Unions demand government gesture or more protests will follow
Labor leaders open one-month window for talks on labor reform
Support for strike cited by unions at over 75 percent
Owing to what they consider to be a “successful” 24-hour general strike across Spain this Thursday, labor leaders have held out an olive branch to the conservative government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.
At a joint press conference with his CCOO labor union counterpart, UGT leader Cándido Méndez said the strike is proving a success with a "very broad" level of observance. Méndez called on the Popular Party (PP) government to sit down and negotiate changes to its labor reform, which is in place as a decree but has yet to become law in parliament.
The unions made clear that the government has just over one month, until May 1, to show flexibility on reforms that make it considerably easier and cheaper to fire workers, or face further street protests.
But the government responded immediately: “The reformist direction is unstoppable,” said Labor Minister Fátima Báñez, who added that “the law will not be changed” because it has already received the support of four different parties in Congress when the decree was first ratified.
"We know that Spain is at its limit, but it will go over the edge if these austerity policies are continued," Méndez added, warning the government to think carefully before approving its budget for 2012 in Friday's Cabinet meeting.
CCOO leader Ignacio Fernando Toxo said he hoped that the government would listen to the message of the strikers. "They didn't do so after the protests on March 9 and 11. They have forced a general strike. [...] What will not wash is using Brussels as an excuse."
The two leading unions claim that 77 percent of Spain’s workers have heeded the call to down tools. They say that 97 percent of industry, transport and construction employees have observed the strike, joined by 57 percent of public sector workers.
According to calculations by EL PAÍS, industry and transport have been the worst affected sectors in the nationwide strike, the first during the administration of Prime Minister Rajoy. Auto plants and metal-working factories are virtually shut and only minimum services of around 30 percent are being observed in public transportation. According to the unions, the country’s ports are also closed.
Commerce has been less directly affected, but some stores and newsstands in Madrid and Barcelona, among other cities, kept their shutters down this morning.
Spain’s largest business association, the CEOE, put out a statement in the morning describing support for the strike as “uneven.” It said the biggest impact is being felt in the industrial sector, in the larger cities and particularly in the north of the country.
The day of protest, set to culminate in marches against the labor reform in many cities, has so remained relatively peaceful. As of 8am this morning, 58 people had been arrested in isolated incidents. Nine people are reported to have suffered injuries, according to the Interior Ministry.
A court in Madrid on Wednesday overruled the central government’s delegate in Madrid, who had argued that the unions’ demonstration route should not be allowed to reach the capital’s emblematic central square, La Puerta del Sol.
Various organizations connected with the 15-M youth protest movement are expressing support for the strike on their websites, and urging people to join demonstrations later in the day. It is the first general strike since the popular protest movement was born in the build-up to regional elections last May.
The outskirts of Madrid saw massive traffic jams, as many workers and parents chose to use their cars instead of the public transportation system, despite the agreement between unions and the administration to guarantee a minimum service on buses and trains, including the Metro subway system.
In terms of objective data, figures from the REE national electricity grid operator suggest a reduction in activity during the morning and through midday. At 7.50am demand for power was 13.5 percent lower than would normally be expected. At 1pm it was 15.5 percent down.
The unions offered a figure of 85-percent support for the strike in air travel and 82 percent for road transportation services, affecting distribution to stores and other commercial premises. The unions put the observance figure in the postal service at 76 percent. UGT says that 91 percent of workers at the Renfe national train operator and the Adif rail network company are out on strike.
According to the national airport operator, Aena, 3,424 flights were scheduled for today in Spain, of which 1.675 are protected by minimum-service agreements. By late morning a total of 417 flights had been canceled.
Labor also said it had made a survey of large companies with over 200 employees, concluding that 91 percent had stayed away this morning. In the media, observance of a the strike was said to be at 65 percent, with a total blackout reported in some regional public TV stations such as Canal Sur, Canal 9, Telemadrid, TV-3 y and Asturian television.
As well as major distribution markets, which have also been affected by the drop in road transportation, El Corte Inglés department stores were picketed in several cities across Spain this morning. The store in Barcelona’s central Plaza Catalunya saw several entrances affected during a game of cat-and-mouse involving picketers, El Corte Inglés staff and the Mossos d’Esquadra regional police force.
In Bilbao El Corte Inglés opened an hour and a half late due to the action of picketers.