Spaniards strike over austerity measures

Cuts to help lower deficit to EU limits

MADRID Flag-waving Spanish workers livid over labor reforms they see as flagrantly pro-business blocked traffic Thursday, forming boisterous picket lines outside wholesale markets and bus garages, as part of a nationwide strike.

Unions claimed massive participation in the 24-hour stoppage protesting what they claim to be the latest dose of bitter medicine Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s conservative government has prescribed to appease European Union overseers and jittery investors watching Spain’s debt grow and its GDP shrink.

The unions demanded a “gesture” from the government to scale back the reforms, warning they could cause more unrest from May 1.

The government quickly said no, and downplayed the impact of the strike, which failed to bring the country to a standstill. “There is no stopping on the path to reform,” Labor Minister Fatima Banez said.

In fact, the government on Friday will serve up even more austerity pain with a 2012 budget to feature tens of billions of dollars in deficit-reduction measures.

The cuts are designed to help Spain lower its deficit to within EU limits and calm the international investors who determine the country’s borrowing costs in debt markets - and therefore have a lot of say in whether Spain will follow Greece, Ireland and Portugal in needing a bailout.

There were no reports of significant violence in Thursday’s demonstration. A total of 58 people were detained and nine were injured in scuffles as the strike got under way a minute after midnight, Interior Ministry official Cristina Diaz said.

Unions are challenging a conservative government not yet 100 days old, protesting changes to labor market rules long regarded as among Europe’s most rigid. Among other things, the changes make it cheaper and easier for companies to lay workers off and let them cut their wages unilaterally.

On the Gran Via, one of the Spanish capital’s main commercial strips, a group of about 500 whistle-blowing picketers marched slowly, blocking traffic for about an hour. Police and helmeted riot police watched from the sidelines.

As the group made its way down the boulevard, many merchants - such as jewelers and clothing retailers - pulled down their metal shutters or locked their front doors.

General Workers Union Secretary General Candido Mendez put average participation at midday at 77 percent but said that it was 97 percent in industry and construction. “This strike has been an unquestionable success,” said Mr. Mendez.

Some statistics, however, suggested the strike had not brought the country to a standstill.

Electricity consumption - a measure of industrial and commercial activity - was down by 17 percent at midmorning, according to the Interior Ministry. That is slightly less than during the last general strike in 2010, which was deemed as only partially successful.

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