Spain burns as strikes bring nation to its knees

Nine injured and scores are arrested as austerity protest descends into violence

by Alasdair Fotheringham, The Independent (UK)

Friday, 30 March 2012 — A nationwide general strike fuelled by a groundswell of anger against crippling unemployment levels and severe ongoing austerity cuts culminated in dozens of large-scale evening demonstrations across Spain yesterday.

Approximately a quarter of a million protesters took to the streets in Barcelona, with some fringe groups attacking police vans and smashing shop windows until late into the evening. In contrast Madrid’s almost equally large demonstration, where the crowds of chanting, whistling protestors filled the emblematic Puerto del Sol square and surrounding streets to bursting point, was reported as being totally peaceful.

“There’s lots of people here, but we need even more, this country is going through an awful situation and its going to get worse,” young protester Luis Ferrer, on the dole for three months, told The Independent in Madrid’s demonstration.

“If we don’t make ourselves heard now, we never will. I don’t think we’re going to end up like Greece, but they’re using this recession to take away our rights as workers.It’s just an excuse.”

“The labour reforms they want to bring in are terrible and our wages are awful,” Jose, a protestor in his twenties, added. “They want us to work more and more, put up taxes too and that’s just not on.”

Carrying tens of thousands of red trade union flags the mood amongst Madrid’s marcher was largely good humoured, with one group of workers’ chants of “we want limousines” drawing raucous laughter. However, most of the messages on posters and badges – “your profit is my recession”, “we have no hope”, and “no bread and no peace” being three of the most popular – were grim.

With over 110 marches taking place across Spain, by mid-evening police reported 176 arrests, 58 policemen and 46 protestors injured, with one demonstrator seriously hurt in a scuffle in Vitoria.

Large parts of Spain’s heavy industry shut down, public transport systems operated only skeleton services, TV stations went off air, and more than 400 flights were cancelled in the strike against the nation’s labour reforms.

“The old quarter of Bilbao is closed down completely, Alain Laiseka, a Basque journalist said yesterday. “In the Mercedes factory in [Basque capital] Vitoria, which employs thousands of people, just 20 turned up to work this morning.”

Overall trade unions claimed 77 percent of Spaniards had gone on strike. The figure was disputed by the government, whose Interior Ministry official Cristina Diaz said support for the strike had been “moderate at best.”

Spain’s second general strike in 18 months represented Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s first major test of strength since he was elected with an overwhelming majority last November.

It came on the eve of the nation’s budget announcement today (Friday), in which the nation’s 100-day-old government is expected to slash public spending by 15 per cent in a bid to keep on track with EU deficit targets.

Politicians from Mr Rajoy’s centre-right Partido Popular have repeatedly claimed that the labour reforms, which enables companies to sack employees and cut wages more easily, will go ahead regardless of the strike. Unemployment hit the five million mark in January – meaning nearly 23 per cent of the nation is out of work.

“My wife is looking for work, and as soon as these reforms came out, all the job offers re-appeared with far worse conditions,” said one striker, trade unionist, and public service employee in Madrid, Ruben Herranz. “In my work a lot of people voted for the PP in November and they’re striking now, because they’ve realised that although they wanted change, they’ve gone from the frying pan into the fire.”

Socialists, buoyed by better-than-expected results from a key regional election in Andalusia last weekend, believe the general strike, the second in 18 months, indicates the political tide has turned in their favour. The trade unions, meanwhile, have now threatened to continue with the protests if the government has not altered its contentious labour reforms by May 1st.

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