Spanish strike pits unions against Gonzalez

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The Independent Online
APART from enjoying more than a decade in power, Spain's Socialist Prime Minister, Felipe Gonzalez, would appear to have little in common with Margaret Thatcher. There is, however, a distinct feel of early-Eighties Britain here as Spain braces for a general strike tomorrow that will pit its powerful trade unions against a Prime Minister bent on clipping their wings.

The ironic twist is that, unlike Mrs Thatcher, Mr Gonzalez is involved in a face-off with the very trade union groupings that have helped keep him in power since 1982. The extent to which the unions shut down the country tomorrow could determine whether Mr Gonzalez, already ruling with a minority government, is able to last the full four-year term, his fourth, for which he was elected last June.

Spain is haunted by more than 3.5 million unemployed; at 23 per cent of the workforce that is more than double the European Union average. And it is steadily edging towards the centre, or even the right, after a long period of post-Franco Socialist euphoria. Mr Gonzalez's break with the unions, culminating in tomorrow's strike, is seen by many as reflecting a realisation that the Socialists are unlikely to survive the next elections, in 1997, as scheduled, or earlier.

A bungled car bomb attack by Basque Eta terrorists in the capital yesterday, which could have caused a bloodbath but ended up slightly injuring only a dozen people, added to tension as 134,000 police and Civil Guards prepared for potential violence tomorrow. The remote-control, bomb failed to detonate properly as a van carrying 10 air force officers drove by.

Thousands of 'informative pickets' are expected to try to enforce the strike, in protest at Mr Gonzalez's attempts to bring flexibility to rigid labour laws among a workforce increasingly schizophrenic about its traditional place in Spain and potential role in Europe.

Although most workers are expected to toe the union line, there is an underlying sense that the labour laws have to change with the times. The unions would prefer less change less quickly, while Mr Gonzalez is convinced that continuing rigidity would further increase unemployment and consign Spain to the lower leagues of Europe.

With many Spaniards opposed to the strike, feeling that it would aggravate the current economic crisis, and with even many union members in two minds, the availability of public transport may be a key to the strike's 'success' or otherwise. After failing to reach agreement with the unions this week, the government decreed its own public transport regulations. Commuter trains are to run at up to 50 per cent of normal services during the morning rush hour and 25 per cent during the rest of the day. Whether union members will allow even that is in doubt.

The two big trade union groupings, the General Workers' Union (UGT) and the Communist-led Workers' Commissions (CO), called the strike after three months of government-union talks on a 'social pact' ended in deadlock last November and Mr Gonzalez went unilateral. He pushed through his own amended labour regulations.

Spanish workers have remained probably the most cushioned in Europe, partly as a legacy of Franco's state corporatism, partly as a quid pro quo for helping to sweep Mr Gonzalez to power in 1982. Employers complain that the rigid laws, which make firing just as costly as keeping on unproductive staff, make it impossible to compete in Europe and discourage investment.