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Violence breaks out in Barcelona as general strike cripples Spain

Strike support cited at over 75 percent by unions

Organizers threaten “more street protests” if PM refuses to fine tune labor reform

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The Puerta del Sol Square in Madrid Thursday night during the general strike. AFP

Hundreds of thousands marched on the streets of Spanish cities late Thursday to protest Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s labor reform package and austerity measures as workers across the country wrapped up a 24-hour general strike that mainly crippled the nation’s manufacturing industry and transport networks.

While fights and scuffles broke out in some cities, seas of red placards carrying the emblems of the two biggest unions, the CCOO and UGT, which represent 75 percent of the nation’s workers, had filled the streets across Spain by early evening.

Barcelona saw the worst violence when police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at unruly protestors, who were trying to gather in Plaza Cataluyna. Some demonstrators threw rocks and burned debris on the streets surrounding the square, and vandalized several local bank branches. A group of youths with their faces covered looted one nearby store after breaking in. In Vitoria, two police officers were slightly injured after protestors also threw rocks and bottles at an anti-riot squad.

By press time, at least 60 people had been arrested across Spain.

With unemployment running at 23 percent, and massive cuts being made to social services, protestors say they believe that Rajoy’s Popular Party (PP) government must fine-tune his labor reform package.

Calling the strike “successful,” labor leaders held out an olive branch to Rajoy’s conservative government. At a joint press conference with his CCOO labor union counterpart, UGT leader Cándido Méndez called on the 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 heeded the call to down tools. They say that 97 percent of industry, transport and construction employees 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 and the eighth general work stoppage in Spain’s modern democracy. Auto plants and metal-working factories were virtually shut and only minimum services of around 30 percent were being observed on the public transport networks. 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 on Thursday morning.

In a statement, Spain’s largest business association, the CEOE, described support for the strike as “uneven.” It said the biggest impact was felt in the industrial sector, in the larger cities and particularly in the north of the country.

At press time in Madrid, police riot squads were standing in the city’s main Puerta del Sol square, where marchers were holding a huge rally. 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.

Various organizations connected with the 15-M youth protest movement expressed support for the strike on their websites, and urged people to join the demonstrations. 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 on Thursday as many workers and parents chose to use their cars instead of public transport, 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 reflected a 15-percent reduction in energy use throughout the day.

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 also went on strike.

According to the national airport operator, Aena, 3,424 flights were scheduled for Spain on Thursday, of which 1,675 were covered by the so-called minimum-service agreements. But 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 from their jobs. 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 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. 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.

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