Wednesday, May 18

Hidden lessons of the transport conflict

Buried by an avalanche of apocalyptic news about the effects of the transport strike and angered by the scarcity of analyzes -some of them exist- that explain the root causes of the conflict, I was fortunate to come across the latest book by Daniel Innerarity, “the society of ignorance”.

I was pleased to read that “mass information and communication inform without guidance” or “excess information distracts from what is important.” It helped me understand what happens to me – I think many other people too. I do not feel informed and I am disoriented among so much information -to call it in some way- that distracts me from what is important.

When I was about to rant about the lack of professionalism of journalists -so in general- I came across another interesting reflection of Innerarity: “It is not a problem of evil misinformers, but above all of confused seekers of information”. So I chose to investigate and look for information that would help me understand the conflict. What comes next is what I seem to see.

In the first place, I detect that carriers and other economic sectors demand that the State subsidize, with public resources, part of the cost of providing services between private companies; I insist, subsidize commercial traffic between private companies. Which is at least surprising in a society that has given the market beatific attributes, almost miraculous, in the perfect organization of economic relations.

It is argued that this is an exceptional situation caused by the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, but the truth is that the same thing happened with the pandemic and before with the rescue of the financial sector in the great recession. The idea that the State has the obligation to come to the rescue of the market every time it does not work or generates damage has been normalized.

Nothing to object if that means reviewing in depth some of the dogmas of faith, prevailing in politics and sectors of the academy. Namely, that “the State, the smaller the better”, “politics should not meddle in the market” or “where the money is best is in people’s pockets”.

Either one or the other, but what seems unsustainable is the perverse logic of privatizing profits and socializing losses. Although it seems that the fiscal populism of demanding the least tax effort and at the same time the greatest protection from the State has permeated broad sectors of the citizenry and published opinion.

Perhaps this is what explains, at least in part, why two thirds (2,006,000 with data from 2019) of people affiliated with the self-employed regime declare tax income that is below the minimum wage or that a good part of the employers recognize lower income than that of their employees.

Transport self-employed are not in a position, they say, to work with rates that reflect the real costs of the service they provide. This despite the fact that Decree Law 3/2022, the result of a recent agreement with the carriers, includes its main claim. Authorizes and obliges to review the agreed rates when the price of fuel experiences a variation equal to or greater than 5%. An increase in the rates that will take effect automatically in the case of continuous transport contracts, that is, the majority.

The self-employed complain that this law is not enforced and I have no doubt that their complaint is true, but if so, we should ask ourselves about the root causes of this nonsense.

Spain suffers from a perverse and unsustainable logistics system, which is manifested especially in two data. We are one of the developed countries that transports less merchandise by rail and we are one of the countries with a more fragmented transport business structure. This is not a biblical curse but business and political choices made decades ago. The result is an inefficient logistics model, which reduces business costs at the expense of externalizing economic, social and environmental risks to society.

The abandonment of the railway for freight transport has common causes to the deterioration of public passenger transport. For years there was a commitment to invest in highways and high-speed lines because it was the most profitable for large infrastructure companies. All this with the collaboration of a political power – also regional and local – co-opted by concessional capitalism. And, unfortunately, with the connivance of a good part of the citizenry.

The fragmented business structure also has deep roots dating back to at least the 1990s. In the midst of the ecstasy of neoliberal ideology, by imposing competitive models based exclusively on reducing labor costs, the transport sector opted to reduce rates by outsourcing the activity of large companies to small ones and from these to self-employed workers. .

For years the trade union and legal struggle succeeded in hindering this cost externalization strategy. Even the Supreme Court came to dictate a sentence by which it considered the false autonomous transport workers as salaried workers. Does that sound like something to you?

Faced with this judicial defeat, the companies in the sector contracted until they were approved in 1994, with the last government of Felipe González, a harsh reform of the Workers’ Statute. One of its disastrous consequences was to de-employ carriers’ relationship with their companies and establish the presumption that these workers were self-employed and not salaried employees. This was the turning point that has led us to the catastrophe. Which, by the way, had a general strike of the confederal unionism against it, but at the same time with a lot of political support and from sectors of the neoliberal academy. Although it may seem politically incorrect to recall it at this time, it also had a lot of collusion from sectors of the autonomous transporters, who only saw supposed short-term benefits.

The abandonment of the railway for the transport of goods and the commitment to a business model based on the self-exploitation of the autonomous carrier explain many of the things that are happening to us. The increase in fuel prices, as a result of the conflict in Ukraine, has been the trigger for this conflict, but it is not the cause.

An autonomous transporter explained it with absolute clarity before the television cameras: “Our problem is not the clients, who pay, who does not pay is the one who hires us.” In other words, the large transport company that acts as an intermediary between the self-employed and the final customer. This conflict within the sector, which the minister of the branch seems not to have understood, explains in part -in addition to other darker interests- the problem of dialogue in the negotiations.

Without addressing the underlying problem, the transport sector will continue to be a volcano, we don’t know when it will stop erupting or when it will explode again, but we know it will. The agreements reached are good news, because there was an urgent need to defuse a conflict that threatened to collapse all economic activity, but they are not by far the solution, they are only an attempt at an emergency exit that has serious collateral effects in the short and medium term.

From the outset, it makes the essential income pact that requires public resources distributed in a rational and equitable manner even more difficult. If the Government does not take the political initiative and only acts dragged by the tsunamis of social conflicts, the result is going to be a very unfair distribution of the costs of the crisis and an inequitable distribution of the public resources that are destined to alleviate it.

In the medium and long term, this agreement consolidates the most perverse elements of this unsustainable logistics system. By subsidizing part of the real cost of transport between private companies, the perverse logic of a system built on the externalization of costs from large central companies to peripheral ones and the self-employed is fed. And of all against the environment. At the same time, the conception of the State as the financier of this inefficient competitive strategy is paid for.

Unfortunately, this outsourcing strategy is not exclusive to transport, but has become widespread in many sectors. The euphemistically called self-entrepreneurs – in fact, they are self-exploiters of themselves – are the centerpiece of the competitive gear of reducing labor costs by the central companies that control products and markets. This logic is unsustainable and is blowing up, with serious economic and social consequences. Also political, because they are groups that are very susceptible to being seduced by the discourse of an extreme right that, while defending and promoting policies of social precariousness, presents itself as the savior of its victims.

In addition, to the extent that public resources are used to finance part of the cost of fuel – in a country that has the lowest hydrocarbon tax on diesel in the EU – the message sent to society as a whole goes against the objective that we all say we share, that of limiting the consumption of fossil fuels.

I am aware that at times like this you have to get out of the huge mess as it may be, but let’s at least try not to delude ourselves too much. The measures adopted at this time go in the opposite direction to what we would need to adopt in structural terms. I fear that this could be repeated in many more areas. The success or failure of the energy transition depends largely on identifying the costs of this transition and compensating for its effects on the most vulnerable groups, to prevent it from being blocked or from having unwanted effects. We all say we agree with the transition. Of course, provided that it does not affect us. The fashionable slogan seems to be “I say yes to everything, but I add no like that, not even to me”.

Square this devilish puzzle is the enormous task of politics, in its broadest sense. It would help a little if the media didn’t bury us in “news” and offer us a little more information. Some already do, but they are the least.