Hundreds of thousands of workers in Spain are taking part in a general strike, the first in eight years. The strikers are protesting the government's plans to cut unemployment benefits.

Reports about the strike's effectiveness vary widely. Spanish government sources said less than 20 percent of the workforce observed the strike. But, the unions put that figure at more than 85 percent.

Consumption of electric energy dropped by just 20 percent, a much smaller decline than in the four previous general strikes called since the reestablishment of democracy in Spain 25 years ago.

Thanks to a massive deployment of police, the government was able to guarantee minimal service in public transportation by bus, subway or local train, as well as access to department stores.

The Spanish airline, Iberia, reported that 20 percent of its flights were functioning. Radio and television networks maintained most of their programming, and newspapers published reduced editions.

Most of Spain's newsstands were closed. But most bars and restaurants and many small businesses functioned normally.

Clashes between picketers and police were reported soon after the strike began at midnight. Police said they made more than 45 arrests as strikers attempted to block access to work places or to puncture the tires of buses.

The 24-hour general strike was called by Spain's two major labor unions (Workers Commissions and General Union of Workers) to protest a government plan that includes a reduction in unemployment benefits for temporary farm workers. The plan also would stop benefits to unemployed people who turn down more than three job offers.

Spain's unemployment rate of 11.5 percent is the highest in the European Union.

The government said the strike is political and intended to embarrass Prime Minister Jose María Aznar the day before he hosts a summit of European leaders in Seville, which will end Spain's six-month presidency of the European Union.