Spain: Zapatero the “social” faces its first general strike

The head of the socialist Spanish government, José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who had made his good understanding with the trade unions a major asset, faces on Wednesday its first general strike, while the country struggles to get out of the crisis, and that one in five is unemployed.

“The purpose of the strike is not that he resigned but that his policy change,” said Candido Mendez, secretary general of one of the main trade unions in the country, the UGT, which Mr. Zapatero is member of.

The president of the government, “deep inside, is aware that he needs to change,” assured Ignacio Fernandez Toxo, secretary-general of the other main trade union, Spanish, Comisiones Obreras (CCOO).

The honeymoon between Mr Zapatero and the trade unions, idyllic during his first mandate (2004-2008), thanks to the economic upswing, has fizzled as soon as Spain has plunged into crisis.

Pressed by the international monetary Fund (IMF) and the european Union (EU) to reduce the public deficit (11.2% of GDP in 2009), Mr Zapatero was forced to convert to the rigor, while unemployment climbed above 20%.

In turn, it has decreased the salaries of civil servants, frozen pensions and termination benefits such as the “cheque-baby” for new parents or helping the long-term unemployed.

The last straw, which pushed the unions to strike, was the reform to increase the flexibility of the labour market, which limits of course the use of temporary contracts, but reduces redundancy and facilitates the economic dismissals.

This “reform” is a social regression very serious,” warned Candido Mendez, while for Ignacio Fernandez Toxo, it is “the most ill-timed of the history of democracy in Spain”.

For the general strike of Wednesday, CCOO and UGT, have agreed to guarantee a minimum service, including at least 20% of international flights and 25% of commuter trains.

This is the first time that government and unions reach an agreement in a general strike, a type of mobilization little practiced in the country.

“This will be only the fifth general strike since the restoration of trade union freedoms in 1977,” notes Pablo Iglesias Turrion, a professor of political science at the Complutense University of Madrid.

“If we compare with Italy and France, it is actually small, but almost all have had success, in participation and forcing the government to rectify its policy,” he explains.

During a meeting of his party in Zaragoza, Mr. Zapatero stressed on Sunday that the trade unions had a “right to strike”, adding that the government had “the duty to change things in order to create more jobs and opportunities for young people”.

The unions fear a weak response on Wednesday, especially as the reform of the labour market has already entered into force.

If 54.6% of Spaniards consider the strike justified, only 18% have the intention to join, according to a survey published Friday by the newspaper Publico.

The last great strike, officials on 8 June against the decline of their wages, had not had a big impact. Several of them had explained that they could not afford to strike and lose money.

“The economic crisis is complicating the workers ‘participation in the strike”, said Mr. Iglesias Turrion.

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