Citizens in Madrid Hardly Bat an Eye At Continual Strikes

STRIKES that would paralyze a major city in the United States are not much more than an inconvenience in an otherwise typical day in Madrid, Spain's capital.

In the first 10 months of 1994, Spaniards endured 1,031 strikes, causing a loss of more than 42 million work hours. December was filled with transportation strikes during the busy holiday season, and the strike calendar for 1995 is already filling up.

The day before New Year's Eve -- ominously dubbed the ''dia negro,'' or black day, for transportation -- Madrid's metro, trains, and buses between cities held simultaneous strikes in the midst of the preholiday rush hours. The strike affected hundreds of thousands of the city's roughly 4 million residents. The metro slowed to half-service in the morning and evening; the trains ran even less frequently; and intercity buses stopped altogether. A 12-day strike by pilots for Spain's national airline company, Iberia, was scheduled through the same time period, but it was settled on the eve of the strike.

Madrid residents are surprisingly accepting of the inconvenience strikes cause. Angel Garcia, a student waiting at a bus stop, smiled weakly and shrugged his shoulders. ''Another strike. Well, we're used to it,'' he says. ''At least it's a vacation, and there aren't so many people.''

On average, Spain loses 600 work days a year through strikes and work slowdowns for every 1,000 Spanish workers. ''Spain has more strikes and loses more hours than any other country in Europe,'' says Narciso Casado, spokesman for the Spanish Business Association (Confederacion Espanola de Organizaciones Empressarios). By comparison, the average annual number of days lost in the European Union is 159 -- 20 in Germany, 90 in France, and about 200 in Italy.

This strike culture is created, in part, as a reaction to the fascist regime of Gen. Francisco Franco, when striking was prohibited. Following Franco's death in 1975 and the founding of a new constitution in 1978, workers were granted the right to strike, and some Spaniards accept it as an exercise in democracy.

Madrid resident Javier Malayao, who waited an extra five minutes for a metro during a rush-hour strike, says he appreciates the right to strike but feels it is overused by the unions. ''When you accept a public service, you recognize they have the right to strike,'' he says. ''But while there's no strike law, the unions will always abuse this. We may be used to it, but it's still a bother.''

The combination of lack of a law and the fact that unions don't need to have members approve a strike makes it too easy for unions to resort to striking, Mr. Casado says. ''The unions here use strikes to pressure the negotiations. They are not used as a last solution.''

Union members say they would welcome a binding law regulating strikes, and they reject accusations that they abuse the right to strike. ''The unions here don't want to have strikes, at least our unions,'' says Angeles Romero, an official with the Coalition of Trade Union Workers (Union Sindical Obrera).

WHILE Spain lacks a formal law, it does have a series of regulations that control the timing, notice, and amount of service provided during a strike. Most of the time, strikes are slowdowns rather than shutdowns, and the hours affected are usually flexible, short-lived, and widely publicized in advance. During the past holiday strikes, the Transportation Ministry guaranteed between 40 percent and 75 percent minimum service, and most passengers knew the schedule changes.

Spain has already started bracing itself for another year of strikes. Metro workers plan to strike five days in early January for a few hours at a time. Intercity bus drivers held slowdowns in late December and were planning to strike again last Friday and Saturday over contract disputes.

Some strikes are over salaries, but since many stronger unions have gained sufficient pay hikes over the years, battles are often over conditions and benefits. One sticking point in the metro workers' contract is how far in advance they have to advise management before missing a day.

Because public transportation unions are especially powerful, many strikes occur in that sector, but strikes hit many public and private services. Tomorrow and one day next week, unions representing the Spanish auto company Seat S.A. are planning strikes to pressure management to withdraw some contract regulations.

But not all Spaniards accept the new strike mentality. Madrid resident Maria Angeles Contreras huffs: ''In my time, there were no strikes. Now, everyone's in a rage.''

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