By Fiona Ortiz
MADRID (Reuters) - The Spanish king's traditional Christmas Eve address will not be aired on Catalonia's public television on Tuesday for the first time since monarchy was restored, highlighting growing separatist fervor in the wealthy north-eastern region.
Workers at the broadcaster have called a half-hour strike for the exact time of the king's speech. The official reason is to protest cost cuts and the outsourcing of some production, part of the independence-minded region's clash with the central government in Madrid.
While King Juan Carlos is unlikely to discuss the contentious issue of Catalan independence directly in his speech, he is likely to call on Spaniards to unify as the country struggles to emerge from a deep five-year economic crisis that has left one in four workers out of a job.
TV3, the broadcaster's flagship channel, will show re-runs during the strike and the speech will be made available later on its website, a spokeswoman said.
Catalonia - which has its own language - is home to 7.6 million people and produces about a fifth of Spain's economic output. Its leader, Artur Mas of the center-right CiU political alliance, is pushing for a referendum on November 9 next year on independence from Spain.
That would be two months after Scotland holds a similar vote to break from the United Kingdom.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy says the Catalan plebiscite would be unconstitutional and has vowed to block it in Parliament and in the courts. In contrast, the government of the United Kingdom has agreed to recognize the outcome of the Scottish referendum.
Mas's referendum drive may prove a political dead end for him and his party. If the central government blocks the plebiscite, his coalition with radical independence party the Catalan Republican Left, or ERC, could fall apart and force him to call early elections. Polls show he would lose the election to the ERC.
Catalonia has long had a strong movement for nationalism - primarily as a push for greater autonomy within Spain.
But in recent years a more radical independence movement has taken root and polls show roughly half of Catalans would vote for full independence if there were a referendum.
Cost cutting imposed by the Spanish central government due to the economic crisis, perceptions of unfair tax treatment and constant tussles with Madrid over self-governing powers have all fuelled the independence movement.
Belt-tightening throughout Spain - as the government tries to plug a massive budget hole - has hit the public broadcasters set up in almost all of the country's 17 autonomous regions in the 1980s when the country returned to democracy after the Franco dictatorship.
Catalan public television has survived, but Valencia had to shut down its broadcaster and Madrid's public television station has laid off hundreds of employees. Cost cuts have also hit national public broadcaster RTVE.
Public television in Basque Country, another highly devolved region ruled by a nationalist party, will not transmit the King's speech on Tuesday either. But 30-year-old Basque public television EiTB has rarely broadcast the speech, as the Basque Nationalist Party, or PNV, is historically critical of the monarchy.
Spanish households traditionally tune in to the yearly speech by King Juan Carlos, who has been on the throne 38 years and is considered a key player in Spain's transition to democracy after Franco died.
In recent years he has used the speech to thank Spaniards for sacrifices in economic hard times and to call on violent Basque separatist group ETA to disband.
In his 2012 speech - which had the lowest audience for the yearly address in 15 years - the king said "no one is above the law," in a reference to corruption charges against his son-in-law, and an investigation into his daughter's finances.
(Additional reporting by Arantza Goyoaga in Bilbao; Editing by Sonya Dowsett/Jeremy Gaunt)