Spanish unions call general strike over labour market reform

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Spain's two main unions on Tuesday called a 24-hour general strike for September 29 to protest a government plan to overhaul the labour market and ease market fears over the fragile economy.

It will be the country's first general strike since 2002 and the first since the Socialist government of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, which has thus far maintained good relations with the unions, took power six years ago.

The UGT and CCOO unions, which together have around two million workers, are angered by moves to make it easier and cheaper to fire workers as well as by government spending cuts and plans to raise the legal retirement age.

"The UGT and the CCOO have decided ... to call a general strike for September 29," UGT secretary general Candido Mendez told a press conference.

He said the decision was taken after a "fruitless dialogue" with the government over labour reforms that "will harm the rights of workers" and "lead to a delay in the economic recovery and a delay in the necessary recovery in employment."

The general strike date coincides with a European "day of action" which will have as its focal point a protest at a meeting of European Union finance ministers scheduled the same day in Brussels.

Spanish workers last went on strike on June 8 when tens of thousands of nurses, teachers and other civil servants staged a one-day stoppage to protest cuts to their salaries as part of government austerity measures aimed at averting a Greek-style debt crisis.

The International Monetary Fund warned last month that Spain's economy needs "far-reaching and comprehensive reforms" of its rigid labour market and banking sector if it wants to solve its huge debt and deficit problems.

But talks between the government, unions and employers to reach consensus on a labour reform plan broke down last week after nearly two years of negotiations.

"It's a pity that labour negotiations ended without agreement. The only reforms that have worked in Spain ... are those that have come through agreement," Mendez warned.

The cabinet now is set to approve the reforms unilaterally on Wednesday.

But they must still be passed by parliament, where the government is seven seats short of a majority and where a 15-billion-euro (18.3-billion-dollar) austerity package scraped through by just one vote last month.

The reforms would facilitate the hiring and firing of workers, thus cutting an unemployment rate which has soared to more than 20 percent, the second highest in the EU after Latvia, and slashing government spending on jobless benefits.

Among the measures included in a draft released by the labour ministry is the creation of a government-sponsored fund for each worker that could be used by firms to pay a portion of an employee's severance in case of a dismissal.

Many economists blame the high jobless rate on the high cost of firing workers in Spain, which makes employers reluctant to hire staff and encourages the use of temporary contracts that have few benefits and rights.

But Spain's national employer association, the CEOE, has also charged the plan does not go far enough.

Zapatero has defended the labour reforms, which he said "maintain the rights of the workers and match the expectations of those workers who have precarious jobs."

Spain just emerged this year from its worst recession in decades, which began at the end of 2008 as the global financial meltdown compounded a crisis in the once-booming property market.

© 2010 AFP

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