Spanish air traffic controllers back strike, but set no date

MADRID (AP) — Spanish air traffic controllers voted Tuesday to go on strike but avoided setting a date in a long-running dispute triggered when the government slashed their pay in the interest of austerity.

The controllers' union USCA did not say how long the strike would last, either, and expressed hope that a stoppage could be averted through negotiations with the government.

If a strike were held, it would apparently be in the second half of August, the busiest month for tourism in one of Europe's top vacation destinations.

USCA is protesting a government decree passed last week that increased controllers' potential working hours and reduced the length of their rest breaks during shifts.

The changes are the latest chapter of a spat that erupted in February when the government all but eliminated overtime hours and thus cut air traffic controllers' pay that was as high as €350,000 ($460,000) a year — four times what the prime minister earns.

Development Minister Jose Blanco, whose responsibilities include civil aviation, said then "it is intolerable for the government to pay millionaire salaries to civil servants while seeking austerity from the rest of the Spanish people." Spain is saddled with a jobless rate of 20 percent as it struggles to recover from nearly two years of recession.

The union said Tuesday the changes in work schedules were under negotiation and the ministry has "torpedoed the process" with the recent decree and left its members with no choice but to go on strike.

Blanco said earlier Tuesday a strike would be unjustified and insisted the government would ensure airport towers are manned sufficiently to prevent disruptions if a strike is called.

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Associated Press writer Ciaran Giles in Madrid contributed to this report.