* Unions march in Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia
* Protest aimed at proposal to raise retirement age to 67
* More expected later in the week
(Updates with marches taking place)
By Jason Webb
MADRID, Feb 23 Unionised workers marched in
Spain's major cities on Tuesday against plans to raise the
retirement age in the first open clash for six years between
organised labour and a Socialist government now seeking to
appease markets with austerity.
But the main protest in Madrid seemed noticeably smaller
than recent demonstrations in the capital organised by groups
such as the Catholic Church, in a sign that unions, who now only
represent 16 percent of Spanish workers, may have lost some of
the power to paralyse the nation they once had.
Bond markets are watching closely as euro zone members
Greece, Spain, Portugal and Ireland struggle to cut huge budget
deficits bloated by recession and the financial crisis, and to
restore lost economic competitiveness.
Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has announced 50
billion euros ($67.93 billion) in government savings, as well as
talks to change rigid labour laws that make it expensive for
businesses to hire workers. But the move that brought the unions
onto the streets was his plan to raise the retirement age by two
years to 67.
"Mr Prime Minister, don't play around with pensions, with
the future of millions and millions of people in our country,"
said Ignacio Fernandez Toxo, leader of the largest labour
confederation, Comisiones Obreras, in a speech to the crowd in
Madrid's central square of Puerta del Sol.
The well-behaved crowd totalled tens of thousands, according
to Reuters reporters. Local media quoted police saying 9,000
people took part and unions claiming 60,000. Other marches of
similar sizes took place in Barcelona and Valencia, and protests
elsewhere in the country were due in coming days.
Marchers carried red flags and some blew whistles but there
were relatively few young people among the marchers and almost
no obvious immigrants. Many held up signs against the government
and calls for it to get tougher on banks.
"They're asking for sacrifices from the same people who
always have to make them, the workers, who are just the people
who didn't cause the financial crisis," said Carlos, 47, a high
PRIME MINISTER CONCILIATORY
But other marchers were more sceptical of the unions, who
have only now stirred against the government despite
unemployment doubling to 20 percent during the crisis.
"I think it's good that we protest, but I think our unions
are just doing this to show they're not totally inactive. They
haven't done anything," said Rosa, 64, a civil servant.
One opinion poll showed roughly half of Spaniards would
support a general strike against raising the retirement age, but
the two big labour confederations have played down such
The government has kept unions onside by promising not to
yield to business calls to make hiring and firing cheaper.
The prime minister was conciliatory on Tuesday, reminding
unions that he wanted to reach an agreement with them on reforms
to the pension system.
"But the government would be irresponsible if it didn't
point clearly to this country's ageing demographics," Zapatero
told a news conference.
Zapatero, worried by the spiking cost of debt ES10YT=RR
during the Greek crisis, wants to slash a budget deficit that
hit 11.4 percent of GDP in 2009 and ensuring long-term fiscal
During the Greek crisis, markets raised Spain's risk premium
on fears that with its high unemployment, rigid workforce and
low productivity, Madrid may be unable to prevent public debt
spiralling, especially as euro membership rules out devaluation.
The head of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and
Development (OECD), Angel Guerria, said on Tuesday that Spain's
public debt was still manageable and not comparable with Greece.
Without major reforms, Spain could struggle to achieve
economic growth and its financial system might be weakened, Bank
of Spain Gov. Miguel Angel Fernandez Ordonez said on Tuesday.
(Additional reporting by Diego Hernandez)