Spain stays on economic track. Historic labor strike barely budges government
Madrid — In the wake of a spectacularly successful general strike, Spanish Premier Felipe Gonz'alez is taking a more conciliatory approach to the nation's unions. But he will stick largely with the economic policies that have set him at odds with traditional supporters. ``We campaigned on the basis of a socioeconomic policy which we believe we are reasonably carrying out,'' Mr. Gonz'alez said Wednesday in a subdued speech to the Spanish Parliament. ``We're trying to go ahead with a project aimed at economic modernization and social justice within the bounds of Spain's realistic possibilities.''
Chastened but not contrite after the Dec. 14 strike by two-thirds of Spain's 12 million workers, Gonz'alez went ahead with a meeting with business leaders Thursday, even though the heads of the two largest unions refused his invitation to attend. The premier is expected to hold separate talks with unions in coming days.
His unsuccessful bid to bring labor and business together, some analysts say, was an attempt to recreate the two-year business-labor accord on wage guidelines that he put together in 1984. The unions, believing workers have not gotten their share of the benefits from Spain's booming economy, have resisted such an effort since the accord ran out in 1986.
In Wednesday's speech, the prime minister made some qualified concessions to the unions, proposing to renegotiate a controversial youth employment plan, honor a four-year-old promise to extend unemployment benefits to more jobless workers, and raise government pension levels.
But he also made clear that he planned to continue to apply hardheaded fiscal measures while managing the economy along free-market lines.
Most of the political opposition has blamed the strike on Gonz'alez's style of rule, calling it arrogant and highhanded. They say the government could have headed off the strike had it been more willing to negotiate in the first place.
In organizing the strike, the socialist-affiliated General Workers' Union (UGT) joined forces with the communist-led Workers' Commission (CCOO) union for the first time in the six years the Socialists have been in power. Both unions have called for the government to make a ``social turn'' and put an end to what they see as pro-business policies.
Union leaders say that their basic goal is a fairer distribution of the wealth being generated by the economic boom. Specific demands include increases in pensions and public sector wages to compensate for inflation. Those increases were set at 3 percent at the beginning of the year, while inflation stands at 5.4 percent for the 12-month period ending in November.
UGT leader Nicolas Redondo said the limited concessions Gonz'alez offered Wednesday were ``positive'' and expressed optimism that they foreshadowed a shift to left by the government. CCOO head Antonio Guti'errez, however, called the speech ``ambiguous.''
In the parliamentary debate following Gonzalez's address, most opposition leaders had little or no criticism of the government's economic policies.
Instead, they took advantage of live television and radio coverage of the session to press their accusations that the ruling Socialist Party has abused its power. They charge that it uses its outright majority in Congress to railroad through legislation without consulting the opposition. With 184 of the 350 seats, the party has almost triple the strength of its nearest rival, the conservative Popular Alliance party.
Opposition leaders, while criticizing the Socialists' governing style, have declined to propose any alternatives to the government's economic policies.
And despite all the criticism, the Socialist Party seems secure in office. Polls taken just before the strike showed that new elections would return the party to power once again.