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Spaniards swarm Madrid for anti-austerity rally

Daniel Silva
People take part in a demonstration in Madrid on September 15, 2012 against government austerity measures aimed at slashing the public deficit. A sea of chanting protesters from across Spain packed the centre of Madrid for a union-organised rally against government austerity measures.

A sea of chanting protesters from across Spain packed the centre of Madrid on Saturday for a union-organised rally against government austerity measures aimed at avoiding the need for a financial bailout.

Tens of thousands including policemen in blue T-shirts, firemen with their red helmets, teachers decked out in matching green and healthcare workers in white, chanted "we are not paying for this crisis" as they marched to the Plaza Colon square.

Over 1,000 buses had ferried people to the Spanish capital for the protest, which was organised by Spain's two leading trade unions, the CCOO and the UGT, along with roughly 150 smaller organisations.

Organisers provided no estimate for the turnout but the government said around 65,000 people took part in the demonstration.

"We want to say loud and clear to the government that we do not agree, that its policies cause too much damage, that we will not resign ourselves because there are alternatives," CCOO head Ignacio Toxo told the rally.

In July, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's conservative government eliminated public workers' annual Christmas bonuses, equivalent to a seven-percent reduction in annual pay, as part of austerity measures worth 102 billion euros ($126.5 billion) to be put in place by 2014 to reduce Spain's public deficit.

The measures also include an increase in sales tax and cuts to jobless benefits in a nation with nearly 25 percent unemployment. They follow a reduction in public workers' salaries by an average of five percent in 2010.

"I see the future as very black. My salary is getting smaller and smaller and my hours longer," said 55-year-old public sector worker Rian de los Rios as she made her way to the rally.

Like thousands of other Spanish youths, her two daughters -- aged 26 and 28 -- have left Spain to work abroad because they could not find jobs at home despite having studied at university, she added.

"We are not even able to keep our families together," said De Los Rios.

Fireman Roberto Saldana, 44, who travelled all night by bus with a group of co-workers from the southern city of Huleva to join the protest, said the government has "cut salaries, raised taxes, we have gone backwards 20 or 30 years."

The last major march against government austerity measures was on July 19, when hundreds of thousands of people marched through Madrid. Protests were held in over 80 Spanish cities that day.

"A protest like this, with people from across the country, has a greater impact than several protests in provincial capitals," said hotel receptionist Rafael Navas, 52, who came to Madrid from the southern city of Cordoba.

The government hopes the austerity measures will prevent Spain from needing a multi-billion-euro bailout like the ones received by Greece, Ireland and Portugal, which come with detailed conditions and regular inspections.

Madrid has already accepted a eurozone rescue loan of up to 100 billion euros to save its banks, still reeling from a 2008 property market crash.

But organisers of the rally argue the austerity measures are hitting mainly the middle and lower classes and sparing large companies and the wealthy. They want the austerity measures to be put to a referendum.

UGT head Candido Mendez said Saturday's rally was the start of a "long" fight against the austerity measures.

"We have to fight them democratically as we are doing today," he told the crowd gathered at Plaza Colon.

Railway workers, along with metro workers in Madrid and Barcelona, will stage a one day strike on Monday over the austerity measures.

The government is committed to lowering Spain's deficit to 6.3 percent of output this year from 8.9 percent in 2011.