AUSTERITY SPAIN

Public sector workers storm Madrid streets to protest government cutbacks

“Violent elements wanted to turn Madrid into Athens,” says Madrid government delegate

Civil servants protest the government’s new public sector cuts in front of Congress on Thursday. / LUIS SEVILLANO

The swingeing public sector cuts announced on Wednesday by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy precipitated a spontaneous outpouring of rage on the streets of Madrid less than 24 hours later.

Labor unions had called their members to arms for a mass protest on Thursday but many could not wait that long to make their displeasure keenly felt. “Cowards, cowards!” “Hands up, this is a robbery!” and “Rajoy, resign!” were some of the slogans chanted by hundreds of public sector workers who also stopped traffic on some of the capital’s main thoroughfares, including Génova street, where the Popular Party has its headquarters.

The traffic stoppages were brief but protestors promised more disruption against what they termed “bullying of employees in public service functions.”

Protests are scheduled to take place every day at 12pm and 6pm and the main labor unions have called for protests across Spain in July and August, with the first set for next week. Neither has a public sector strike been ruled out in September. Cándido Méndez and Ignacio Fernández Toxo, leaders of the UGT and CCOO unions respectively, promised the government “a hot autumn.”

Among the government’s announced cuts in the sector is the cancellation of the Christmas bonus payment and the reduction in the number of so-called personal days, which are additional to the annual holiday allowance.

Fifty percent of the people here earn 900 euros a month"

“It is the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said a protestor. A collective of public employees exchanged words — but no objects as had occurred in violent clashes the previous day outside the Industry Ministry — with Civil Guard officers who tried to disperse them from public throughways.

“Public employees are people just like everybody else,” said another.

The extra Christmas payment was in many cases already budgeted for: insurance, a new washing machine, dental work, college funds… The main gripe of the sector is that all the deficit-cutting zeal of the administration seems to fall squarely on their shoulders.

“Let them start cutting from the top down,” was a familiar refrain among protestors forming a blockade on the main north-south Castellana route through the capital.

A protestor who preferred not to be identified voiced a suspicion shared by many in the throng: the renunciation of the extra payment at management level, he said, is a “smokescreen to hide under-the-counter bonuses.”

The government is playing with fire with this new cutback plan”

“Thank God I don’t have kids,” noted María Constanza García. “We only have one thankfully,” said Merche, an employee of the Agriculture and Environment Ministry for the past 23 years. “Otherwise we’d have to beg at the entrance to the Metro.”

“Fifty percent of the people here earn 900 euros a month,” said Laura, an employee at the Merchant Marine department of the Public Works Ministry, who took to the streets in support of her colleagues. “This is a disaster for them.”

“Twenty years ago I earned 100,000 pesetas,” added another. “Now I earn 1,000 euros. They’ve already cut our wages drastically.”

“The prime minister’s measures can be summed up in one phrase,” Méndez told reporters. “Spain is on its knees and the decisions the government wants to set in motion will floor it completely.”

“The government is playing with fire with this new cutback plan,” added Toxo. “It constitutes an unprecedented attack against the rights of workers and also on the principles that made the Constitution possible.”

Francisco Carbonero, the leader of the CCOO in Andalusia, one of Spain’s poorest regions and a signatory to the growing rebellion at regional level against the government’s cuts, summed up grimly: “This will lead to meltdown and social disintegration.”

The central government delegate in Madrid, Cristina Cifuentes, on Thursday praised the security services for dousing the violent protests a day earlier and stressed that the majority of people detained had been “anti-system radicals, some of them with numerous previous arrests for crimes against property.” Of 18 detainees, only two were miners, Cifuentes added. The police carried out a “robust action against violent elements that wanted to turn Madrid into Athens.”

Responding to claims by the CCOO leader in Madrid that the PP had acted like “a provocative show-off,” Cifuentes asked the unions to be “a little more responsible at a moment of extreme delicacy for the country, not only from the point of view of public order but also because of the economic situation we are currently going through, a situation that union leaders have contributed to by supporting all of the policies of the previous Socialist government that have brought us to this point.”

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