Demonstrators block a bus in Barcelona during a general strike on Nov. 14. General strikes in Spain and Portugal will spearhead the day of action called by European unions and joined by activists as anger over governments' tight-fisted policies boils over.(Photo: Josep Lago, AFP/Getty Images)
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."
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
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.
protesters and police were reported in Spain and Italy but
demonstrations remained largely peaceful. World stock markets were mixed
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
The protests Wednesday brought out people who blame the economic system as a whole.
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."
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
"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.
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
On an avenue in Lisbon, Portugal, unemployed teacher
Ligia Carvalho said she was protesting for the future of herself and her
"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)."