General strike in Spain sparks travel chaos, clashes

29th September 2010, Comments 0 comments

Pickets clashed with police, airlines cancelled flights and commuters battled transport chaos Wednesday as Spanish unions staged a general strike against tough labour reforms and spending cuts.

Some 20 people were injured, at least one of them seriously, in scuffles involving pickets and police outside factories around the country, leading to around 30 arrests, Spanish media said.

The government said three police officers were hurt in one incident with pickets outside a factory of the European aerospace group EADS in the Madrid suburb of Getafe.

In Madrid, frustrated commuters walked to work or waited at bus stops or at metro stations, garbage was left uncollected and thousands of union leaflets urging workers to stay at home littered the streets.

Newspaper kiosks were devoid of papers as the main dailies went on strike on Tuesday, a day early.

Hundreds of strikers also briefly blocked the capital's emblematic thoroughfare, the Gran Via, shouting "strike, strike."

Juan Jose Fernandez, 55, who was forced to walk to work in Madrid, said "the unions have lost all credibility. In a time of crisis, they have not taken any decisions."

Barcelona, Spain's second largest city, had the look of a quiet Sunday, with many shops, bars and cafes closed.

The city's taxi drivers' union said that 90 percent of its members were observing the stoppage, but reported some clashes between pickets and non-striking drivers at the airport.

Unions hailed the strike as a success.

"I think that there will be few people who doubt the reach of the strike," the head of the CCOO union, Ignacio Fernandez Toxo, told a news conference.

"People managed to overcome the fear of the pickets and any disproportionate action by the police in some places."

The strike would force the government to reverse its "suicidal" reforms, he added.

There was no official participation figure from the government. But Labour Minister Celestino Corbacho said some 20 percent of workers in the transport sector had taken part and more than 7.0 percent in central government offices.

Industrial electricity demand was down more than 25 percent during the morning, he added.

The UGT had earlier said "more than 70 percent" of workers observed the stoppage, including almost 100 percent in the steel industry.

The protest had been expected to draw a weak response, as the socialist government's labour reforms and belt-tightening measures are widely viewed as inevitable.

Unions called the general strike, the first since 2002, to protest a sweeping overhaul of the labour market aimed at slashing unemployment, which has soared to more than 20 percent.

They are fighting steep spending cuts, including an average state employee salary reduction of five percent, a pensions freeze and plans to gradually raise the retirement age to 67 from 65.

In addition to the strike, they have called about 100 street protests.

In Barcelona, rallies began in the early afternoon and strikers blocked traffic in the city centre.

The unions struck a deal last week with the government to ensure minimum services. The deal provides for a minimum of 20-40 percent of international flights and 10 percent within the Spanish peninsula.

It will allow 20 percent of high speed trains and 25 percent of district trains. But no regional or long-distance trains are guaranteed.

Corbacho said minimum services were operating at "98 percent" but there was a "strong disparity among cities, regions and sectors."

The government has vowed there will be no reversal of the labour reforms, which make it easier to hire and fire workers and which received final approval from parliament on September 9.

Spain slumped into recession in late 2008 as the global meltdown accelerated the collapse of its once-booming property sector. It only emerged in the first quarter of this year with tepid growth of 0.1 percent.

© 2010 AFP

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