MADRID - Spanish workers enraged by austerity-driven labor measures to prevent the nation from becoming Europe’s next bailout victim slowed the country’s economy in a general strike Thursday, closing factories and clashing with police as the new center-right government tried to convince investors the nation is not headed for a financial meltdown.
Tens of thousands held protest marches in Madrid and other cities, and the demonstrations turned violent in Spain’s second-largest city, Barcelona, where hooded protesters smashed bank and storefront windows with hammers and rocks and set fire to streetside trash containers.
Traffic was slowed in Valencia when demonstrators burned mattresses on a highway, and a Molotov cocktail was hurled at a police car in Murcia.
Authorities arrested 176 protesters across Spain and said 104 people were hurt in clashes, including 58 police officers. There were no reports of serious injures.
The protests came a day before Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s administration was expected to announce about $40 billion in spending cuts and tax hikes to ease increasing fears about Spain’s budget deficit.
European leaders insist drastic cuts must be made this year even though reductions in government spending are almost sure to boost the unemployment rate of nearly 23 percent, the highest among the 17 nations that use the euro.
The labor measures make it less costly for businesses to fire workers and give them incentives for hiring - but protesters said they are being forced to give up rights earned decades ago.
“Why wouldn’t I protest?’’ asked textile worker Jose Jimenez, 60, from the Madrid protest.
“I’ve spent 45 years working for the same company and now they can get rid of me almost for free.’’
Others said the changes put in place by Rajoy in February after his conservative Popular Party ousted the governing Socialists in November will only boost the corporate profits.