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Spain unions see 75 percent public sector strike take-up

Source: Reuters - Tue 8th Jun 2010

Spain's unions said 75 percent of public sector workers went on strike to protest against an austerity package on Tuesday, although many hospitals, schools and government offices in Madrid reported few disruptions.

Tuesday's work stoppage and planned marches were called after the government forced through a plan to shave 15-billion-euros off the budget with public sector savings including wage cuts, but unions hope the action will also help gauge support for a wider strike on labor reform.

The two largest Spanish unions said early indications were that 75 percent of 2.3 million workers in government and other state-run bodies did not turn up for work.

But the government reported only 11 percent absenteeism, though their figures included only the offices of the central government and not regional administration or public services.

One in five workers is employed in the public sector.

"Everyone is working as usual here ... My husband who teaches in a school outside Madrid in Alcala de Henares also tells me it is business as usual there" said Ana, a teacher at a public school in Canillejas in north Madrid.

"I think it depends on each school however ... there are some classes where kids have not turned up but here the teachers are all in."

Leader of Spain's second largest union UGT Candido Mendez said unions would provide an official estimate later in the day.

Economists consider labor market reforms in the fifth largest economy in Europe, along with bank restructuring and deficit reduction, essential to solving Spain's economic problems. Fears of a debt crisis contagion in the eurozone after Greece's woes have piled on the pressure.

Hundreds of public sector workers gathered outside the Economy Ministry in central Madrid waving red union flags. Some blew whistles and banged on pans.

"There must be a way to solve this crisis without hurting people and pensioners. They're cutting my wages and ... everything is more expensive" Marisa Madrid, a teacher and mother of seven children, told Reuters at the rally.

A march was planned in the center of the city starting from 1830 (1630 GMT).

Public sector workers face average wage cuts of 5 percent for this year and a freeze for 2011 as part of a plan to cut the budget deficit to 9.3 percent of gross domestic product this year, from 11.2 percent in 2009, and then to 6 percent in 2011.

"Civil servants' salaries didn't bring on this crisis and we shouldn't be the first to suffer the cuts" said 36-year-old Pablo Gonzalez, a Madrid tax administration office employee.

The one-day strike comes a day before the government presents its draft of a labor reform package to unions and business leaders as part of ongoing talks. The government has said it will approve a labor reform on June 16 regardless of whether or not they get consensus with the other parties.

The reforms are aimed at dismantling a two-tier system which leaves many contract holders with no rights and others prohibitively expensive to lay off.

Spanish unions, who have been involved in talks over the reforms for months with no result so far, said they are ready to call a general strike if the reforms threaten workers rights.

"If they continue with these measures, this is the first step of a great war in Spain" Jose Luis Fernandez, a spokesman for USO, one of the smaller unions, told Reuters.

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