Spanish public sector on strike against austerity plan

Spanish fire engine during public sector strike Spanish firemen were among those taking part in the strike

Spanish public sector workers have held a day-long strike in protest against an average 5% cut in pay that comes into effect this month.

The cuts are part of a government austerity package aimed at reducing the country's budget deficit, swollen by almost two years of recession.

Earlier, several thousand protesters gathered at Madrid's finance ministry blowing horns and chanting slogans.

Heavy rain hampered an evening rally through the city's streets.

Spanish unions said 75-80% of public sector workers had joined the day-long strike.

The labour ministry, however, put the figure at 16%.

AT THE SCENE

Gavin Hewitt

Today's action was a trial of strength between a government under extreme pressure to reduce its deficit and unions who say the public sector is having to pay for the mistakes of others.

Unions are threatening a general strike if the government goes ahead with other reforms, including making it easier to hire and fire workers.

Amongst the younger generation, unemployment is running at 40% and now the public sector is being cut back.

But what is happening in Spain is being repeated across much of Europe in what some are calling a new age of austerity.

Countries are slimming their public sectors as a way to reducing their debts.

A large welfare state has been one of Europe's defining features. Now the good times are over and for some this amounts to a revolution, challenging what many regard as the European way of life.

"We are very angry because this is not only an attack to our rights and to our salaries - there is an attack to the welfare," protester Elisia Deoran told the BBC.

"It's an attack on all the public services."

Spain has suffered one of the toughest recessions in the EU, and has its highest unemployment rate. It recently had its credit rating downgraded, amid fears it could follow Greece into a debt crisis.

More than 2.5 million Spaniards work in the public sector, and the strikes were reported to be affecting hospitals and schools, fire stations and local government. Emergency responders were providing minimum services.

With a budget deficit currently running over 11%, the government is under pressure from the EU to slash spending.

In May, Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero announced a 5% cut in public sector pay, starting this month. Salaries will be frozen in 2011, pensions will no longer be adjusted for inflation and tax breaks for new parents will be dropped.

There were also big cuts in public investment and development aid. Some pensions were frozen.

The cuts are part of a 15bn euro (£12bn; $18bn) package of austerity measures also meant to reassure the financial markets that Spain will meet its debts.

Testing public mood

Trade unions are angry that public sector workers are being penalised.

The BBC's Sarah Rainsford reports from the streets of Madrid as crowds grow

They accuse the Socialist Party of reneging on previous promises, and taking desperate measures now - after insisting for months that Spain would be relatively unaffected by the economic crisis.

The government is due to unveil on Wednesday plans to free up the labour market, by making it easier to hire and fire workers, in an attempt to stimulate growth.

SPAIN'S AUSTERITY MEASURES

  • 5% average pay cut for public workers in 2010
  • Automatic inflation-adjustments for pensions suspended
  • Payout scrapped to parents for birth of children
  • Funding to regions cut by 1.2bn euros

The unions have threatened a general strike if those measures go ahead.

In recent months, Greece has been hit by mass strikes and protests over austerity measures imposed to combat a debt crisis that has shaken the 16-member eurozone.

Germany on Monday announced 86bn euros in cuts by 2014 - its biggest budget cut since World War II, and the latest in a series of austerity plans being hatched across the eurozone.

Britain, the Republic of Ireland, Portugal and Italy have also announced austerity programmes.

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