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CONTROLLERS CRISIS

"You don't get it; you are being put under military control!"

The story of how Spain's striking tower workers bit off more than they could chew

It was never going to be the usual Friday Cabinet meeting. Some ministers arrived at the Moncloa prime-ministerial residence on December 3 well before the 10am coffee that usually kicks off the weekly event. Many had barely slept, dealing with Spain's ongoing efforts to convince the international money markets of its solvency. For the first time ever, a Spanish prime minister would not be attending the annual Ibero-American summit being held that weekend in Argentina. José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero was concerned that he might have to attend a meeting of EU leaders to deal with fears of contagion following the Irish bailout.

Instead, Zapatero found himself dealing with the impact of a wildcat strike by 2,400 air traffic controllers that closed the country's airspace for more than 24 hours. It would seem that the Cabinet was unprepared for the unequivocal response of the controllers to the decree it passed that afternoon extending their working hours. For a few hours there was paralysis, until Zapatero decided to call in the troops and declare a state of alert at the country's airports.

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The initial response from air force chief of staff, General José Jiménez Ruiz, was negative. He told the prime minister that he could not take control of the country's airports until a decree had been signed declaring a state of emergency. Solicitor General Joaquín de Fuentes Bardají supported Jiménez Ruiz's position.

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The Cabinet meeting over, the ministers slowly began leaving the Moncloa. They had just ratified a decree, still unannounced, clarifying new calculations reducing controllers' wages for working 1,670 hours a year from 350,000 eurosto 200,000 euros. They were aware that there would be repercussions, but it seems that despite the problems over wages and conditions that were already threatening the continued operation of the airport at Santiago de Compostela, and which looked likely to spread, neither Public Works Minister José Blanco, nor the Prime Minister, believed that the controllers would respond with such immediacy.

Meanwhile, the controllers union UCSA was meeting in a hotel close to Barajas in Madrid. While union delegates held a press conference soon after the decree was announced, around 5pm, some controllers were already walking off the job, claiming they were unwell. Over the next hour it became clear that there was a problem. AENA, the airports authority, and the Public Works Ministry soon realized that UCSA members had thrown down the gauntlet, and were prepared to shut down the country's airports on the eve of the year's longest holiday weekend. Blanco and Zapatero were in constant contact, along with Deputy Prime Minister Alfredo Rubalcaba and Defense Minister Carme Chacón. Zapatero called a crisis cabinet and wanted to know what the legal requirements were for calling a state of alert, the lower of three rungs of emergency situations included in the Constitution.

Blanco called a televised press conference for 7pm. He said the government would not be blackmailed by what he called a tiny minority prepared to disrupt the travel plans of hundreds of thousands of Spaniards. If necessary, he said, the military would be called in to run the airports.

The crisis cabinet met again, hoping that the controllers would back down. In the meantime, Rubalcaba was putting the finishing touches to the measures necessary for the military to be able to take over the airports, and which required the signature of the head of state, King Juan Carlos, who was attending the Ibero-American summit in Argentina. The controllers had been given until 9pm. If they still refused to back down, the government planned to have troops ready when the next shift at Barajas' control tower was due to start. This would be the first time since the country returned to democracy that the military would take over a sector of the economy.

In the run up to 9pm, as growing numbers of passengers unable to board their flights at Barajas and other airports throughout Spain began to despair, the crisis cabinet was trying to work out the legal ramifications of putting the country's airports under military control. Some ministers pointed out that as soon as the air force took over Spanish airspace, the controllers would be answerable to martial law. In other words, General José Jiménez and the officers assigned to control towers around the country could issue orders to civilians, telling them to get down to work, or face the consequences.

Or could they? It was in fact Jiménez who highlighted the nub of the problem. One thing is for the military to be part of an emergency command structure to manage the country's airspace, but quite another is for a member of the armed forces to issue orders to a civilian. General José Luis Poyato Ariza, the Defense Ministry's legal advisor, validated Jiménez's doubts, saying that another decree would have to passed for full militarization to be implemented, and which would mean that the air traffic controllers would then become de facto military personnel. The decree was prepared and passed by the Cabinet the following morning.

Meanwhile, as ministers got down to work on planning how to run the country's airports ahead of a planned televised press conference for 2am, the eight representatives of UCSA were called to the Public Works Ministry. They thought they were there to negotiate a solution to the walkout. Instead, they were informed of the government's decision by the secretary of state for defense.

"I am here to inform you of your situation. This no longer has anything to do with Public Works. This is now a matter for the Defense Ministry. And until all this is sorted out, there will be no negotiations. If by tomorrow morning this isn't sorted out, the Cabinet will have signed a decree declaring a state of alert, and it will not only be the country's airspace that is put under the control of the military, but all of you as well," Méndez told the surprised union leaders. Desperately playing for time, they replied that they did not fully understand what they were being told. They said that they wanted to negotiate the labor conditions that the government had imposed that afternoon at the Cabinet meeting.

At which point, the record shows that the Defense Secretary lost his temper. "You still haven't understood what is going on. Forget Public Works! You are now talking to the secretary of state for defense!" shouted Méndez. The gravity of the situation was further illustrated for the union representatives when the decree putting the airports under military command was read out to them, with its provisos for harsh punishment for those who fail to obey military orders, including prison, fines, and even seizure of goods and assets. At 4am, Blanco was still in his office. Rubalcaba and Chacón were in theirs. And by 7am, the next shift was due to take over at the country's air traffic control towers. At 9am, the ministers were back at Moncloa Palace for another Cabinet meeting. There was little left to talk about. The controllers were returning to their posts. By 4pm almost all were back at work, and the country's airports began to return to normal.

Madrid-Barajas control tower.
Madrid-Barajas control tower.AP

You're in the army now

Reports from Spain's air traffic control towers suggest that the military and the controllers under their command are getting along fine. "No problems at all... everybody has been very polite," say several controllers. The presence of the military also seems to have reduced absenteeism. Of the 268 controllers due to turn up to work at Barajas on Monday, only seven failed to do so, and they all had the right paperwork, says the Ministry of Defense.

In total, 190 senior air force officers are now running Spain's air space. Of those, 130 are operating from the country's 36 airports. There are a further 20 based at the six control centers that cover zones with more than one airport. And then there are 40 more working from the air force's coordination center. Most of the officers have more than 30 years experience in the service.

The Defense Ministry points out that the officers are not armed while in the control towers. Their working day begins at 7am, and their job is simple: to guarantee that the air traffic controllers do their job. They are not there to man the air traffic control equipment, although they can, and do, offer advice.

The Public Works Ministry asked the Defense Ministry in September if it could train a core group of 30 officers from the air force's 300 or so military controllers to handle the equipment at civilian airports. So far training has not begun.

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