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Anti-austerity protests, strikes spread across Europe

1:37 PM, Nov 14, 2012   |    comments
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BARCELONA -- Flights and trains were canceled across Europe on Wednesday as thousands of workers took to the streets to protest austerity measures aimed at reducing massive government deficits and boosting shaky economies.

"We all know that reforms, layoffs and cuts will continue but maybe we manage to get them cut (more slowly)," said Francisco Vallejo, 41, an administrative assistant in Madrid. "The only strike that is useless is the one we don't follow."

Unions had called for strikes across Europe to protest the trimming of government-funded salaries and pension benefits, which had risen dramatically over the years and led to significant debt problems in some countries.

The call to strike was heeded by many in Italy and Spain; but union workers in Britain, Germany and Denmark held rallies instead of walking off the job.

Transport hubs were at standstill across southern Europe and in Brussels as airports and train stations shut down. Large union-dominated factories closed in Spain. In Portugal, some major unions declined to back the strike tough public transportation workers stayed off the job.

Clashes between protesters and police were reported in Spain and Italy but demonstrations remained largely peaceful. World stock markets were mixed Wednesday.

The so-called austerity measures comprise spending cuts, tax hikes and changes to labor laws to allow businesses to better adjust to shaky economies. But several governments and many workers worry that the measures may worsen economies by driving down individual incomes.

The protests Wednesday brought out people who blame the economic system as a whole.

"They've only just started cuts but they are pretty draconian already," said Andrew Burgin, European officer for the Coalition of Resistance in London, which organized a rally outside the European Commission offices there. "I think this is the beginning of a new movement. It will be a day remembers in history as the beginning of a pan-European movement, possibly an international movement, against capitalism."

But European leaders, such as Angela Merkel of Germany, says the problem is the massive debts piled up by individual nations, many of which like Greece and Portugal spent beyond revenues on public projects, expanding welfare and government jobs, and generous public benefits.

Greece and Spain, which have been hit hardest by an economic slowdown and debt crisis that has swept up several nations across the continent, are experiencing unemployment rates of more than 25%. Both countries passed measures recently to change labor laws that protected employees from layoffs and that businesses say prevented them from hiring or innovating.

The austerity measures are supposed to improve the economy over time but in the short-term people in Greece and Spain especially are experiencing curtailment of government health care, reductions in their pensions and salaries and higher taxes.

The strikes were called by the European Trade Union Confederation, which represents almost 90 different groups across Europe.

"The people of Europe will not stand for fiscal fundamentalism and will fight for an alternative based on social and economic justice," said the confederation's General Secretary Designate Frances O'Grady. "'Those in the corridors of power in Brussels and Frankfurt need to understand this - that if ordinary European workers feel that the EU is about little more than cuts, open markets and privatization, then the European project will collapse just as surely as night follows day."

Analysts were skeptical about the effectiveness of the strikes.

"I think we have already seen turn in the European crisis management toward a more social management, meaning, like in the case of Greece and Spain, that more time is given for the reforms to be implemented due to the social impact, not to somehow totally overburden the countries with the implementation of the measures," said Carsten Brzeski, senior economist at ING in Brussels.

"This is already some kind of acknowledgement and change, but I don't think we should suddenly expect the kind of change where governments all of a sudden start to spend or cancel the reforms -- in the end the reforms are required to restart growth in the countries," he said. "You can argue about the pace in which they are implemented, but I don't think you can argue about the necessity to do them."

Some people felt the strikes may do harm.

"In Madrid, we've been having plenty of them in the last few months and I think given the situation of the country, now it is time to work instead of stopping," said Estefania Martin, 38, who works for an technology company in Madrid.

There as a clear divide in Europe, where wealthier states like the Netherlands and the Nordic nations in the north saw few protests. Much of the demonstrating was in the south.

Belgium saw some strikes. Both the Thalys and Eurostar high-speed rail services that connect Brussels with London and Paris were severely disrupted. Protesters said taking to the streets is the best way to confront political leaders.

"Protests and mass mobilization is the only way (forward) for those of us who have seen our rights shrink every day," said Evangelina Tsomaka, 28, a lawyer in Athens. "Protests are your last hope to have your voice heard."

The chief of the European Union employers' federation took a different view.

"If you start striking at national level and in companies you only will harm the economy," said Eurobussiness leader Philippe de Buck in an interview. "It costs billions" of euros, he said, adding that Europe's reputation as a hotbed of trade union action would not attract global investors.

On an avenue in Lisbon, Portugal, unemployed teacher Ligia Carvalho said she was protesting for the future of herself and her two children

"I hope that everybody finally figures out that the future depends on us and if we won't ask for our rights, nobody will," said Carvalho, 33, who said she has been unemployed for five years. "I have two little children and I have no expectations (for the future)."

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