MADRID – Spanish workers enraged by austerity-driven labor reforms to prevent the nation from becoming Europe’s next bailout victim slowed down the country’s economy in a general strike Thursday, closing factories and clashing with police as the new-center right government tried to convince investors the nation isn’t headed for a financial meltdown.
Tens of thousands held protest marches in Madrid and other cities, and the demonstrations turned violent in Spain’s second largest city of Barcelona, where hooded protesters smashed bank and storefront windows with hammers and rocks and set fire to streetside trash containers. Television images also showed the Barcelona demonstrators throwing rocks at riot police vans and hitting them as they sped near the crowds.
Traffic was slowed in Valencia next to the Mediterranean Sea when demonstrators lit mattresses ablaze on a highway, and a Molotov cocktail was hurled at a police car in the eastern city of Murcia. Authorities arrested 176 protesters across Spain and said 104 people were injured in clashes, including 58 police officers. There were no immediate reports of serious injuries.
The protests came a day before Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s administration is expected to announce about $40 billion in spending cuts and tax hikes to ease increasing fears about Spain’s budget deficit. European leaders insist drastic cuts must be made this year even though reductions in government spending are almost sure to boost the unemployment rate of nearly 23 percent, the highest among the 17 nations that use the euro.
The labor reforms make it less costly for Spanish businesses to fire workers, and give them incentives for hiring – but protesters said they are being forced to give up rights they earned decades ago.
“Why wouldn’t I protest?” asked textile worker Jose Jimenez, 60, from the Madrid protest. “I’ve spent 45 years working for the same company and now they can get rid of me almost for free.”
Labor unions said millions of Spaniards in the nation of 47 million stayed away from work to protest, and the strike caused transportation delays and prompted Spain’s government-run national health care system to significantly reduce services except for emergency cases.