Spanish workers stage strike


Spanish unions said a high turnout for a general strike to protest government budget cuts and reforms today had almost brought heavy industry to a halt while the government said the day was proceeding normally.

Spanish workers slowed public transport to a crawl and disrupted factories today in a protest over Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's sweeping reforms a day before a new round of budget cuts.

Police barricaded parliament and other public buildings, and arrested 58 people, many of whom were trying to stop workers crossing picket lines to get to their jobs. A handful of scuffles broke out, flights were grounded and groups of union members waving red flags gathered in Madrid.

Spaniards have been tolerant of Mr Rajoy's efforts to reform the labour market and meet strict Europe-imposed deficit goals to make sure it does not face a Greek-style debt crisis, and in many neighbourhoods it was business as usual.

But the strike, the first since September 2010, shows patience with the three-month-old government may be running out."This is the largest cut of [workers'] rights since anyone can remember. There has to be a better way to get out of this crisis," UGT union member Marta Lois, 40, said on Madrid's main street Gran Via.

Unions said there was 85 percent turnout for the general strike while the centre-right government said the work day was proceeding normally.Workers at auto factories Volkswagen and Renault followed the strike during the nightshift, union

Comisiones Obreras said.

Data from national grid operator REE showed demand for power was about 20 percent below expected at 7.40am. Transport employees provided a previously agreed basic level of service, meaning one in four buses and about a third of underground and local trains were expected to run but only 10

per cent of domestic flights and 20 per cent of European flights.

Police presence was particularly heavy around parliament where lawmakers were due to debate measures to help heavily indebted local and regional governments pay money owed to suppliers.

Spain is now tipping into its second recession since the end of 2009 and some observers expect at least another million people to join already swollen unemployment lines. The jobless rate is the highest in the European Union at 23 per cent, and almost half of under 25-year-olds are out of work.

Interior ministry spokeswoman Cristina Diaz said most morning commuters were turning up for work as normal.

"Calm and attendance have been the day's common denominator since six o'clock in the morning," she told journalists.

Aer Lingus has had to cancel its Belfast and Cork to Malaga services but the airline said it plans to operate the vast majority of other scheduled flights.

Ryanair cancelled scores of internal and international flights to Spain but services to and from Ireland remain unaffected.

Spain's last general strike in September 2010, had limited impact beyond disruptions in transport and on factory production-lines as Spaniards resigned themselves to the then-Socialist government's austerity drive.

Left-leaning political website said this week the strike might help Mr Rajoy in his dealings with European leaders anxious to contain the continent's debt crisis.

"If we Spaniards accept this abuse with resignation, apathy and docility, the government won't have the will or the arguments to stand up to Brussels and Berlin," said.

Spanish unions called today's strike to protest a jobs reform that makes it cheaper for companies to fire people and dismantles the nationwide system of collective bargaining.

But union power has been slowly disintegrating, with fewer than a fifth of Spanish employees currently affiliated with the country's two biggest unions, Comisiones Obreras and UGT.

"Under the circumstances the unions have to do something, but they don't really think it will do any good," said Jose Ramon Pin, professor at business school IESE.

Economy minister Luis de Guindos dismissed unions' calls to change it. "Regardless of whether (the strike) is considered a success or failure, the government is not going to alter the reform one jot," he said.

The very fear of job loss may be a major deterrent for many workers.

"I've been waiting half an hour for the bus, but I have to go to work. I have a little girl and cannot stay away. The strike won't do anything to solve the crisis," said 35-year-old office worker Alma Callet at Madrid's Atocha station.

Former PP prime minister Jose Maria Aznar backed down on his labour reform plans in 2002 after a general strike that shut down a large part of the country.

And following Sunday's regional election result, which denied Mr Rajoy the absolute majority he had hoped would reinforce his mandate for spending cuts, the prime minister will have to measure his next steps to avoid sparking more protests.

He said on Tuesday his administration would pass a "very, very, austere budget" and this year's deficit reduction goal of 5.3 per cent of gross domestic product implies nominal cuts of at least €35 billion.

The strict budget is meant to keep borrowing costs down as well as working towards the EU deficit limits, but some economists say spending cuts will deepen the expected recession.