REPORTING FROM MADRID -- Hundreds of thousands of Spaniards packed town squares nationwide Sunday to protest labor reforms that the new conservative government says are necessary to encourage economic growth. Workers fear the measures will allow companies to fire them more easily, exacerbating what is already Europe's highest unemployment rate.
The largest protests appeared to be in Madrid's Puerta del Sol square, previously the home base of Spain's indignados -- angry youths who staged several months of demonstrations last year over unemployment and perceived government corruption. Tens of thousands also gathered in Barcelona, Valencia and more than 50 other cities and towns.
First-in-a-generation changes to Spain's labor system, approved by the cabinet on Feb. 10, make it cheaper and easier for companies to lay off workers during a recession. Severance packages -- long considered among the most generous in Europe -- were cut by nearly a third, and companies losing money will now be able to pull out of collective bargaining agreements. Employers have greater flexibility to alter workers' wages, schedules and workloads.
“We are being told, 'You have to earn less money and have less rights,' but we don't know why,” said Carlos Jurado, a 28-year-old university administrative worker who turned out to march in Madrid. “Nobody is explaining to us what is happening in this country.”
Sunday's protests were the largest and most vocal challenge to Spanish government policy since the conservative Popular Party swept to power in November after nearly eight years of Socialist rule.
In addition to labor reform, the new government has sought to reassure investors and debt-weary Europe with a $20-billion austerity package of spending cuts and tax hikes, as well as with reforms to Spain's banking system, weighed down by bad real estate loans left over from the housing bubble.
Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy defended his labor policies Sunday at his party's annual conference. “If we want Spain to grow and create employment, we had to do what we've done,” he told a cheering crowd of party stalwarts in Sevilla.
Last month in Brussels, an open microphone caught Rajoy unawares, telling his European counterparts he expected social unrest and a general strike in response to his reforms. But while trade unions encouraged workers to demonstrate Sunday, handing out union flags and protest banners, they stopped short of calling for a workday general strike.
“We don’t want confrontation, we just want correction,” said Cándido Méndez, spokesman for the General Workers Union. But he warned of “ever-growing mobilization” if the government did not respond to workers' demands to roll back the reforms.
Spain has Europe's highest jobless rate, affecting nearly one in four workers, and about half of those under age 25. Economists blame the collapse of the country’s construction sector, extensive job protections that make it expensive for companies to hire workers, and a large underground labor economy.
-- Lauren Frayer
Photo: Demonstrators shout slogans against the government's recently approved labor reforms during a protest in Madrid on Sunday. The banner reads in Spanish "Without bread, no peace!" Credit: Alberto Di Lolli / Associated Press