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Pressure for action grows along with piles of trash on Madrid streets

By Al Goodman, CNN
November 15, 2013 -- Updated 1541 GMT (2341 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Hotel, shop owners calling for intervention in Madrid street cleaners strike
  • The city may call in national workers to do the job municipal workers have not
  • Peruvian businessman: "It's very sad. The city looks absolutely dirty"
  • The strike erupted after word of 1,134 jobs cuts, with salary reductions for those remaining

Madrid (CNN) -- A Madrid street cleaners strike that has left trash piling up for two weeks appears headed for a pivotal point on Saturday, when city hall aims to enforce minimum trash pickup services by using national -- not municipal -- workers, city and union representatives said.

Pressure has been building on Mayor Ana Botella from hotel and shop owners, who have been outspoken in saying the strike is hurting the city's image and their businesses, and from neighborhood associations who complain that trash and broken glass are littering the streets.

The human cost of Spain's financial crisis

About the only respite for the Spanish capital has been that workers who pick up garbage from homes and restaurants are not on strike.

But the street cleaners are very much on strike, so that trash receptacles on the street are overflowing, especially the large bins for glass and paper recycling. And the autumn leaves aren't being swept up either.

Peruvian businessman Jack Falcon was visiting the emblematic Plaza Mayor this week and told CNN, "It's impossible not to notice it. It's very sad. The city looks absolutely dirty."

His wife, Raquel, added, "It looks horrible ... everywhere you walk."

There are concerns about potential health hazards. The city says it has not reached that point but is monitoring the situation closely.

Six thousand street and parks cleaners went on strike on November 5, after three large private services companies that share the city concession for street cleaning announced 1,134 job cuts -- an 18% reduction of the workforce -- and threatened salary reductions for those remaining.

Mayor Botella initially said that since these services are outsourced, it was up to those companies and the workers' unions to resolve the issue.

Minimum services were stipulated: that 40% of the normal cleanup would occur on the streets, and 25% in the parks.

But that's not happening, and the few cleaning crews that are working -- in the city's main tourist areas -- do so under police protection. Companies blame union pickets for the lack of minimum services but the unions blame the companies.

Spain turning back the clock on siestas

"The situation will get worse if the strike continues," the Madrid shop owners association said in a prepared statement, "because we're just ahead of the Christmas holidays, a sales period that is vital for stores."

On November 13, Botella announced a 48-hour deadline, warning that minimum services would have to be carried out or the city would impose them, using workers from a company that's part of the national Ministry of Agriculture.

But unions representing the Agriculture Ministry cleaning workers, from a company called Tragsa, issued a statement saying they wouldn't comply because they also are facing sharp job cuts.

Spain's unemployment rate climbs to record high

The street cleaners strike is another example of how hard it is for Spain to get out of its long economic crisis. Many Spanish cities, like Madrid, are in debt and have outsourced services, trying to cut costs. And the companies with the concessions say that, for efficiency's sake, they need to hold workers' costs in line.

The unions for Madrid's street cleaners vow to stand firm and said city hall's attempt to use a national workforce for minimum services could lead to "disagreeable scenes" confronting workers against workers, said Juan Carlos del Rio, of the General Workers Union.

The unions vow to stand firm, but acknowledge that Saturday is also the deadline when negotiations expire on the strike issues. It means, Del Rio said, that the companies could begin to carry out all 1,134 job cuts, even though in negotiations the two sides had discussed formulas to reduce the cuts to around 600 jobs in exchange for other concessions from the remaining workers. There was no agreement on that formula either.

And the trash keeps piling up.

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