Spain’s first general strike in eight years, called to oppose official spending cuts, disrupted transport and factories on Wednesday, a day before the government is due to take its tough budget to lawmakers.
The strike won more support from workers than a weak public sector walk-out in June, yet impact was limited as Spaniards resign themselves to austerity to trim a massive deficit even though unemployment is stubbornly high at 20 percent.
“The country is in a mess, and everyone’s personal finances too, so I think a strike just makes things worse,” said 35-year-old shop assistant Arancha Fernandez de Cordoba, who went to work despite the strike.
Wednesday’s work stoppage — called by Spain’s two big unions the UGT and CCOO — coincided with labour action in Brussels, Athens and other European cities as austerity measures bite across the continent.
Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, due to start seeking parliament’s approval for his 2011 budget plan on Thursday, has vowed not to go back on austerity and labour reforms that make it easier for companies to hire and fire.
Trade unions said 10 million people, or more than half the workforce, walked off their jobs, but the government said less than 10 percent of public administration workers and 20 percent of Madrid transportation workers were on strike.
Thousands of workers marched and waved flags in mostly peaceful protests around the country. Police detained a few picketers in Madrid for blocking roads, protesters set a patrol car on fire in Barcelona and miners burned tires in Asturias.
“We’ll continue to strike if that’s what’s needed to bring down the labour reform, which threatens to make jobs even more vulnerable,” said graphic designer Alfredo Perez, one of the pickets.
Demand for power was 15 percent lower than usual as assembly lines halted at factories, and tourists trapped by cancelled flights napped on inflatable air mattresses in Mallorca.
Financial markets shrugged off the strike, which analysts said was unlikely to make the government reverse its plans to meet European Union deficit reduction targets.
“The Spanish protest doesn’t seem to be large enough to really change anyone’s view, either in the market or amongst the Spanish people,” said David Lea, Western Europe analyst at ControlRisks.
Many insist on working
Zapatero cut civil servants’ wages by 5 percent as part of an austerity package after investors drove up Spanish borrowing costs earlier this year over fears the country could be heading for a debt crisis that would trigger a Greek-style bailout.
Unions were also protesting Zapatero’s pledge to reform pensions and extend retirement age to 67 from 65.
But Spain’s trade unions are much weaker than they were 20 years ago, representing about 16 percent of workers, a low level compared with much of Europe. Non-union workers criticised the strike.
“The strike is a big act, it’s just a way for the union representatives to justify their salaries,” said beauty parlour worker Teresa, 38, as she peeled strike posters off the door of her salon.
Many businesses remained open even though buses, subways and trains were running at a fraction of their usual service.
The yield premium that investors demand to hold Spanish 10-year bonds rather than benchmark German bunds — a key measure of risk perception — rose to around 197 basis points, its widest level since July, largely due to worries over possible rating downgrades in peripheral euro zone states such as Ireland and Portugal.
The benchmark Ibex index of Spanish stocks closed down 0.98 percent at 103.9 points.