Thousands march through Madrid to protest at labour reforms

Thousands of Spanish trade unionists descended on central Madrid yesterday to protest a decree on labour reform, even though the government has already agreed to make some concessions in the dispute. The march was the biggest show of force by Spain's two main trade unions since a one-day general strike on June 20, timed to embarrass the government on the eve of a European Union summit in Seville. The June strike was called to protest conservative Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar's decree making it easier to fire workers and denying benefits to those refusing work further from home or outside their area of speciality. Yesterday's march took on the air of a festival with workers from Spain's provinces flying their regional flags, banging drums and blowing whistles. Opposition leaders from the Socialist Party and the Communist-led United Left attended. The CCOO and UGT trade unions - which together represent about 10 percent of Spain's 18 million workers - called the decree a further assault on workers after severance benefits were reduced under a separate law last year. “We are right about this ... and the government needs to respond to this formidable display by workers from all of Spain,” UGT leader Candido Mendez told reporters. Demonstrators called for greater job security and for agricultural subsidies and severance benefits to be restored. The government agreed last Tuesday to soften the decree's harsher points in a rare concession by Aznar, whose Popular Party governs with a majority in parliament. Labour Minister Eduardo Zaplana said the government's proposed changes would be presented and invited the unions and opposition parties to submit new proposals. The decree was aimed at reducing Spain's 11 percent unemployment rate.

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