there? But that question is academic: the more immediate one for workers and companies is ‘how do we survive?’. But for capital often the question is not so desperate as this, but rather it is more a question of ‘how do we thrive?’. The strike leaders asked me; ‘if the smaller producers can renew former wages and conditions, then why can’t the bigger ones?’. The answer lies in what question was asked: to survive or to thrive. In an ideal world both parties ought to thrive, but when decline, stagnation and pithy recuperation reign, the real world returns; a world of tension and conflict, of gambling and gaming, of negotiation and compromise.