Leaving Lockdown, Entering Recession: Strike in Spain Shows Workers’ Fears

BARCELONA, Spain — This week’s reopening of Nissan’s main assembly plant in Spain was meant to be a moment of celebration for an industry that is a pillar of the Spanish economy.

It proved very short-lived. The car factory was forced to close on Wednesday — just over two days after restarting — because of a strike called by labor unions to demand that the Japanese company commit to maintaining its presence in Spain.

In a country that has been under lockdown since mid-March, the strike is the most visible labor conflict in Spain. Despite social-distancing rules, the authorities allowed up to 10 workers at a time to picket outside a Nissan plant on the outskirts of Barcelona.

The Nissan strike “can be seen as an example of things to come,” said Anna Ginès, the director of the Institute for Labor Studies at Esade, a Spanish university.

She said she expected more labor conflict, particularly as some companies sought to turn temporary furloughs and salary reductions into permanent cuts, “even before they are able to see exactly the coronavirus impact on their business.”

Nissan has about 4,000 employees in Spain, about three-quarters of whom work in the Barcelona area, mostly in its Zona Franca assembly plant, which makes the NV200 van and pickups. Labor unions, which are trying to pressure the company to protect jobs, decided to strike at a smaller Nissan facility in Montcada, outside Barcelona, that supplies doors and hoods to the Zona Franca plant.

Workers at the smaller shop went on strike on Monday, creating a bottleneck in Nissan’s supply chain that forced the Zona Franca assembly line to grind to a halt after its morning shift on Wednesday.

By avoiding a broader walkout, the unions ensured that Nissan itself would stop production, rather than having most workers forfeit their wages by going on strike.

Javier Hernández, the lead representative of the U.G.T., or General Workers’ Union, at the Zona Franca factory, said he had never seen a strike organized in that way, targeting a link in the supply chain rather than the main plant. He argued that it was an innovative way of adapting to a lockdown that has barred workers from holding mass street demonstrations.

ANFAC said it was expecting vehicle sales to plunge this year to levels last seen after the 2008 financial crisis, which forced Spain to negotiate a European banking bailout.

Nissan would not comment on “rumors and speculations about the future of the plants.” The company, which posted a quarterly loss of 26 billion yen, or about $244 million, in February, is set to unveil a new global operational plan on May 28.

Local lawmakers have recently pledged to fight for the autoworkers’ jobs. But Javier Adalid, a representative for the Comisiones Obreras union, argued that Spanish officials had limited influence over foreign carmakers.

“We have a huge industry that is controlled by outsiders,” Mr. Adalid said. “Executives in Tokyo will be more responsive to the pleas coming from within Japan rather than from here.”

As he stood on the picket line, Mr. Adalid, the union official, said he was ready to fight for a Nissan job he had held for 20 years. He wore a T-shirt with the slogan “Never forget” and illustrations of a cassette tape, a VHS video cartridge and a floppy disk.

The job uncertainties coming out of the lockdown “give me a sense of nostalgia,” he said. “We have certainly worked in better times.”

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