Spaniards launched a 24-hour general strike Thursday, slashing services to protest a new law facilitating lay-offs at a time of towering unemployment, recession and austerity cuts.
MADRID- It is the first strike against Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's conservative policies, coming 100 days after he took office vowing to cut Spain's 23-percent unemployment rate and steady its shaky finances.
Carrying red flags and placards reading "General Strike" or "Work Reform, No", picketers stood at the entrances of businesses, the Madrid wholesale market, banks and public transport hubs.
Cars clogged the roads in the morning rush-hour in central Madrid, where the pavements were littered with discarded union pamphlets decrying a weakening of workers' rights: "They want to end it all."
Union chiefs hailed the strike as a "huge success" as the day of action began.
By early morning, 58 people had been arrested while six police and three strikers had been lightly injured in minor incidents, the interior ministry said.
One police officer hit a protester with the handle of his baton, cutting the activist above his eyebrow as he and others tried to stop buses leaving a station in Carabanchel, southern Madrid, an AFP photographer said.
The major CCOO and UGT unions, which called for protests in about 100 towns, denounce the government's February 11 labour reform, which makes it cheaper to dismiss staff and easier to cut salaries.
The right-leaning Popular Party government says the new law is needed to attack Spain's 22.85-percent jobless rate, which it predicts will rise to 24.3 percent this year as another 630,000 people lose their jobs.
But unions say the economy, not the law, is to blame for Spain's economic ills.
At one rally of a few dozen UGT demonstrators outside a health ministry building in central Madrid, hemmed in police, 57-year-old Antonio Rodriguez said he had been laid off 10 days ago after 38 years working in a graphics design business which shut down.
"So you can have an idea of why we are here, I can tell you that I calculate I will be left with about 700 euros ($930) a month until I die. And that's after 38 years," he said.
A minimum service agreement is expected to ensure service by 30 percent of buses and underground trains in Madrid, 30 percent of regional trains, and 20 percent of intercity trains.
Schools are open and health services should provide Sunday-type services.
Airlines Iberia, Air Nostrum and Vueling have cancelled about 60 percent of their flights.
The strike should be a "democratic tide," said CCOO secretary general Ignacio Fernandex Toxo.
But the impact is likely to be diminished by the minimum service agreements and the number of people reluctant to lose a day's pay.
"I can understand why they strike. The reform is just to fire people more easily and more cheaply," said Pedro Moreno, who works at a large supermarket in the Madrid suburbs.
"But this is not the time to lose work days. I am lucky to have a job," the 32-year-old added as he took an underground train at Plaza de Castilla, one of the city's major hubs.
For Spain's prime minister, the timing of the strike could not be worse, just as he is trying to show European partners that Spain will fulfill its promises to cut spending and trim the public deficit.
On Friday, a cabinet meeting is scheduled to approve the 2012 budget with massive new spending cuts to help reduce the deficit to 5.3 percent of economic output this year from 8.51 percent last year.
The governnment has already announced budget cuts amounting to 8.9 billion euros and tax increases to rake in another 6.3 billion euros.
But analysts say Spain needs to shave a total 50 billion euros off its budget if it is to meet the deficit-cutting goal in a recession, with output officially expected to decline 1.7 percent this year.