Spanish May Day rallies protest soaring unemployment
Tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Spain on Saturday in May Day rallies marked by anger over government austerity measures and a jobless rate which has soared to over 20 percent.
In Madrid, union leaders led a crowd estimated by police at 16,000 and by organisers at 60,000 in a march across the city centre in a festive atmosphere under warm spring sunshine.
A banner at the head of the march read, "For employment with the rights and guarantees of our pensions."
Rallies also took place in other cities, such as Barcelona, Valencia and Bilbao.
The Spanish economy, Europe's fifth largest, has been mired in its worst recession in decades since the global financial crisis hastened the collapse of its once-buoyant property sector at the end of 2008.
Official data released Friday showed that the crisis sent the jobless rate soaring to 20.05 percent in the first quarter, fuelling fears over the country's public finances which have rattled global financial markets.
The socialist government announced a 50-billion-euro (66.5-billion-dollar) austerity package this year as part of its drive to cut public deficit from 11.2 percent of gross domestic product in 2009 to the eurozone limit of 3.0 percent by 2013.
The plan includes cuts in government spending, a virtual freeze in the hiring of civil servants and tax rises.
It has also proposed raising the legal retirement age from 65 to 67 and wants to cut the cost of firing workers as part of efforts to revive the economy.
Unions leaders at Saturday's May Day march warned of industrial action if the government failed to curb its austerity measures.
"We don't know what imposing a restrictive budget for the year 2011 will mean," said UGT leader Candido Mendez. "If that means reducing the guarantees for unemployment benefits, we will have a major labour conflict."
The secretary general of the CCOO, Ignacio Fernandez Toxo, said the solution to the crisis "lies in boosting economic activity ... and fiscal reform."
He warned that the government's austerity plan will "only help provoke a major delay in the recovery from the crisis" and more unemployment.
Many banners at the march also called on the government to drop its plan to raise the retirement age.
Standard & Poor's ratings agency on Wednesday slapped Spain with a credit downgrade amid fears its recession could further weaken its public finances and see it embroiled in a debt crisis similar to that in Greece.
Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero Friday insisted that Spain remains "solvent" and pledged that the reforms aimed at slashing the public deficit would be "strictly respected".
He said although the latest jobless figures were "serious" they would begin to decline from April.
© 2010 AFP