(Updates with comments from union representative in Santander)
By Andrew Hay
MADRID, Jan 29 (Reuters) - Spanish unions on Thursday called for regional protests against layoffs at big firms and lending restrictions by banks after the global crisis sent Spain’s unemployment rate to the highest in the European Union.
In the first wave of demonstrations to hit Spain since it entered recession last year, unions urged workers to march through Santander in northern Spain on Thursday night behind banners reading “No to abuse by businessmen and bankers, more jobs and protection”.
Just after the demonstration began, the secretary general of the UGT union for the Cantabria region said on national radio that the economic crisis has had a very serious impact on employment in the region.
“The crisis is affecting workers in Cantabria just as it is in all of Spain,” Maria Jesus Centrun said.
“But it has been particularly virulent here because of the importance to our economy of the construction industry...and the automotive sector auxiliary businesses such as components.”
Spain’s two main unions, which are close to the Socialist government, called another march on Saturday in the southern city of Valencia, one of the places hit hardest by the collapse of a decade-long house building and real estate boom.
They will be followed by a string of regional protests by unions as Spain suffers its worst recession in 50 years with unemployment at nearly 14 percent.
Unions blame the greed of businessmen and banks after a decade in which the private sector borrowed its way to the world’s second-largest current account deficit, after that of the United States.
They broadly support Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s 70 billion euro ($91.56 billion) economic stimulus package and have so far ruled out nationwide strikes like those seen in France on Thursday.
But there is growing tension as unions demand the government do more to protect a million workers whose jobless benefits have run out and prevent unemployment rising over 4 million this year after it topped 3 million in 2008.
Spain has gone from creating more than a third of new jobs in the European Union to destroying more than 40,000 a week in past months -- more than France, Britain and Italy put together -- as the collapse of its housing boom coincides with the global crisis.
French car maker Renault (RENA.PA) on Thursday said it would lay off 400 temporary workers at a Spanish plant.
The CCOO said 200 workers were fired on Thursday at a call centre in Valladolid operated by SITEL. Company officials were not available to confirm the report.
Zapatero was subjected to his first big labour protest this month when around 25,000 workers marched through Zaragoza, northeast Spain, to demand job protection.
The government leads the conservative opposition in polls but faces rising criticism it waited too long to admit the economy was in crisis and delayed the launch of plans to create up to 400,000 jobs until October of last year.
The Bank of Spain on Wednesday said the economy was caught in a spiral of rising unemployment and falling consumer spending and labour reforms were needed to shake up a rigid jobs market, which has some of Europe’s highest firing costs.
Zapatero has promised not to touch worker rights and the CCOO, Spain’s largest union grouping, threatens a general strike should the government try to cut labour costs.
Reporting by Andrew Hay; additional reporting by Judy MacInnes; Editing by Angus MacSwan