General strike puts Spain's government on defensive

A scheduled general strike today - expected to be the biggest in 50 years - has Spain's ruling Socialists on the defensive over charges that their policies favor businessmen and the rich. The nominally leftist government of Prime Minister Felipe Gonz'alez has branded the one-day strike ``uncalled for'' and ``unjust.'' It appears to have been particularly stung by the decision of the socialist-affiliated General Workers' Union (UGT) to join forces with the communist-led Workers' Commissions.

Adding insult to fraternal injury, the strike comes as Spain prepares to assume the six-month rotating presidency of the European Community (EC) on Jan. 1.

Mr. Gonz'alez's government, which proudly presided over Spain's entry into the EC just three years ago, has viewed its turn at the helm of the EC as an opportunity to win international recognition for Spain's 13-year-old democracy. The general strike, to be followed two days later by a mass protest march through the capital, Madrid, would undercut the Socialists' claims of being able administrators who have brought efficiency, stability, and progress to Spain.

Union leaders estimate as many as 4.5 million of Spain's 11.6 million workers will join the stoppage. Organizers say the strike is not intended to topple Gonz'alez's six-year-old government. Rather, it is meant to protest the government's pro-business wage and employment policies.

Behind the discontent lie soaring business profits, fed by a healthy 4.5 percent economic growth rate. These contrast sharply with stagnating real wages and an unemployment rate that has been the highest in Western Europe for years now.

UGT Banking Workers' Federation chief, Justo Fernandez, reflected a widespread view among labor leaders when he wrote Friday to Gonz'alez.

In his letter, Mr. Fernandez asserted that the government's economic policies were ``drawing protests from the social base that put you [Gonz'alez] in power while winning support from business sectors and opportunistic speculators.''

Some Socialist leaders are known to share friendships and even joint business ventures with wealthy business people, and a few have appeared at jet-set parties.

Deputy Prime Minister Alfonso Guerra provoked uproarious laughter at a university lecture last summer when he replied to a pointed question about the government's leftist credentials by affirming that the Socialist Party was ``a party of the workers and the poor.''

The rift between the party and the UGT has been developing for some time. UGT chief Nicolas Redondo, a one-time mentor of Gonz'alez, resigned his seat in Parliament a year ago to protest the socialist government's 1988 budget.

But a full-scale verbal war broke out last month, when the strike was called.

Gonz'alez warned that the UGT was ``slipping toward the red end of the spectrum,'' while Mr. Guerra claimed that the UGT ``has followed the communist strategy.''

Labor is incensed by a 4 percent ceiling on wage increases the government negotiated with public sector workers early this year, when the official 1988 inflation forecast was only 3 percent.

Since then, the forecast has been revised to 5 percent. But even this new figure was surpassed when the inflation rate for the first 10 months of the year tallied 5.1 percent.

Union leaders say the ``straw that broke the camel's back'' was a recent government plan to promote the employment of young people. The plan offers substantial tax and regulatory incentives to employers who give temporary jobs at minimum wage rates to people between 16 and 25. Unions consider the proposal a give-away to business because it provides for subsidies approaching 90 percent. They also see it as a threat to the present jobs and future employment prospects of older workers.

Beyond that, they consider the plan, which was welcomed by business organizations but rejected by the unions and most youth organizations, as the opening wedge in a drive to ``liberalize'' the labor market by dismantling protective legislation left over from the era of the late dictator Francisco Franco.

Determined to continue the free-market policies it believes responsible for Spain's current prosperity, the government has so far refused to back down under pressure from the unions.

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