Strike by rubbish collectors leaves Madrid a stinking mess

A strike by 6,000 rubbish collectors and street cleaners in Madrid has left dustbins overflowing and tempers fraying in the Spanish capital, amid bitter recriminations over who is to blame for the foul-smelling mountains of trash piling up.

With the walkout in its second week, residents have been forced to pick their way through streets strewn with rubbish sacks, broken glass and dog mess. City authorities have tried to maintain a basic collection service by sending out rubbish trucks under heavy police escort, but with little progress in negotiations officials, workers and 3.2m Madrileños are digging in for a prolonged strike.

Unions launched the industrial action last week to protest against plans to cut about one in five jobs and sharply lower the wages of the remaining street cleaners and rubbish collectors. The changes were announced by a consortium of private sector companies that operate the cleaning services on behalf of the city. But union leaders say the real culprit is Madrid’s political leadership, pointing out that the planned staff reductions reflect the city’s latest cost-cutting drive.

Strikes by refuse workers have become a feature of the crisis-ridden European periphery, as local and regional governments in countries such as Greece, Spain and Italy face fierce pressure to cut spending and staff. In the case of Spain, which just emerged from recession, the rubbish-strewn streets of Madrid also offer a potent reminder that austerity and budget cuts will remain high on the agenda in the years ahead, in an economy marked high debts and tepid growth.

Ana Botella, the mayor of Madrid, has sought to keep her distance from the labour dispute, insisting repeatedly that the strike is an issue “between employers and workers”. But she has faced sharp criticism in the Spanish press and on social media, amid concern that Madrid’s international image will suffer if the strike continues for much longer.

Critics point out that the strike is just the latest in a series of high-profile blows to the capital. In September, Madrid saw its bid to host the Olympic Games turned down for the third time in a row, fuelling Spanish doubts over the country’s standing in the world and the international prestige of its capital city.

The defeat came at a sensitive time for the Spanish government, which was looking to the Olympics as a way to draw a symbolic line under more than five years of economic crisis. For Ms Botella, the Olympic bid proved to be particularly damaging, after she gave a widely derided speech to the selection committee that was lampooned both for its level of English and its heavy reliance on Spanish clichés.

Madrid’s confidence was also shaken by news over the summer that its gleaming new airport, built at the height of the Spanish building boom, was no longer the busiest in the country. For the first time since records began, Barcelona’s Prat airport received more visitors in August than Madrid. The two have swapped places again since, but the data also make clear that Spain’s capital has not been able to benefit from the broader surge in tourist arrivals to the country this year.

On the streets of Madrid on Tuesday, many residents showed understanding for the plight of the striking workers and laid the blame for the rubbish piling up on the streets squarely at the feet of Ms Botella and the municipality.

“Nobody likes a strike. The streets are really dirty and it’s disgusting,” said Maravillas Prieto, a teacher from Madrid. “But I understand the workers. They were going to reduce their wages and sack more than 1,000 workers. This is because of the town hall. I blame the town hall completely.”

José Luis Rodríguez, a wedding photographer from Madrid, agreed: “I support the strike. Whose fault is it? I blame the city. They sold all the public services.”

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