Spain's workers in protest. But Gonz'alez stands firm on wage controls despite strikes
Madrid — Some 350,000 people in and around Madrid won't be able to ride the trains in to work today - or out of town for the long weekend. Spain is bracing itself for a transport halt, the latest in a wave of strikes, and public pressure is mounting on the government of Socialist Prime Minister Felipe Gonz'alez.
The Gonz'alez government, bent on reviving the economy and making Spain more competitive as a new member of the European Community (EC), has focused on bringing Spain's inflation rate down to EC levels by keeping wages in line with price targets.
And it has tried to set a stern example with the vast public sector by fixing a five percent ceiling on wage increases, the inflation rate hoped for this year. With wage negotiations at hand, angry public workers have plunged a good part of Spain into turmoil.
In recent weeks, airline passengers able to get on a plane have had to scramble on board carrying their own suitcases. Hotel guests in Granada have made their own beds. Farmers have blocked roads with tractors and piles of tomatoes. The air and rail strikes planned for the next few days at the height of Spain's traditional Easter week are likely to have a serious affect on tourism.
Some Socialist officials feel that the government's hasty concession earlier this year adding $312 million to the education budget to quell student protests has probably fanned the unrest of other groups. Various labor conflicts have exploded at the same time, and odd groups have gone into the streets together - radical youth and unions with more conservative sectors such as farmers and professionals.
Observers have expressed alarm at the way various sectors - first the students, then the doctors, farmers, and even certain firms - have bypassed the usual channels of protest such as unions and have gone into the streets on their own. For many, this is the result of a certain vacuum in Spain's current political life, with no real parliamentary debate and no strong alternative to the left or right of the Socialists.
The strikes, however, have been more irksome to the public than to the Gonz'alez government, which had expected a rough patch following Spain's January 1986 entry into the EC and its adjustment to community trade restrictions.
The Socialists were reelected to a second term only nine months ago with an absolute majority. An unruffled Gonz'alez easily defeated a censure motion in parliament presented recently by the right-wing opposition. Criticized for taking a detached stand during the student protest, Gonz'alez has subsequently come out in defense of his economy minister's policies on various occasions.
When the Socialists came to power in 1982, they were handed the task of straightening out the economy. The widespread support enjoyed by the first left-wing government in more than 40 years has until now allowed the Socialists to contain the workers while at the same time applying the unpopular measures needed to pull out of the recession.
In the mid-1970s, Spain's failure to react quickly to an increase in energy prices, coupled with a lagging economic performance, widened the gap with Europe's advanced nations. During the early stages of a delicate transition to democracy after the death of Gen. Francisco Franco in 1975, a huge wage explosion depleted the surplus for investment.
When the Socialists came into office with the firm purpose of modernizing and preparing Spain for entry to the EC, their methods could scarcely be branded as orthodox leftist.
The Socialist government's strict monetary policy, a tough approach to overmanned state industry, and attempts to check government spending have gained approval in much of the business class.
Since 1985, Spain's economy has shown positive signs, with investment and consumer demand on the rise.
But unemployment, which at 21 percent is the highest rate in Western Europe, is still a major headache for the Gonz'alez government. And Spain's balance of trade has dramatically reversed since it joined the EC.
Socialist officials have accused the Communist-led Union Comisiones Obreras of stirring up the labor conflict with the coming local elections in mind. At election time, the Communists have always fared far better in local communities than nationally.
On Sunday, Mr. Gonz'alez expressed his concern for preserving the government's close ties with the Union General de Trabajadores, a socialist union.
As all political groups gird themselves to shake the strong hold of the Socialists in the June 10 local and regional elections, the Gonz'alez government is banking on the unrest dying down before then.