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Gonzalo Fuentes was the president of the Málaga Palacio works council from 1977 until this year, when he retired. Salvador Salas
National trade unionist: 'Nobody is against tourism in Spain, on the contrary: I want my grandchildren to be able to continue living off it'
Interview

National trade unionist: 'Nobody is against tourism in Spain, on the contrary: I want my grandchildren to be able to continue living off it'

Gonzalo Fuentes belongs to the generation of young people from the inland villages of Malaga province who joined the staff of the hotels on the Costa del Sol during the tourist boom. He is now retiring and spoken out about what needs to change in today's tourism model

Nuria Triguero

Malaga

Wednesday, 10 July 2024, 21:45

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He arrived in Malaga at the age of 14 with a cardboard suitcase from Teba in the north of the proviince. Gonzalo Fuentes belongs to that generation of young people from the inland villages of Andalucia who joined the staff of the hotels on the coast during the tourist boom. He declares himself "proud to be a waiter" even though he has not picked up a tray for more than 30 years, since he focused on his trade union work. Fuentes has been everything in the hospitality and tourism branch of the CC OO union, from provincial secretary to state leader, a position he is now retiring from at the age of 66.

After more than 40 years of trade union struggle, what are your plans for this new stage?

First I have to finish retiring, they won't let me.... I'm already retired from the hotel and I want to leave my responsibilities in the trade union this month. I've been responsible for the hospitality and tourism branch in Madrid for ten years and there are a lot of leftovers, things to finish. After that? It's time to be with my family, because this dedication I have had to the union has been possible thanks to my partner, Lola, and my son. I really enjoy walking, reading. I will continue to be involved in the social movements in Malaga and, of course, in the union, but in the second line, to lend a hand in whatever they ask of me.

What memories come to mind when you walk through the door of Málaga Palacio? This is where he learnt his trade and began his trade union career.

I remember as if it were yesterday, 48.5 years ago. It feels like I'm walking through the door, having just turned 18. This was an icon of the hotel and catering business in Malaga. It was like doing a Master's degree. In those years there was one good thing, which was that we trained here. One day we learnt how to carve a chicken, another how to clean the glasses, another how to set a table. At the highest level, this was a five-star hotel and the service was spectacular. The problem was that we had no rights. That's why I became a trade unionist.

Do you remember your first battle?

One thing that really caught my attention and that I rebelled against was that the tip was distributed by points: the head waiter had five points and I, who was a busboy, had 1.75 points. So I was given much less money, when the tips were taken by the assistants and the waiters. The tip was essential because we were paid very little. So we young people rallied to get an equal distribution. Then there were the timetables: you knew what time you went in to work, but not when you would leave. There was only one day off. And as I was one of the last to arrive, they put me on Mondays. With the Workers' Statute of 1980 we got a day and a half. And in 1982 we called a strike at the hotel to demand two days. It was on the eve of the World Cup, Malaga was a sub-host city and the hotel was full of Scots. A comrade, Pedrín, who later became a famous painter, made a banner that went round the world: Naranjito dressed as a waiter, with two tears running down his face. We made it: we didn't manage to go on strike.

Generational change

Did you become class conscious here or did you already come from home?

I came from Teba, a left-wing town and from a humble family: my father worked in the fields and emigrated. I was no exception, my generation is the generation of the cardboard suitcase. In my village there were no men, my memory is of mothers crying at the station, saying goodbye to the young men. In Málaga Palacio there were people from the PC and they realised that I was moving, that I was fighting against injustice. I met Gloria Fernández, who was the first secretary general of the CP in Malaga, and I started to join. We started to move within the vertical union because the unions had not yet been legalised and the CC OO adopted a very intelligent strategy: to change things from within. In 1977 we already mounted a mobilisation against the agreement. There was a big assembly in Los Pinares, in Torremolinos, we were all very young, and we organised ourselves. We achieved three fundamental things: first, a linear wage increase; second, democratic trade union elections to change the union leaders we had in the vertical, who were all bosses; and third, a single company canteen and healthy and plentiful food.

The single canteen I guess was a symbolic victory?

There were two canteens in the hotel: one for chiefs and one for the Indians. I served the chiefs and I could see the difference. They had their tablecloths, their food was warm, everything was perfect. In our dining room the food was cold and it was slop. The same day that the agreement was published in the Official Gazette, while all the bosses were sitting down to eat, a colleague and I arrived and changed the little plaque that said "bosses canteen" for one that said "company canteen". Some of them got their food stuck in their gullet.

What is your assessment of the more than 40 years you have been involved in trade unionism? What progress are you most proud of?

Today the hospitality and catering agreement in Malaga is a decent agreement, but the labour reforms did us a lot of harm because before nobody could earn less than what the agreement said, but the 2012 reform introduced that the company agreement can be lower than the sectoral agreement. What did many companies do? Outsource services. In fact, the last strike that was called in Malaga, five years ago, was so that housekeepers would be paid the same as the hotel and catering agreement. And it was achieved. Malaga has been a pioneer in this. The struggle has been permanent and many things have been achieved. But obviously there is not the same compliance with the agreement in hotels as in bars. You can do a survey in the bars in Malaga: in most of them they give you a day off and the other day you get paid in B... or not. There is a lack of labour inspections and a lack of will on the part of the employers to enforce the agreement.

What challenges remain for those who will continue your work?

