MADRID -- Hundreds of thousands of protesters were marching throughout Spain on Sunday in the first large-scale show of anger over new labor reforms that make it easier for companies to fire workers and pull out of collective bargaining agreements.
Spain's main trade unions organized marches in 57 cities, beginning midmorning in southern Cordoba. Some events that had been planned for later in the day, such as in eastern Valencia, had to be brought forward because of the early buildup of large crowds.
Union organizers said around 1 million people had marched by mid-afternoon, but official figures were not released.
Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's government passed the package of reforms nine days ago in an effort to shake up a labor market seen as one of Europe's most rigid and to encourage hiring in a country battling the highest unemployment rate in the eurozone, at nearly 23 percent.
The government, elected in November, is working desperately to chip away at a bloated deficit and a jobless rate that stands at staggering 39 percent for those aged between 20 and 29. Its first big step was a euro15 billion (around $20 billion) deficit reduction package of spending cuts and tax hikes approved Feb. 3, followed by the shake-up of the labor market.
Rajoy was overheard saying at an EU summit last month that the reforms he was planning on introducing would "cost me a general strike."
"If we want Spain to grow and create employment, we had to do what we've done," Rajoy said at his Popular Party's annual congress in southwestern Seville on Sunday.
The government's sweeping changes allow Spanish companies facing declining revenues to pull out of collective bargaining agreements and have greater flexibility to adjust employees' schedules, workplace tasks and wages, as well as making it easier and less costly to fire workers.
"If the government doesn't rectify this, we will continue with an ever-growing mobilization," General Workers Union spokesman Candido Mendez said.
Many protesters wore hats with large scissors on top and shouted, "Don't cut our rights," while others carried placards in the shape of coffins that read, "Negotiation and collective bargaining, RIP."
Office worker Manuela Silvela, 58, said the government's measures were doing nothing to ease the uncertainty felt in Spain.
"Workers who've got jobs now are worried these reforms will make it easy to lose them, and in current conditions, those who don't have work are going to find it impossible to get a job," she said.