Spanish workers stage general strike to protest austerity measures

By Daniel Woolls, AP
Wednesday, September 29, 2010

General strike starts in Spain against austerity

MADRID — Airlines canceled flights and picketers hurled eggs at buses and blocked trucks from delivering produce to wholesale markets as Spanish workers staged a general strike Wednesday to protest austerity measures imposed by a government struggling to slash its budget deficit and overcome recession.

The stoppage was the opening salvo of a day of protest expected to see tens of thousands of people converge on EU buildings in Brussels to protest belt-tightening measures that unions see as punishing workers for a crisis they consider to have been triggered by bankers and traders, many of whom had to be rescued by massive government intervention.

Transport stoppages were also scheduled in Greece, which had to be rescued by the euro-nations this spring to stave off bankruptcy and has also been forced to cut deep into workers’ allowances.

In Spain, the national flagship carrier Iberia said it expected to operate only 35 percent of its scheduled flights as some air traffic controllers and ground crews honored the strike call. Ryanair said it canceled all its domestic flights in Spain and most international flights to and from the country.

Buses were extremely scarce in Madrid, garbage went uncollected and even electricity consumption nationwide was down by nearly 10 percent early in the day. Eighty percent of Spain’s high-speed train trips were canceled, all mid-distance were scrapped and only 25 percent of commuter trains were running.

Picketers roamed the streets of downtown Madrid, trying to go into offices with pamphlets explaining to workers why they should not work. At midday, a group of about 100 strikers blocked Madrid’s Gran Via, a major commercial thoroughfare, and merchants shuttered their shops when picketers approached. Tourists took photographs of the unfolding drama.

Spain’s first general strike since 2002 marks a bitter split in the usually close relationship between unions and Spain’s Socialist government, which is struggling with a 20 percent jobless rate and a bloated deficit that has prompted market worries it might end up in the kind of dire straits that forced a massive bailout for Greece.

The stoppage was called to protest austerity measures that include wage cuts for civil servants, a freeze on most retirement pensions and labor market reforms that make it easier and cheaper for companies to lay people off.

“This strike is more necessary than ever,” said one union representative, Roberto Tornamira, manning a picket line near Madrid’s elegant Plaza de Cibeles.

Striking workers braving a pre-dawn chill staged a sit-in outside a garage housing buses in the Spanish capital, screaming “scabs” at drivers trying to get out onto the road. Some strikers scuffled with police. Spanish National Radio reported 11 people injured nationwide.

“We are here to explain to our colleagues the reason for the strike and urge them to take part and not work,” said one striker, Mercedes Ramirez, amid a din of whistles and bullhorns.

Protesters prevented trucks from delivering fruit, vegetables, meat and fish to the main wholesale markets in Madrid, Barcelona and other major cities.

Labor Minister Celestino Corbacho said that in regions where unions had agreed to provide at least a minimum of services in areas such as public transport, those minimums were being honored almost 100 percent. The Madrid subway was running 75 percent of its trains, the region’s government said.

Several regional television stations halted broadcasts shortly after midnight as staffers honored the strike.

Newspapers were also affected, with Wednesday’s editions running fewer pages.

Not everybody agreed with the strike call. Laura de la Fuente, a 24-year-old travel agent, said she disagreed with unions “and what is more, the situation in Spain is so bad we cannot miss a day of work.” In Spain, workers who strike are automatically docked that day’s pay.

Associated Press correspondent Jorge Sainz in Madrid, contributed to this report.

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