Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Strike That Failed

Sitting in class one day, we suddenly heard loud noise coming from outside. Banging on garbage cans, screaming, and air horns disrupted the entire university. The teachers had expected this, and my Spanish professor, Penelope, told us it was "una huelga." After trying to figure out what she was talking about, we eventually realized it was a strike held by the janitors and sanitation workers at the university.

Universidad Pablo de Olavide reminded many of the American students studying there like Bayside High from the TV show "Saved by the Bell". The halls were remarkably similar, the classes seemed like a bit of a joke, and the general atmosphere towards education was far from the expectations of American students. Now that there was a strike going on, it only added to the hilarity and absurdity at the university in Sevilla, Spain.

We soon found out that the janitors were striking because they wanted higher wages and, apparently, more job security. Though I wasn't a Spaniard and didn't know much about their wages or what they consider job security, I sympathized with them, understanding that if you're going to strike, there must be a good reason.

To many Spaniards, the right to strike is more important than the right to vote. Something that was once unimaginable under the dictatorship of Franco, it's now a symbol of standing up for yourself and taking action. One of my teachers told me that strikes happen quite often in Spain, and in general, the public favors with the strikers. Police will actually come to the strike to make sure that you can strike without being interfered with.

Every day, every class was disrupted by protest chants and demonstrations. It was aggravating while in class, and somewhat amusing to watch while outside. It seemed somewhat pointless also. They were constantly throwing trash on the ground and flipping garbage cans, tearing down posters, and blowing air horns. With no one to pick up the mess, the campus soon became a trash-filled dump.

The novelty of it wore off pretty quickly, and after a couple of weeks, replacement janitors were brought in by the university. Every time the new janitors picked up the trash, the old ones would throw it back on the ground. It was futile and sad to watch. As the days went on the trash continued to pile up, but the shouts weren't as loud or frequent, the air horns no longer blowing. By the end of the month, the strike was seemingly dead.

The original janitors simply faded into the background. There was never an announcement that it was over, and never any explanation about what happened. But one way or another, the strikers must have taken the hint that they were no longer welcome at the school. Out of a job, they returned home and probably began looking for another job, having accomplished nothing.

What was probably a minor headline in the local newspaper eventually faded into obscurity, and as the students left at the end of the year, the teachers no longer paying attention to the janitors, no one was left to find what became of the ousted cleaning crew. Much like will happen here in the U.S., what is front page, above the fold news one day, soon disappears into the backwash of American concern within weeks, days, or even hours now, what with online journalism pushing headlines out at rapid speed.

What's the point of this? I really don't know. I have to be honest there. But I was reminded of that strike recently for some reason, and how depressing it was walking back on that campus after the noise had died down. We'd grown accustomed to the trash and protesting, so that when it was quiet enough to hear the wind rustling in the trees, it seemed like a giant sigh of sadness, a failed attempt at better conditions. A strike can take place almost anywhere in the world, and most of the time you won't even know about it. But even if it's defeated, Pinkertons or not, the fact that it happened says something. That people won't just take it lying down. That there's still a flame burning somewhere. Tom Joad would be proud.

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