FACTORIES and businesses across Spain ground to a halt yesterday as Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez's bruised minority Socialist government weathered a one-day national strike protesting new laws that ease both hiring and firing. Most heavy industry, shops, and government services were closed for the day.
The strike pitted Mr. Gonzalez's minority Socialist government against 3 million members of the powerful socialist General Workers Union and the far-left Workers Commissions.
Members of both unions have, in the past, been loyal supporters of Gonzalez's Spanish Socialist Workers Party.
Estimates of workers staying off the job varied widely, with employers counting 40 percent and union officials claiming 90 percent. Some observers say a good estimate of strike adherence is somewhere in between, at least 75 percent.
Only a handful of newspapers were printed and most long-distance travel, including flights out of the country, was canceled.
Groups of chanting union picketers roamed the principal cities and gathered outside those businesses and shops that remained open during the day.
Police in riot helmets blocked access to the principal department stores in the capital, Madrid, and other cities.
Buildings were plastered with stickers and posters bearing the strike motto: ``They must be stopped.''
At one of Madrid's main all-night shops, a group of the staff were cheered and applauded by some 70 picketers when they walked out as the clocks turned midnight.
``We planned to stay open, but we are closing while all this goes on outside,'' said the manager, who asked to remain anonymous.
``We have been inside to talk to the workers, but there are people there who are obviously too frightened to leave in case they lose their jobs,'' said picket leader Jose Romero of the Workers Commissions union.
``The ones who have stayed on are the young people whose jobs are most at risk because of the new legislation,'' he added, referring to the recently approved employment laws.
Low approval ratings
The strike came as opinion polls showed that the Socialists, after 12 years in power and four straight election wins, have fallen from grace with voters.
A December poll in the leading daily El Pais showed the party had, for the first time ever, dropped two points behind the right-wing opposition Partido Popular of Jose Maria Aznar.
Gonzalez has distanced himself from the unions - once his strongest allies - as his government tries to encourage foreign investment and moves toward increasingly liberal, free-market economic policies.
Among the enemies he has made along the way is his former mentor, the veteran General Workers Union leader Nicolas Redondo. Mr. Redondo, who pushed Gonzalez to the front of the socialist movement when democracy was restored in Spain in the mid-1970s, now believes the prime minister has sold workers out.
``This law is the worst attack on labor since the restoration of democracy,'' Redondo declared.
A fruitless six months of negotiations between the government, unions, and employers over a ``social pact'' to create employment ended with the government unilaterally proposing a raft of new labor legislation on Jan. 14.
The government said the 35 measures it included were designed to create employment in a country that suffers the European Community's worst unemployment rate.
Official figures put the number of people without work at the end of 1993 at 3.55 million - or 22.99 percent of the working population. Last year alone, 345,000 jobs were lost, pushing memories of the Barcelona Olympics and Spain's 1492-1992 celebrations firmly into the background.
``People are extraordinarily concerned about the economic situation and its most immediate effect, unemployment,'' government spokesman Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba admitted.
Under the terms of the new law, employers no longer have to ask government permission to fire up to 10 percent of their work force per year. A new apprenticeship contract allows employers to take on unqualified people under the age of 25 on a salary that is two-thirds the national minimum.
Unions have dubbed the new apprenticeship system a ``rubbish contract'' and claim employers have already begun to sack younger members of staff and reemploy them under the terms of the new contract.
The law also permits private employment agencies to operate in Spain for the first time ever.
Backed by opposition
The measures were approved overwhelmingly in parliament with Gonzalez's minority government achieving the support of three of the four principal opposition groups.
Of the principal parliamentary groups, only the far-left Izquierda Unida, with 17 deputies in the 350-seat Congress, voted against the measures.
It remains to be seen whether yesterday's strike will have the same effect as the last national strike in December 1988, when the country came to an abrupt halt and Gonzalez was forced to do a U-turn on measures similar to those introduced earlier this month. Finance Minister Pedro Solbes has sworn that the government will not budge.
Union members on the street yesterday felt Gonzalez would not be able to ignore them.
``The government has always negotiated after strikes,'' Workers Commissions leader Antonio Gutierrez said.
Voices on the far left warned Gonzalez that this time, unionists would not stick by him at elections if he did not listen to their complaints.
``If the government refuses to listen and change, then trade unionists will have to continue their protest and stop voting for Gonzalez,'' said Izquierda Unida leader Julio Anguita.
Gonzalez, who lost an 11-year absolute parliamentary majority in the June 1993 elections, may be forced to take notice.
But with more than three years of mandate left to run and a parliamentary alliance with Catalonia's conservative Convergence and Union party apparently holding strong, he may be prepared to wait out the worst of the recession.
The Economist magazine recently said that Spain, which went into recession in the last quarter of 1992, was heading back toward becoming one of Europe's star economies and was among the most promising countries in the world for investment.
Gonzalez will hope that by the time voters return to the polls in 1996 a new boom will have wiped out memories of yesterday's strike.