Public sector workers marched through Barcelona Wednesday to protest against spending cuts made by the regional government of Catalonia.
The protestors marched behind a large black and white banner reading “No to the cuts. Save Public Services”, making their way from the central Plaza Sant Jaume to the Catalan parliament, where MPs were debating the budget for 2012.
Over 30,000 people took part in the demonstration, according to the unions, although the Catalan government put the figure at 10,000.
Before the start of the protests, some 50 firefighters blocked the street in front ofthe Catalan interior ministry and covered it with white foam normally used to tackle blazes. Nurses, doctors, police, health workers and employees of the justice and education ministries also participated in the protests.
Like other Spanish regions, Catalonia is under pressure from the central government to cut spending in order to bring the country’s deficit down.
Centralisation of power
Central government, in the hands of the right-wing Popular Party headed by prime minister Mariano Rajoy since November’s landslide victory against the Socialists, is preparing legislation that will give it more control over the spending of its regions. This will undermine the regional autonomy that was a key part of the transition to democracy from dictator General Franco’s highly centralised rule.
Although Madrid collects most taxes and then transfers funds to the regions, its only legal mechanism to control spending is to restrict the issuance of debt. But rather than dissuade regions from spending, this mechanism has pushed many to the brink of default over the past year.
Madrid is working up plans to entrench the “balanced-budget” principles enshrined in Spain’s constitution last year at the urging of Germany and other EU countries and introduced thanks to a pact between the Popular Party and the then Socialist Government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero.
Corner shop economics
Like the new ultra-austere EU Growth and Stability Pact, Spain’s new budget law will give Madrid additional powers to enforce corner-shop style bookkeeping at all levels of Spain’s public administration.
The most important requirements are: yearly expenditure ceilings, financial penalties for failure to comply with deficit targets and a lethal procedure for automatic spending cuts in the case of budget overruns.
Austerity measures taken since May 2010 have crushed domestic demand – spending and investment by consumers and businesses - and as exports have also deteriorated in the markets of key trading partners also pursuing austere economic policies this has sent a troubled economy into free-fall. This has damaged the public finances and means that Rajoy has missed deficit reduction goals.
Since breaking election campaign promises by announing swinging tax rises at the start of the year, the new government has deepened austerity plans with pledges to make a collosal Euros 40 billion cut from the state budget. He is also working up “flexible” labour reforms and a new bail-out of the banks, to be unveiled mid-February, it emerged at a press conference Rajoy held Tuesday.
More protests planned
The protests on Wednesday are a prelude to anti-cuts mobilisations planned by unions and other campaigners for 28 January.
Catalan union leaders Joan Carles Gallego of Comisioners Obreras and José María Álvarez of the UGT trade union confederations said the draconian budget plan for 2012 was “useless” because it would “ruin the country” and public sector workers shouldn’t have to “pay for the crisis”.
“These cuts are a direct attack on the quality of services that are a central pillar of the welfare state,” stated a manifesto read out in front of the Catalan parliament.
The unions called for a public referendum on the cuts, saying the “official discourse” that everybody must “tighten their belts” was “completely false” and that those who were guilty of causing the crisis “are not making sacrifices.”