MADRID // Spanish air traffic controllers started voting today whether to go on strike in a long-running dispute that began when the government reduced their pay by as much as half in the interest of austerity. The controllers' union USCA said a date would be decided later if its 2,300 members decide to go on strike. The stoppage could come in August, the busiest month for tourism in one of Europe's top vacation destinations. USCA says the stoppage has been proposed to protest recent government decrees outlining changes in working and rest hours. The union says the changes will oblige some controllers to work up to 28 days a month. For the unions these changes were the final straw in a spat that erupted in February when the government slashed air traffic controller pay that, in some cases, was as high as 350,000 euros ($460,000) a year. That is more than four times what the Spanish prime minister earns.
Development Minister Jose Blanco said then "it is intolerable for the government to pay millionaire salaries to civil servants while seeking austerity from the rest of the Spanish people." With jobless rate at 20 percent, Spain is struggling to recover after nearly two years of recession. In recent months many air traffic controllers have taken sick leave, prompting government accusations they were staging a strike on the sly. More than 40 percent of the air traffic controllers were out sick for a day last month in Barcelona. Last week the government said health inspectors performed tests on 205 air traffic controllers on sick leave and found that most were fit to work. Until now much of controllers' pay came from working overtime, which was paid three times higher than regular hours. Now, these hours have been all but eliminated. The latest changes concern working hours and breaks during shifts, and were approved in a decree last Friday. The union accuses the government of enacting the reforms even while the issue was being negotiated. According to new rules, the number of hours controllers can work per year does not change much. But whereas before working overtime was optional, now the hours that used to draw triple pay are mandatory and paid at the standard rate. Controllers will also get shorter breaks during their work shifts. Blanco said Tuesday the strike is not justified, and he insisted the government would ensure airport towers are manned sufficiently to prevent disruptions if a strike is called. * Associated Press