Spain battles travel chaos in general strike

29th September 2010, Comments 0 comments

Spaniards battled rush-hour travel chaos and pickets rallied outside factories as unions launched a 24-hour general strike Wednesday to protest tough government labour reforms and austerity measures.

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 country's main dailies went on strike on Tuesday, a day early.

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

"It's dreadful, there are supposed to be minimum services, but I've been waiting here half an hour," said health administrator Carmen Taro as she waited at a Madrid bus stop. "One person here waited an hour and just left on foot."

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

There were similar scenes in other major cities.

Barcelona, Spain's second largest city, had the look of a quiet Sunday, with 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 incidents between pickets and non-striking drivers at the airport.

At the city's main food market, one person was injured when a truck driver tried to drive through a picket line.

Spanish media reported around 15 people were injured, one of them seriously, in incidents involving pickets and police outside factories around the country.

One of the two main unions, the UGT, reported "more than 70 percent" of workers observed the stoppage, including almost 100 percent of steel workers.

But there was no official figure from the government.

"I don't want this (strike) but I respect it," Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero told parliament.

The information ministry reported a drop of 15.4 percent in electricity usage by major industries.

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.

A recent poll in the newspaper Publico said 55 percent of Spaniards thought the strike was justified, but only 18 percent planned to take part and 71 percent believed it would not force the government to change course.

Unions, fearing a poor turnout for the strike itself, have also called about 100 street demonstrations across the country throughout the day.

The unions called the general strike, the first since 2002, to protest a sweeping overhaul of the country's rigid labour market.

They are also 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.

Unions last week struck an unprecedented deal 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, including 30 percent for morning rush hour. But no regional or long-distance trains are guaranteed.

Labour Minister Celestino Corbacho told parliament the minimum services were operating at "97 percent" and the first hours of the strike had passed "without notable incidents."

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

Spain slumped into recession in late 2008 and only emerged in the first quarter of this year with tepid growth of 0.1 percent.

The recession has sent unemployment soaring to more than 20 percent, the highest rate in the eurozone.

© 2010 AFP

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