Spain braced for strike chaos, protests

MADRID (AFP) – Spain faced travel chaos and mass protests Wednesday in its first general strike in eight years amid anger over tough government measures aimed at slashing unemployment and reviving the economy.

But with the socialist government's labour reforms and belt-tightening measures viewed as inevitable, the walkout was expected to draw a weak response.

A member of UGT (General Union of Workers) checks flyers, placards and posters at UGT Headquarters in Madrid on the eve of a general strike. AFP

A poll published Friday in the newspaper Publico said some 55 percent of Spaniards thought the strike was justified, but only 18 percent planned to take part and 71 percent believed it would not force the government of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero to change course.

"It's certain that no one -- not even the organisers -- expect a massive turnout," said the centre-right daily El Mundo.

"The government holds the trump card in that citizens do not seem to be behind the strike," noted the centre-left daily El Pais.

The two main unions, the CCOO and UGT, called the strike to protest a sweeping overhaul of the country's rigid labour market.

Unions are also fighting steep spending cuts, including an average state employee salary reduction of five percent, a pensions freeze and plans to gradually raise the retirement age to 67 from 65.

It will be the country's first general strike since 2002 and the first since Zapatero took office in 2004.

The strike was expected to result in widespread disruption to transport services, although the unions last week struck an unprecedented deal with the government to ensure minimum services.

The deal provides for a minimum of 20-40 percent of international flights and 10 percent within the Spanish peninsula.

It will allow 20 percent of high speed trains and 25 percent of district trains, including 30 percent for morning rush hour. But no regional or long-distance trains are guaranteed.

National flag-carrier Iberia said it would operate 35 percent of its flights. Irish low-cost airline Ryanair said it has cancelled all its Spanish domestic flights and most of its international flights for the day.

Workers at some of the country's main dailies were on strike Tuesday, a day early, to ensure that newspapers appear the day after the protest. At El Pais, about one third of editorial employees stayed off work, a spokesman for the paper said.

Unions, fearing a poor turnout for the strike itself, have also called about 100 street demonstrations across the country. In the capital Madrid, a march is scheduled for Wednesday evening across the city centre.

"The success of the strike is not linked so much to participation but whether the result is visible," Ignacio Fernandez Toxo, the head of the CCOO union, told El Pais.

He slammed the government's labour reforms as "a backward step for basic workers' rights."

The government has vowed there would be no reversal of the labour reforms, which make it easier to hire and fire workers and which received final approval by parliament on September 9.

Spain slumped into recession in late 2008 as the global financial meltdown accelerated the collapse of Spain's once-booming property sector.

It only emerged in the first quarter of this year with tepid growth of 0.1 percent.

The recession has sent the country's unemployment rate soaring to more than 20 percent, the highest in the 16-nation eurozone.

The government on Friday approved a tough austerity budget for 2011 aimed at reassuring nervous markets over its ability to rein in the massive public deficit and fix the fragile economy.

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