Spanish civil servants went on strike Tuesday to protest wage cuts aimed at reducing the country's huge deficit.
The one-day stoppage was seen as a first test of strength for unions that are considering calling a general strike if the Socialist government imposes labor market reforms that they consider are against workers' interests. It was called after the Socialist government ordered a 5 percent wage cut in civil servants' salaries as part of a plan to save 15 billion euros ($19 billion) this year and next.
Spain's two main unions, UGT and CCOO, said the strike was being heeded by some 75 percent of workers. The Labor Ministry, however, put the figure at 16 percent.
Spain has some 2.6 million civil servants. The strike was called for workers in the administration sector, education and hospitals but not public transport. Observance of agreed minimum services meant most workplaces remained open and functioning, albeit at a slower pace than normal.
Dozens of strikers gathered outside ministry buildings along Madrid's Paseo de la Castellana Boulevard, waving union flags, blowing horns and briefly interrupting traffic.
Civil servant Pablo Frutos, 52, who said he earns 1,100 euros ($1,315) a month after 22 years' service, said it was unfair that people who earn so little should bear the brunt of the cutbacks.
Looking at his colleagues, he said, "Not one of them comes near making 2,000 euros ($2,400) a month."
But Antonio Martinez, 54, a labor ministry worker, said he and many others were ignoring the strike call as it was pointless given that the measures were already approved.
Nevertheless, he said that the government "is betraying everyone, not just civil servants but all workers."
Street demonstrations were expected in Madrid.
The government plans to unveil its proposed labor reforms to unions and business leaders on Wednesday. Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has said that if union and business leaders fail to reach agreement, the government will approve its own reforms by decree on June 16.
Talks on reforms to loosen up Spain's rigid labor market have been going on for months, but have taken on new urgency amid worries about Spain's ability to ensure economic growth, slash its deficit and pay off debt.
Zapatero has come under pressure from the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and even President Barack Obama to take bold action to ward off a Greek-style debt crisis that would further hurt the beleaguered euro.
Chiefly, Spain must find a way to rein in its deficit from 11.2 percent of gross domestic product last year to 9.3 percent in 2010, and eventually to 3 percent in 2013.
The reforms center on overhauling hiring and firing rules, so as to encourage employers to hire more people and thus spur economic growth.
The government is said to be looking to reduce Spain's severance pay deal for permanent workers — one of the highest in the developed world — from 45 days per year worked to 33 days.
The cutbacks have marked a serious about-face for a government that has traditionally relied on labor union support, boasted about its social policies and insisted it could weather the economic crisis without making cutbacks.
Europe's top job creator two years ago, Spain now has the region's highest unemployment rate at just over 20 percent following the collapse of its construction sector and the economy's slide into recession.
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