Spanish workers stage general strike to protest austerity measures; protests across Europe

By Daniel Woolls, AP
Wednesday, September 29, 2010

General strike in Spain against austerity measures

MADRID — A general strike against Spain’s austerity measures saw tens of thousands of people take to the streets on Wednesday in protests that canceled flights, halted produce shipments and caused clashes between police and the public.

The stoppage was part of a day of demonstrations in several European countries to protest belt-tightening measures that unions see as punishing workers for a crisis they consider to have been triggered by bankers and traders.

Spain’s first general strike since 2002, which set off demonstrations in more than 80 cities and towns, was called to protest the austerity measures imposed by a Socialist government struggling to slash its budget deficit and overcome recession.

In one of the largest protests, tens of thousands of people marched 2 kilometers (1 mile) from Plaza Neptuno to the Puerta del Sol square in Madrid. A similar demonstration took place in on northeastern Barcelona.

“I’m here because the labor reforms take away our rights on a fake promise that this will solve the crisis. That’s absurd,” said Madrid social worker Begona Martinez.

“The government is favoring the business class. The banks are still making loads of money, and I’m 38 with a degree and can hardly make it to the end of the month,” she said.

As she spoke, hundreds of people joined hands outside Madrid’s stock exchange building chanting, “thieves, robbers, speculators.” Riot police stood guard nearby.

In Getafe, a town outside Madrid, a police officer fired shots into the air to disperse protesters outside a factory. In central Barcelona, students burned a police car and blocked streets with rubbish containers, prompting officers to fire rubber bullets.

Minor clashes between police and picketers were reported across the country, but there were few reports of injuries or arrests.

The government and unions gave widely differing views of the strike’s success.

At midday, the two main unions said the strike was being heeded by 70 percent of employees and was a clear signal to the government to retract the reforms.

But Labor Minister Celestino Corbacho said the “strike had an uneven following and a moderate effect.” He said it had wide support in industry, the automobile sector and in ports, but moderate backing in health, education, catering and the retail sector.

Spain’s national carrier Iberia said only 35 percent of its scheduled flights were operating. Ryanair said it canceled all its domestic flights and most international flights to and from Spain. The protest left Madrid’s Barajas airport all but deserted of passengers.

The strike caught some tourists off guard.

“I didn’t know anything about the strike,” said Japanese student Akiko Kudo, 29. “These are really turbulent times. I couldn’t understand why the streets were so littered and so many shops closed. We couldn’t get a drink and we were so thirsty with the heat.”

In Madrid, buses were extremely scarce, but the subway functioned almost as normal.

Eighty percent of Spain’s high-speed trains were canceled, all mid-distance ones were scrapped and only 25 percent of commuter trains were running.

Garbage went uncollected in many areas.

In the morning, picketers roamed the streets of downtown Madrid. 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.

The general strike marks a bitter split in the usually close relationship between unions and the government, which is struggling with a 20 percent jobless rate and a bloated deficit that has prompted market worries the country 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.

“The strike was not called to topple the government, but it’s up to the government if it wants to stay there,” said Ignacio Fernandez Toxo, head of the Workers Commissions union, who called for the measures to be scrapped. “If it doesn’t rectify, it is taking a suicidal path.”

The unions have not threatened further strikes, and the government has given no impression it intends backtracking.

But 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 and Ciaran Giles in Madrid, contributed to this report.

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