We are in an unprecedented tourism boom. Record numbers of tourists, record profits. Now is the time to invest: to invest in people, who need to be paid more; to invest in facilities and in occupational risk prevention. And the problem of workloads is yet to be solved, I still have a thorn in my side. With the pandemic we made a tremendous effort to save jobs and if before a chambermaid did 20 rooms, it was increased to 23 or 24 because it was an exceptional situation. But after that there was no return to what it was before and there has been a spectacular increase in workloads. This has led to unease among the staff, worse working conditions and worse service.

Touristification

Let's talk about the tourism model. Do we need to change the chip?

I don't want to boast about anything, but I have been saying it for a long time: this model is unsustainable. There is something that I have never understood about some businessmen and politicians, which is short-termism. We need to have longer-term vision. This pace cannot be maintained in a context of climate emergency and in which a part of society, of the people of Malaga, is being harmed. Measures are already being taken in other regions. In Malaga we have fought to have a port open to the city, to have an AVE high-speed train service, to have a Museum in the Aduana? We are proud of our city. But now it turns out that anyone who makes a constructive criticism is branded as tourism-phobic.

Did you go to the 29J (29 June) demonstration for the right to housing?

Of course I went. There were more than 20,000 people of all ages there, asking for a change of model. Housing so that people can live in their own city. Because I, with my salary as a waiter and with a lot of sacrifice, bought my flat in Eugenio Gross. Today that is impossible. And the rent is worse. We are turning into a city of papier-mâché. And there is no tourism-phobia here, I repeat: what there is is a desire to move towards a different, more sustainable model of tourism. Not only from an environmental point of view, but also from a social point of view: people have to earn more money. A waiter at the Malaga Palacio cannot earn 1,245 euros. This model does not bring the added value it has to bring to the city's economy.

Hoteliers complain that young people don't want to be waiters. Do you understand them?

Young people want what I didn't have: they want to live and work. I used to live to work. Now they want to have a continuous working day, to have at least one weekend a month to be able to enjoy their children, their partner or their friends. You have to keep people loyal so that this is not just a passing profession.

How to regain balance?

First, recognise the problem. And get down to the ground, listen, bring the parties together with political will and seek agreements. Nobody here is against tourism; on the contrary, what I want is for my grandchildren to be able to continue living from tourism. What we are defending is a long-term model that continues to generate employment and wealth. Anything else is bread for today and hunger for tomorrow. There should be a state pact in defence of a tourism model that does not explode. One thing I miss is the consensus with which tourism policy used to be decided in Andalucía.

"Many people would like unions not to exist, but if they did not exist, they would have to be invented"

Why do you think that a part of society has developed disaffection against trade unions? Has something been done wrong?

I myself am self-critical of the union. But there is a right-wing media and powers that be who are very keen to discredit trade unions, because many people would like them not to exist. My life would have been easier without being a trade unionist, but it has also given me more satisfaction. In 2012, during the general strike against the labour reform, more than 400 of us were prosecuted for participating in information pickets in Malaga. Lola Villalba and I were asked to serve three years and six months in prison. In the trial we were acquitted. I was also charged in the ERE case, without any evidence. The judge who replaced Alaya declared that I was an innocent person and that I had been treated like a criminal. That was part of the media campaign to discredit the trade unions. I understand that there is a generation that has been in crisis all its working life. They have a disaffection towards politics and trade unions and we have to come down to earth and be with young people and their problems. But if trade unions did not exist, they would have to be invented. And in Spain we have a very good model of trade unionism. When we negotiate the hotel and catering agreement, we do it not only for our members, but for the workers as a whole. And the union now has more members than ever and more delegates than ever.

Have you never considered going into politics?

They offered it to me.

When?

When Rafael Rodríguez was appointed minister of tourism of the Junta, in the coalition government of PSOE and IU. I was in charge of hospitality and catering for CC OO Andalucía and he called me to tell me that he could count on me. I said no, I thought it was a mistake as I was a prominent leader of the union.

What if they called you now?

No. I'm going to jump into all the puddles now. I'll be in the social movements: in the Platform against the Port Tower, for example. And in the trade union, for whatever they ask me to do.

'You don't learn how to negotiate from books'

How is your personal relationship with the employers' association? What's your relationship with the employers' association like? Does it rub off on you?

If someone is not capable, when a negotiation is over, no matter how hard it is, of going for a coffee, let them do something else. With Miguel Sánchez, for example, I have coincided for a long time when I was in charge of the hotel and catering trade for CCOO and he was in charge of the employers' association, first at Malaga and then at Andalucía level. And he and I have many anecdotes. I remember once, with a strike that was going to start on Sunday at 12am. The last meeting had ended without agreement. I hadn't slept, I got up and went to buy the newspapers. I was giving Miguel a bad name and he was giving me the same. There was a booth next door, I threw in a coin and called him, "Hey, did you come by, eh?". We arranged to meet up. We went to the Parador de Golf, we started talking, we saw that there could be an exit... The press got wind of it and 50 journalists gathered at the door. The photo was Miguel Sánchez jumping out of the window... Well, at 12.10am we were signing the agreement. When I was given the Andalucía Tourism Award in 2021, there were many people who wanted to give me the award. And Miguel Sánchez gave it to me.

Is negotiating learned or is it an innate quality?

You don't learn that in books or at university. You learn to negotiate with many hours at the tables, listening, to know what your people want, where the minimums are and what the point of equilibrium is. They are tough, tense meetings, because when you are defending the bread of 150,000 people and you have the last word, you don't sleep that night with the weight of responsibility. And I have never been 100% satisfied with any collective agreement.

Is that the worst of it?

No. In the end you get used to it. And it's the best thing, because if both parties are dissatisfied, it means that there has been a balanced agreement.

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