Spanish parliament approves extension of state of alert

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The Spanish parliament approved Thursday an extension until January 15 of a state of alert put in place to end a wildcat strike by air traffic controllers that disrupted travel for hundreds of thousands of passengers.

The measure was passed with votes from lawmakers from the ruling Socialist Party as well as from the Catalan nationalist CiU party and the Basque nationalist PNV party. The main opposition Popular Party abstained.

The government decreed a 15-day state of alert on December 4, for the first time since democracy was restored after the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975.

The move allowed the army to take charge of air control towers and threaten striking workers with jail.

The controllers called in sick en masse on December 3, rapidly shutting down the nation's airspace at the start of one of Spain's busiest holiday weekends in a protest over working hours and benefits.

Air services returned to normal after the state of alert was declared and disciplinary procedures were opened against more than 400 controllers who took part in the wildcat strike.

Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's government said it was seeking an extension of the state of alert to ensure that travel was not disrupted over the Christmas holidays.

The government has accused air traffic controllers of defending "intolerable privileges".

According to the transport ministry, there are 2,300 air traffic controllers in Spain earning an average 200,000 euros (266,000 dollars) a year.

In February the government, under pressure to impose austerity measures in Spain's troubled economy, cut back controllers' overtime to a maximum 80 hours a year, slicing into pay packets that had bulged with overtime pay of two-to-three times the normal rate of 117 euros an hour.

Previously, controllers had earned an average of more than 300,000 euros, with 135 of them taking home more than 600,000 euros a year and 713 between 360,000 and 540,000 euros a year, ministry figures showed.

The controllers argue understaffing forces them to work more than the 1,200 hours a year they consider safe.

© 2010 AFP

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