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Anti-austerity protests sweep across Europe

Greek doctors and railway employees walked out, Spanish workers shut down trains and buses, and one man even blocked the Irish parliament with a cement truck as anti-austerity protests erupted across Europe Wednesday.
Image: European demonstration in Le Perthus
Public and private workers demonstrate and block the Spanish border in Le Perthus, France, Wednesday, as part of protests against austerity measures by their respective governments.Guillame Horcajuela / EPA
/ Source: news services

Greek doctors and railway employees walked out, Spanish workers shut down trains and buses, and one man even blocked the Irish parliament with a cement truck as anti-austerity protests erupted across Europe Wednesday.

Tens of thousands of demonstrators poured into Brussels, hoping to swell into a 100,000-strong march on European Union institutions later in the day and reinforce the impact of Spain's first nationwide strike in eight years.

All the actions sought to protest the budget-slashing, tax-hiking, pension-cutting austerity plans of European governments seeking to control their debt.

In an ironic twist, the march in Brussels comes just as the EU Commission is proposing to punish member states that have run up deficits to fund social programs in a time of high unemployment across the continent.

The proposal, backed by Germany, is running into opposition from France, which wants politicians to decide on sanctions, not rigid rules alone.

"It is a bizarre time for the European Commission to be proposing a regime of punishment," said John Monks, general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation, which is organizing the Brussels march.

"How is that going to make the situation better? It is going to make it worse," Monks said in an interview with Associated Press Television News.

Unions fear that workers will become the biggest victims of an economic crisis set off by bankers and traders, many of whom were rescued by massive government intervention.

"It is not right that people on low salaries have to pay to prop up the country. It should be the banks," said Belgian demonstrator Evelain Foncis.

'A great danger'
Several governments, already living dangerously with high debt, were pushed to the brink of financial collapse and have been forced to impose punishing cuts in wages, pensions and employment — measures that have brought workers out by the tens of thousands over the past months.

"There is a great danger that the workers are going to be paying the price for the reckless speculation that took place in financial markets," Monks said.

"You really got to reschedule these debts so that they are not a huge burden on the next few years and cause Europe to plunge down into recession," he added.

In Spain, Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's Socialist government is under severe pressure because of the hugely unpopular measures put in place to save Europe's fourth-largest economy from a bailout like one that saved Greece from bankruptcy.

The cuts have helped Spain trim its central government deficit by half through July but the unemployment rate stands at 20 percent, and many businesses are struggling to survive.

The strike Wednesday was Spain's first general strike since 2002 and marked a break in the once-close relationship between unions and the Socialist government.

Whistle-blowing protesters blocked trucks from delivering produce at the main wholesale markets in Madrid and Barcelona. Strikers hurled eggs and screamed "scabs" at drivers trying to leave a city bus garage in Madrid.

Unions: Half the workforce on strike
Unions said 10 million people, or more than half the workforce, were on strike. Government officials gave no numbers but played down disruption.

Some shops were forced to shut in the heart of Madrid. Union leaders said 30 protesters were detained but most were quickly released.

Few buses were running in Madrid and only half of underground trains, although Labor Minister Celestino Corbacho said a minimum guaranteed service agreed with unions was being met. In northern Spain, car factory assembly lines halted.

"We'll continue to strike if that's what's needed to bring down the labor reform, which threatens to make jobs even more vulnerable," said graphic designer Alfredo Perez, one of the pickets.

Greece, which had to be rescued by the euro-nations this spring to stave off bankruptcy, has also been forced to cut deep into workers' allowances, with weeks of bitter strikes and actions as a result.

Bus and trolley drivers walked off the job for several hours while Athens' metro system and tram were to shut down at noon. National railway workers were also walking off the job at noon, disrupting rail connections across the country, while doctors at state hospitals were on a 24-hour strike.

Greece has already been suffering from two weeks of protests by truck drivers who have made it difficult for businesses to get supplies. Many supermarkets are seeing shortages, while producers complaining they are unable to export their goods.

Greece's government has imposed stringent austerity measures, including cutting civil servants' salaries, trimming pensions and hiking consumer and income taxes. Several other EU nations are also planning actions.

'All politicians should be sacked'
In Dublin, a man blocked the gates of the Irish parliament with a cement truck to protest the country's expensive bank bailout. Written across the truck's barrel in red letters were the words: "Toxic Bank" Anglo and "All politicians should be sacked."

Police arrested a 41-year-old man but gave few other details.

The Anglo Irish Bank, which was nationalized last year to save it from collapse, owes some $97 billion to depositors worldwide, leaving Irish taxpayers with a mammoth bill at a time when people are suffering through high unemployment, tax hikes and heavy budget cuts.

Also Wednesday, some 400 protesters rallied in an illegal demonstration in Vilnius to demand authorities in Lithuania cease harsh austerity measures such as salary cuts.

"All of working Europe is on the streets today to express dismay over near-sighted income-cutting politics," said Vytautas Jusys, a 40-year-old engineer who lost his job this year.

In Slovenia, thousands of public service workers continued their open-ended strike on Wednesday to protest the government's plan to freeze their salaries for two years — or until economy grows again at a rate of 3 percent. Unions in Portugal say they expect some 30,000 people will show up for demonstrations.

Thousands of Polish workers were also protesting government plans to freeze wages and raise some taxes.

The workers from around Poland blew horns and whistles during a protest in Warsaw Wednesday, and demanded the government guarantees their job security and scrap plans to raise the VAT and tax on alcohol and cigarettes.

In Portugal, President Anibal Cavaco Silva was meeting leaders from the ruling Socialists and the main opposition center-right Social Democrats, to reach a deal on the 2011 budget as newspapers reported the government was considering tax rises.

The crisis talks come after investors dumped Portuguese bonds in recent days, fearing the country will fail to cut its budget deficit.

Manuel Carvalho da Silva, head of the CGTP umbrella union, said workers could intensify industrial action, even though strikes have so far won little broad support from the Portuguese.

"We are going to intensify and increase the threshold of industrial action," he told business daily Jornal de Negocios.

Concerns are rising in Portugal that the crisis could escalate.

"I think it's total chaos, I will retire soon but I don't know if there will be any money to pay me for my pension," said Fatima Ferreira, a school coordinator in Lisbon on her way to work.