From The Guardian:
With near-empty railway stations, shut factories, mass marches and occasional outbreaks of violence during a general strike on Thursday, Spaniards showed the first signs of rebellion against the reformist, austerity-preaching conservative government they voted in four months ago.
Police and pickets clashed in a handful of places, but it was a largely peaceful general strike in a country whose sinking economy, with 23% unemployment, has become the focus of worry about the future of the whole eurozone area.
Thousands of police officers remained on duty around the country on Thursday night as tens of thousands of flag-waving demonstrators flooded into city centres for protest marches against labour reform and austerity measures introduced by prime minister Mariano Rajoy's conservative People's party [PP].
Demonstrators brought the centres of Madrid, Barcelona and other cities to a standstill as trade unions claimed the strike was more widely supported than previous nationwide stoppages in 2010 and 2002. Rajoy's officials claimed, however, that the 2010 strike against a socialist government had received greater support.
Electricity consumption fell by 17%, suggesting the strike was impacting on major industries – though most shops appeared to be open in Madrid.
Street fires were set in both Madrid and Barcelona, where roads into the city were blocked, but there were few reports of serious violence.
The strike was most successful where Spain's big two unions, the General Workers Union and the Workers Commissions, are strongest – in large factories, the civil service and transport.
General Workers leader Cándido Méndez put average participation at midday at 77% but said that it was 97%in industry and construction.
"This strike has been an unquestionable success," he said.
Strikers promised a wave of protests to confront Rajoy's conservative government over reforms making it cheaper for companies to fire staff and dismantling a nationwide system of collective pay bargaining.
"We don't have much hope, but this is just the beginning," said Trini Cuesta, a 58-year-old employee at a public hospital in Barcelona. "It's not just about labor reform, we're against policies that are provoking social and economic ruin. Social protests must rise." [...]
Rajoy's government said it was committed to making labor reforms which it argues will help to reduce unemployment by making the labor market more efficient. "The agenda for reform is unstoppable," Labor Minister Fatima Banez said on Thursday.
Police presence was particularly heavy around parliament where politicians were putting in a longer work day than usual...
Spain's transportation, public sector, and industrial unions are executing a general strike today in a show of their opposition to austerity proposals being offered by the ruling conservative party and President Mariano Rajoy, who is just three months on the job.
Public busses, trains, and flights were delayed or cancelled and dozens of arrests were made in separate incidents. Spain is currently facing its second recession in less than three years, and reports predict that more than a million more Spaniards could join the ranks of the unemployed if deeper cuts to the public sector are allowed to go through. The country already has the highest unemployment rate in western Europe, nearly 23%, with a high proportion of those under 25 years old.
One labor leader said Spain was already "at its limit" and suggested that further austerity would push it into the abyss.
The Guardian/UK is live-blogging developments throughout the day.
* * *
Thursday's strike was called by trade unions protesting against labour reforms and spending cuts which the conservative government says are needed to save the economy.
"This is a just response to a brutal reform of our system of labour relations," Ignacio Fernandez Toxo, leader of the CCOO, one of the main trade unions, said.
The strike is the first major walkout against the government's policies, just three months after Mariano Rajoy, the prime minister, took office promising to cut Spain's 23-per cent unemployment rate and stabilise its public finances.
Al Jazeera's Barnaby Phillips reporting from Madrid said: "It is a test of strength, the unions are very unhappy with the liberalisation of workers law being introduced."
Scuffles broke out between protesters and police as workers picketed the capital's bus depot early on Thursday.
Around 100 protesters gathered in front of Fuencarral's bus depot and some of them blocked the road as the first bus departed form the depot. Tensions rose as riot police wrestled some protesters to the ground.
* * *
El Pais reports:
At a joint press conference with his CCOO counterpart, UGT leader Cándido Méndez said the strike is proving a success with a "very broad" level of observance. 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.
"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.
The day of protest, set to culminate in marches against the labor reform in many cities, has so far remained relatively peaceful. As of 8am this morning, 58 people had been arrested in isolated incidents. Nine people are reported to have suffered injuries, according to the Interior Ministry.
* * *
The Associated Press adds:
One protester, Angel Andrino, 31, said he was laid off a day after the labor reforms were approved in a decree last month. The government says that it understands the reforms might hurt now but it argues it will create jobs down the road when the economy recovers. Spain is already in recession, according to the central bank.
Andrino marched with his parents and brother. They all live together. The brother is the only one with work and it is only part-time.
"We are going through a really hard time, suffering," he said. "The rights that our parents and grandparents fought for are being wiped away without the public being consulted."
Outside a major department store, 69-year-old retiree Jose Antonio Nunez was dressed up in a skeleton's costume and carried a toy scythe. On the side of the blade was the word "wages." Nunez said he is struggling to get by on his retirement pension and fears more pain for everyone when an austerity budget is unveiled Friday.
"I am dressed like this because with the wages they are paying they are going to wear us down to the bone," Nunez said.
And from Reuters:
Spain is now tipping into its second recession since the end of 2009 and some observers expect at least another million people to join already swollen unemployment lines.
The jobless rate is the highest in the European Union at 23 percent and almost half of under 25-year-olds are out of work.
Polls had predicted only 30 percent of workers would join Thursday's one-day strike against labour reform, but a surprise electoral setback for the ruling People's Party (PP), at two regional elections on Sunday may spur wider participation.
"Sunday's election results are a sign that the population won't accept these kinds of reforms ... and could mark the start of a new cycle with more active opposition to policies than we've seen in recent months and year," economics professor at Spain's Santiago de Compostela University Xavier Vence said.
# # #