May Day in Madrid: A firsthand account

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May Day 2012 in Madrid saw red union flags galore.

This is Part II of rabble's coverage of May Day in Spain. In Part IArchana Rampure explained the political context behind popular mobilizations of discontent such as the Indignados movement. Here, she reports on a May Day spent in a rally and march in Madrid, one of 80 actions across Spain. Union organizers report that this year's May Day protests were the largest in many years, with close to one million people taking part. 


Coming up into Cibeles square from the Madrid Metro stop of Banco de Espana, I am greeted by a sea of red flags. Most are UGT (Union General de Trabajadores), though there is a fair number of CCOO (Comisiones Obreras) ones in the mix too.

No one could mistake this for anything other than the big union organized event that it is. May Day in Madrid is like no other that I have been to. Although the march that we are on is massive, it is only one of four in the city.

Diego, a student from the art academy, assures us that there are probably as many people in our march as there are in the other ones combined. Apparently, some of the sectarianism of the Spanish left continues in the separate marches on May Day - the major unions and the anarcho-syndicalist unions all organize their own marches.

This is the march that everyone in Madrid knows about though. From street vendors to tourist kiosk guides to hipsters, we are told about the big manifestación that will go to Puerta del Sol, the symbolic heart and centre of Spain.

Budget cuts provide rallying point for May Day

This year, the Rajoy government's cuts provide the 'manifesters' with obvious rallying points: there are thousands of signs protesting particular cuts to education and healthcare. In between, there are homemade ones insisting, for instance, that to protest is not to be a terrorist, or calling for Spain to get out of the European Union. I think the most interesting signs are those that say an emphatic 'no' to 'neofrancoism' which is represented by scissors.

Given Spain's history - not just the civil war but the decades of fascism that followed and the unspoken pacto de olvido (the pact to forget) that allowed for a return to democracy following the death of Franco - it's hard not to be moved by old women and old men waving signs that repudiate neo-francoism.

Equally moving are the young people carrying flags from the short-lived Second Republic on the very streets that once formed the frontlines of the battle for Spain. But I am assured by madrileños on the march that many would like even the nominal monarchy that Spain now is to be abolished in favour of another Spanish Republic. Carmella, who works with migrant workers from North Africa and South America, hopes that it will soon be time for workers 'Spanish and foriegn, male and female, legal and without cards to come together to create another Republic, one that will survive.'

In the meantime, what strikes me as an outsider is how widespread is the support for this march. I am a veteran of many Labour Days in Canada, but I have yet to see the passion that is here.

More than that, it is amazing and invigorating to see how many of the people on the streets of Madrid today were here not because they are union members reluctantly doing their duty but because - as a physican carrying a sign about the right to protest said to me - "it is important to show the government that we support workers."

The doctor was there because of the increasing privatization of health care in Spain. No doubt the hundreds of thousands on the streets of Madrid this May Day, and the millions out on the streets across Spain, were there for their own particular reasons. But it seems clear that there is consensus that the Spanish government's focus on austerity for the public sector is wrong.

Fists pump the air as the Internacional ripples out over the crowd, and the hope for another, better world breaks through the rain that has not dampened the spirits or the voices of the people.

The routes for the May Day marches may have been different, and there might not be one meeting place for all the demonstrators out on the streets. But the one thing they have in common is their belief that it doesn't have to be this way.


Archana Rampure works as a researcher for the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

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