Spain Cracks Down on Strikers in Midst of Fuel Protest

Spain deployed riot police on Wednesday to lift striking truckers' blockades of a border crossing with France and a major highway outside Madrid and made dozens of arrests.

The truckers have disrupted food and fuel supplies in three-day-old nationwide protests over rising fuel prices.

In spite of the government's tough action, unions representing the strikers vowed to press on, rejecting a package of measures presented by the government.

One striker died Tuesday when a van drove through a picket line, and a protester died in a similar incident in neighboring Portugal, which has been hit by the same kind of strike since Monday.

One of the Spanish industries hit hardest by the strike — automobile manufacturing — warned that if the stoppage continues the entire industry and its daily production of 13,000 vehicles will halt Thursday because parts for assembly are not reaching factories.

The strike is being waged by self-employed drivers, who represent an estimated 20 percent of Spain's 380,000-vehicle trucking industry. They say big companies can cope better with fuel price hikes by lowering their hauling rates to land more jobs.

The independent drivers are demanding a minimum guaranteed rate for their services. The Socialist government refuses, saying that would interfere with free-market competition.

Spanish truck drivers say their diesel costs have risen 36 percent in a year. Spanish fishermen have been on strike since May 30, also over fuel costs, and this is compounding problems getting fish supplies to consumers.

Many Spaniards are watching in awe and frustration as a small sector of the industry begins to bring the country to its knees: some gas stations in Madrid and Catalonia have run dry, supermarkets are reporting panic buying and highways around the country have been clogged by slow-moving or parked trucks.

Radio talk shows and cartoons in conservative newspapers are full of digs at the government, accusing it of letting things get out of hand.

"There has been a certain feeling that we were not doing much," Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba said Wednesday. "We are doing a lot."

Riot police intervened Wednesday morning at La Junquera, Spain's main border crossing with France, and removed picketers who had been blocking roads since the strike started. Riot police in Madrid cleared a major road leading into the Spanish capital, Perez Rubalcaba said.

The intervention was peaceful in La Junquera, but in Madrid, police arrested 34 strikers, the minister said. All told, 51 people have been arrested since the strike started and police vehicles have escorted nearly 3,000 trucks transporting food, fuel and other goods, he said.

"There is a constitutional right to strike. There is no constitutional right to disrupt people's lives," Perez Rubalcaba told a news conference.

"Therefore, we are going to continue acting with maximum force and maximum firmness against those who would seek to disturb the public order," the minister said.

In other apparently strike-related violence, fire destroyed four trucks and damaged a fifth at an industrial park near the eastern city of Alicante before dawn Wednesday. Officials said they did not rule out the possibility that the fire was set deliberately. A driver who was sleeping in his vehicle when it caught fire suffered serious burns.

The Spanish government agreed Tuesday night with a large, non-striking trucking union on a package of tax relief and other measures to help the industry. The package was presented Wednesday to three unions representing the strikers, but they rejected it, said Julio Villaescusa, president of one those unions, called Fenadismer.

In Portugal — where gas pumps were near empty and supermarkets warned that some produce stocks were low — the truckers want the government to subsidize gas prices for transport companies.