REPORTING FROM MADRID -- Millions of Spaniards stayed off the job Thursday to protest new labor laws that allow companies to opt out of collective bargaining pacts, reduce wages and fire workers more easily.
The general strike stalled public transportation and shut factories and schools across the country. Angry confrontations erupted between hordes of protesters and riot police, but no major violence was reported.
It was the first such large-scale labor action against the policies of conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and the strongest public rebuke yet of his austerity measures. In office for just three months, Rajoy has focused on cutting spending to shrink the country's yawning budget deficit and to meet European Union rules on fiscal discipline, which previous governments routinely flouted.
Rajoy is to unveil his 2012 budget Friday, including Spain's harshest cuts yet, up to $50 billion worth. EU officials and financial markets are eager for a commitment by Madrid to frugality, afraid that the long-running euro debt crisis might otherwise flare up badly again and engulf the Eurozone's fourth-largest economy.
But Spaniards are holding their breath for possibly punishing cuts in welfare, education and health, hallmarks of the European welfare state that are now in danger across the continent.
"Food, fuel -- all the prices are going up," said Carlos Rodriguez, 50, an elevator mechanic on strike. "Now with this labor reform, they can reduce our pay and increase our hours. We don't agree with that."
Hundreds of thousands of protesters packed town squares across the country. In Madrid's central Puerta del Sol plaza, hundreds staged a sit-in outside the doors of a department store and yelled "Shame!" at police manning barricades that allowed store employees to cross picket lines. "Without the uniform, you are one of us!" they yelled.
Red union banners waved above the crowded square, along with homemade posters depicting scissors with a red line through them, to protest the budget cuts.
Spain's two largest unions organized the strike in response to labor reforms approved by lawmakers this month. Backers say the sweeping changes are needed to modernize an antiquated labor system in which older, tenured workers have jobs for life and younger people are left struggling to get a foot on the employment ladder.
But critics say the reforms unfairly favor employers and will lead to a rise in unemployment. Nearly one in four members of the Spanish workforce is jobless, and the rate hits nearly 50% for people under 25.
"If you lose your job, especially if you're over 40 or 45, it's very hard to find another one," said David Le More, a spokesman for UGT, one of the organizing unions. "So people fear a lot that with these new conditions, they'll get fired, and new people with lower-earning contracts will get their jobs."
Union leaders have set a deadline of May 1 for the government to amend its labor reforms or face further unrest.
Before the strike, independent polls showed that 30% of Spanish workers planned to take part, but authorities did not issue crowd estimates. Late Thursday, unions claimed participation of 77% of all workers.
Most public transportation systems were running on reduced schedules. Garbage collection was suspended, and trash piled up on many city streets.
-- Lauren Frayer
Photo: Spaniards in Madrid protest labor reforms Thursday, joining millions of Spanish workers who went on strike. Credit: Alberto Di Lolli / Associated Press