Both sides claim victory in Spanish general strike

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stayed at home, many said they were afraid of trouble from union pickets and police, or clashes between the two. Some tyres were burnt, roads blocked and bus windows smashed but the day ended with a feeling of anti-climax.

Spain's two big trade union groupings had called a nation-wide general strike to protest against the Socialist Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez's attempts to loosen long- rigid labour laws. There was, however, considerable confusion not only about how many had stopped work but also, even among strikers, over their reasons for doing so.

The unions said the strike had been 'a resounding success', with 90 per cent of workers downing tools and 'paralysing the entire country'. Employers' leaders said only 30-40 per cent of workers stayed away, and that many had done so not out of support for the unions, but for fear of their pickets.

As for Mr Gonzalez's government, ironically sustained in power for more than 11 years with the help of the unions, a spokesman said the strike had been 'a failure' and that 'the keynote was normality'.

Hardly normality. The majority of businesses were closed in large cities and in the countryside. The country paralysed? Well, not quite. Skeleton public-transport services worked, enough shops and bars stayed open to satisfy the desperate, and entire families enjoyed walks in the park as though it were a bonus Sunday. The conflicting sides, government and unions, got heavily into the numbers game. The truth lay somewhere in between.

King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia, the official media were quick to inform us, had carried out their normal duties. Big department stores, such as the Corte Ingles, opened their doors but few, faced with lines of police and pickets, ventured in. Bank officials said up to 90 per cent of staff showed up, through back doors, but that customers could not get in.

No big newspapers appeared yesterday but both state and private radio and television stations remained on the air.

The strike was more rigidly followed in the north, west and south, where closure approached 100 per cent and tens of thousands joined anti-government marches in cities such as Bilbao and Vigo. In Bilbao, unions believed to be associated with Eta separatist guerrillas added another dimension to threats to those who wished to work.

Madrid, seen by both sides as the barometer of public feeling, was quiet but hardly paralysed. While a majority of businesses were closed, some restaurateurs and bar owners did a roaring trade in defiance of strikers, the latter themselves sometimes glad of a quick glass or bite.

And the outcome? The unions said their 'resounding success' obliged Mr Gonzalez to reconsider his chopping away at workers' rights. The Prime Minister was said to be unmoved. Aides said he would resume talks with the unions on labour laws, provided that they included the Employers' Federation.

(Photograph omitted)

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