LONDON, UK – Public transport in Spain slowed to a crawl and heavy industry was disrupted on Thursday as Spanish unions held their first general strike since Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s Popular Party came to power last year.
Spain’s two main unions called the action in protest against recently enacted labor reform laws which make it easier and cheaper for companies to hire and fire workers.
The strike is the government’s first major challenge since taking office and comes a day before Rajoy is to unveil the country’s 2012 budget, expected to contain measures to save billions of dollars in order to keep Spain on track for deficit targets agreed with the European Commission, The New York Times reports.
Spain is entering its second recession in three years, and Rayoy’s conservative government is desperately trying to make savings of around $60 billion to reduce a budget deficit estimated at 8 percent of GDP in 2011.
Some 5.3 million people are unemployed in Spain - almost a quarter of its workforce, and more than double the European average.
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According to Reuters, police barricaded parliament and other official buildings on Thursday, and arrested 58 people after scuffles broke out during protests in Spain’s capital, Madrid. Nine people were reported injured.
Unions said there was 85 percent turnout for the action, claiming strong support at car factories and other industrial sites.
The UGT union said practically all workers at Renault, SEAT, Ford and Volkswagen car factories around the country, and at other mining, port and industrial facilities had honored the strike during the overnight shift, although Spain’s government downplayed the action as having had no major impact, the Associated Press reports.
Road, rail and air transport were all affected, with internal and European flights severely cut, and regional TV stations in the capital, in Catalonia in the north-east and in Andalusia in the south of the country all off the air, according to the BBC.
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The government defended the measures it says are necessary to bring Spain’s public finances under control, with Finance Minister Cristobal Montoro saying: “The question here is not whether the strike is honored by many or few, but rather whether we get out of the crisis.
“That is what is at stake, and the government is not going to yield,” he added.
Speaking on a visit to South Korea on Tuesday, Rajoy, who took office in December, promised that the measures would eventually generate more jobs:
“No government has passed as many reforms in its first 100 days in office as this one,” he said.
“The biggest mistake would be to do nothing.”
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