Thousands protest as Spanish shipyard tension spreads

Agence France presse, 27 September 2004

FERROL, Spain (AFP)—Tens of thousands of Spanish shipyard workers demonstrated at this northwestern port to demand action to save yards threatened with bankruptcy.

Local officials put the turnout at some 45,000, although police said the figure was nearer 30,000.

Union leaders are spearheading a campaign to shelve a plan to introduce some private finance into the yards and cut back a workforce of 10,700.

Talks late Thursday produced an agreed framework for fresh negotiations on Wednesday to rescue the public sector shipbuilder Izar, but strikes have been called for Tuesday and Thursday anyway.

At the heart of the sector's problems are EU demands that Izar repay 300 million euros (368.9 million dollars) in aid which Brussels says breached EU competition rules.

The sector is also struggling in the face of fierce competition from Asia.

The conflict between the employers and the unions is the first major test of industrial relations for Spain's Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, elected in March.

He has promised to save the yards and the jobs of those who work there—but his Socialist Party backs the restructuring plan.

That support for the revamp has sparked fury in a sector which shed 30,000 jobs after undergoing three restructuring plans in the 1980s.

Although Sunday's protest was peaceful, recent weeks have seen sporadic violence erupt at yards in the north and in the south of the country with police baton-charging demonstrators, some of whom responded by throwing stones and ball bearings.

In the worst unrest, protesters disrupted road and rail traffic and set barricades alight in the southern city of Cadiz to protest at plans by SEPI, the Spanish government industrial holding company that owns the docks, to split military and civilian-use yards and inject private cash.

A union spokesman said Friday that SEPI had agreed to postpone presentation of an industrial plan for Izar.

The plan is based on separating naval dockyard activities, the most profitable, from civil shipyards which are due to be parly privatised.