03/29/2012 03:12 EDT | Updated 05/29/2012 05:12 EDT

Spanish unions try to bring country to a halt to protest labour reforms

MADRID - Spanish workers livid over labour reforms they see as flagrantly pro-business staged a nationwide strike Thursday and tried to bring the country to a halt by blocking traffic, closing factories and clashing with police in rowdy demonstrations.

Labour unions claimed massive participation in the 24-hour stoppage but the government and employers' associations said the strike was nothing more than a nuisance for the country.

As the protests heated up in major cities, scuffles broke out between police and strikers. Hooded activists hurled rocks at bank offices and store fronts and set fire to street garbage containers in northeastern Barcelona, the second-largest city.

By midday, a total of 58 people were detained and nine were injured, Interior Ministry official Cristina Diaz said.

Riot police vans could be seen in many streets and squares in nearly every city as tens of thousands of union supporters were expected to take part in more demonstrations in the evening.

The workers are protesting against the latest dose of austerity that Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's conservative government — not yet 100 days old — has prescribed to appease European Union overseers and jittery investors watching Spain's debt grow and its GDP shrink.

Among other things, the reforms make it cheaper and easier for companies to lay people off and cut wages unilaterally.

Claiming victory, the unions demanded a "gesture" from the government to scale back the reforms, warning they could cause more unrest from May 1. The government quickly said no.

"There is no stopping on the path to reform," Labor Minister Fatima Banez said.

The government will on Friday serve up even more austerity pain with a 2012 budget to feature tens of billions of euros (dollars) in deficit-reduction measures.

The cuts are designed to lower the national deficit to within EU limits and calm the international investors who determine the country's borrowing costs in debt markets — and therefore have a lot of say in whether Spain will follow Greece, Ireland and Portugal in needing a bailout.

Spain's benchmark borrowing rate — the yield on its 10-year bonds — continued to creep up Thursday, to 5.4 per cent, suggesting investors are nervous about the country's prospects. The Ibex 35 stock index continued its weeklong slide to close nearly 1 per cent lower.

On the Gran Via, one of the Spanish capital's main commercial strips, a group of about 500 whistle-blowing picketers marched slowly, blocking traffic for about an hour. Police and helmeted riot police watched from the sidelines.

As the group made its way down the boulevard, many merchants — such as jewelers and clothing retailers — pulled down their metal shutters or locked their front doors.

Less than an hour later, most stores and bars were back open for business.

One protester, Angel Andrino, 31, said he was laid off a day after the labour reforms were approved in a decree last month. He lives with his parents and brother, the latter the only one to be employed, with a part-time job.

"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."

General Workers Union Secretary General Candido Mendez put average participation at midday at 77 per cent but said that it was 97 per cent in industry and construction. "This strike has been an unquestionable success," said Mendez.

Some statistics, however, suggested the strike had not brought the country to a standstill.

Electricity consumption — a measure of industrial and commercial activity — was down by 17 per cent at midmorning, according to the Interior Ministry. That is slightly less than during the last general strike in 2010, which was deemed as only partially successful.

Investors are worried about prospects for continued, widespread social unrest of the kind seen in bailed-out Greece. But management professor Jose Ramon Pin of IESE Business School said this will not happen in Spain because people reluctantly accept that the country needs a radical economic makeover.

"This country is in no mood for taking to the streets," Pin said.

One of the strike's most noticeable effects was on public transportation, with unions guaranteeing only around 30 per cent of normal service at rush hour times. The main airline, Iberia, cancelled 65 per cent of its flights.

By midmorning, 402 flights had been cancelled, National airport operator AENA said. Minimum services decreed by law ensured that 1,675 flights would operate — less than half of the average daily amount of more than 4,500 flights.

British Airways said its flights were operating normally but advised passengers to check the status of their flights before heading to the airport. TAP Air Portugal said it cancelled just over half of its 27 scheduled return flights to Spain.

The union UGT said virtually all workers at Renault, SEAT, Volkswagen and Ford car factories around Spain, and at other industrial, mining and port facilities, honoured the strike during the overnight shift.

Diaz, the Interior Ministry official, said a Molotov cocktail was thrown at a police car in the eastern city of Murcia. Of six people injured, one was a police officer and five were civilians. She did not specify where or how these people were hurt.

Spanish National TV showed footage of police in Madrid on horseback accompanying buses trying to leave a parking garage, and scuffling with a picketer. Regional TV stations in Andalusia in the south, Catalonia in the northeast and Madrid were off the air because of the strike.


Barry Hatton in Lisbon, Portugal contributed to this report.