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Riot police clashed with striking workers from Spain’s Iberia airline on Monday as they began a five-day stoppage in protest at plans to sack a fifth of the workforce in a country struggling with 26% unemployment.
As hundreds of flights were cancelled in the biggest strike yet to hit Iberia, Willie Walsh, chairman of the airline’s parent company since its merger with British Airways, stuck to his plan for 3,800 job cuts.
Workers carrying banners saying “They have sold us to pirates” added to the chaos by blocking access roads and check-in counters at the voluminous, Richard Rogers-designed terminal used by Iberia and BA at Madrid’s Barajas airport.
Unions blamed the impasse directly on Walsh, who chairs the IAG holding company and faced similar conflict with unions at BA four years ago. They threatened to hold a total of 15 strike days in February and March. Spanish newspapers quoted union officials as saying that Iberia’s Spanish management were puppets whose strings were pulled by Irishman Walsh.
The strike was set to impact on the 120 airlines that subcontract airport handling services in Spain to Iberia. More than 200 flights by Iberia and its subsidiaries Vueling and Air Nostrum were cancelled on Monday.
Iberia said it had managed to transfer most passengers to other airlines but 10,000 of the 70,000 passengers due to travel this week would simply have their money refunded.
The strike was called by cabin crew and ground staff unions representing more than 90% of the workforce. Iberia’s pilots are, separately, at war with the airline and a strike by them last year was estimated to have cost the loss-making company €3m (£2.6m) a day.
Spain’s transport minister, Ana Pastor, who leaned on unions and the company to reach an agreement over the weekend, has estimated damage to the recession-struck economy will run at €10m a day.
Iberia said it lost €262m in the first nine months of 2012 and urgently needed to reduce staff levels. “This situation is obliging the company to take drastic measures to reduce costs and improve unit revenues in order to remain in business,” a company statement said. “Strikes … can only aggravate the airline’s loss-making situation.”
Iberia wants to sack 3,800 of its 18,000 employees and gave unions a 30-day window to negotiate on 12 February as it goes ahead with plans to cut 15% of capacity, including on long-haul routes to Latin America.
“Iberia’s plan, however harsh, seems inevitable,” Spain’s La Vanguardia newspaper commented. “From its days as a publicly owned carrier, it has been weighed down by personnel costs that are far above those of the competition.”
Gabriel Mocho, of the International Transport Workers’ Federation, said: “The fingerprints of Willie Walsh are visible in the breakdown in talks that led to this declaration. Orders from above have clearly denied Iberia the freedom to achieve a joint negotiated plan with unions to secure a profitable future for the airline.
“Willie Walsh seems to once again be following the same plan [as he did at BA]. Set the bar impossibly high. Torpedo any agreements that are reached. Create maximum discord.”
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk