Spaniards reacted with shock to a wildcat strike by air traffic controllers who grounded flights during a holiday weekend despite earning an average 200,000 euros (US$267,000) a year.
The strike hit an estimated 300,000 passengers at the start of a long weekend and ended only when Madrid placed controllers under military command and threatened them with jail.
At the core was a power struggle between controllers and a Socialist government determined to end their “intolerable privileges” during an economic crisis that has pushed the jobless rate to 20 percent.
At the start of the year, Spanish Minister of Public Works and Transport Jose Blanco said he wanted to end the air traffic controllers’ “incomprehensible advantages.” According to ministry figures at the time, there were 2,300 controllers of whom 135 earned more than 600,000 euros a year and 713 between 360,000 and 540,000 euros because of generous overtime arrangements.
“It is intolerable that a public enterprise should give millionaire salaries to its employees,” Blanco said.
In a decree in February, he took aim at their salaries by limiting total overtime and the hourly overtime rate, which had been up to triple normal pay rates.
On Friday, the government approved a further reduction in overtime hours and ended early retirement for controllers at the age of 52 as it outlined plans to partially privatize airport operator AENA.
As a result, controllers saw their annual salaries decline abruptly from 334,000 euros to 200,000 euros.
Their situation won little sympathy, though, in a country hard hit by the economic crisis.
“It is not right they should be demanding wage increases when there are so many people out of work. They are privileged,” said 31-year-old Nouria Sanchez, whose flight from Madrid to Tenerife was cancelled.
“I think most Spaniards are not with them now,” Sanchez said.
Another stranded passenger, 49-year-old Consuelo Sayd, agreed.
“They earn more than the head of government, more than the ministers! A lot of people have no salary, or no work, and they allow themselves the luxury of ruining people’s dreams,” she said.
Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who reduced his own salary by 15 percent this year as part of an austerity plan to cut the public deficit, had a salary of 78,000 euros this year.
The average gross annual salary in Spain is 21,000 euros, half of that in Britain, the Netherlands or Germany, according to a study by Aedco and the IESE Business School.
Controllers also chose a difficult moment for their strike: With today and Wednesday public holidays many people are taking off tomorrow to enjoy a five-day break.
“We cannot allow this blackmail in which citizens are used as hostages,” Blanco fumed on Friday evening.
The press, too, reacted angrily.
By their attitude the controllers “are losing the argument and the battle for public opinion,” the leading center-left daily El Pais said.
The center-right paper La Vanguardia spoke of “intolerable extortion” and the right-wing ABC mocked the controllers’ “imaginary illnesses,” alluding to the fact that the strikers had called in sick en masse.