Workers in Europe Synchronize Anti-Austerity Strikes

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MADRID -- Workers across Europe mounted coordinated protests on Wednesday against government austerity policies in a time of economic malaise.

In Spain and Portugal, workers staged general strikes. Unions in Greece, Italy, France and Belgium joined in protests and work stoppages to show solidarity with striking workers elsewhere.

The breadth of the demonstrations, which affected scores of cities, reflected widespread unhappiness with high unemployment, slowing growth and worsening economic prospects in Europe, and the resistance that European governments confront as they push plans for more belt tightening. Occasional clashes with police were reported in some cities.

Among those striking on Wednesday were railroad workers in Belgium; airline, autoworkers and teachers in Spain; civil servants in Italy; and transit workers in Portugal. Union leaders called the coordinated actions historic.

Government officials generally played down the disruptions caused by the actions and said their countries had no alternative but to cut spending and reduce their deficits. The Spanish economy minister, Luis de Guindos, said his government "is convinced that the path we have taken is the only possible way out."

Even so, Spain's heavy industry and large parts of its transportation network were stalled by the general strike, the second since the conservative prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, gained power last December. With unemployment in Spain at 25 percent, Mr. Rajoy has presented a tough austerity budget for next year.

The Spanish police reported that 82 people had been arrested by late afternoon, and 34 were wounded, including 18 police officers, mainly during violence on picket lines across the country, but also following clashes in central Madrid.

About 700 flights to and from Spain were canceled Wednesday, adding to growing uncertainty about the future of Iberia, the Spanish national airline. Its management announced this month that Iberia needed to lay off one-quarter of its workers to survive.

The strike also severely disrupted automobile production at Spanish factories owned by Nissan, Volkswagen and other carmakers. With security guards and other workers off the job in Granada, one of Spain's biggest tourism attractions, the Alhambra palace, was closed to visitors.

In Portugal, which faces similar economic and fiscal problems to those of Spain, the Lisbon subway was closed on Wednesday. More than 130 demonstrations were planned for cities in France, where President François Hollande described the economic situation as "serious" on Tuesday and called on labor unions to strike a "historic bargain" to ease regulations on hiring and firing of workers.

In a joint statement, five leading French unions expressed their "strong opposition to these austerity measures that are plunging Europe into economic stagnation and recession" and that "threaten the European social model." Marches in Paris, Marseille, Lille and Lyon each drew a few thousand participants.

In Italy, civil servants went on strike and national transportation workers -- although not airlines -- stopped work for four hours.

Mass protest marches that started in the late afternoon turned into violent clashes between the police and groups of protesters near the parliament houses in Madrid and Lisbon, as well as in Barcelona, Spain, and there was a prolonged confrontation between students and police officers along the banks of the Tiber in Rome.

The clashes continued for several hours after the end of the official protest marches in Spain's two largest cities. In Madrid, police used rubber bullets against protesters who set bins on fire and threw bottles and stones at security forces. In downtown Barcelona, some protestors set two police vehicles on fire, while others smashed the glass front of the Palau de la Música, a concert hall whose financing has been at the center of an ongoing corruption case involving some local politicians.

Workers across Greece, where the economy is contracting sharply, stopped work for three hours on Wednesday, and a solidarity rally in Athens drew about 2,000 people, some holding French, Spanish, Portuguese and Irish flags, and others carrying banners calling for a write-off of Greek debts. In contrast with larger and more turbulent rallies in recent months and a general strike last week, Wednesday's demonstrations were peaceful.

In Spanish cities like Valencia and Murcia, some of the workers' ire was directed not just at the government but also at the country's banks, whose mountain of bad loans forced Madrid last June to request a bailout from the European Union that obliged the country to cut public spending deeply. Protesters tried to block access to some bank offices on Wednesday.

In Barcelona, clutches of demonstrators burned tires at the main wholesale food market early in the morning to try and block supplies to the city's shops. Public transportation ground to a halt.

Ignacio Fernández Toxo, the head of one of Spain's two main unions, Comisiones Obreras, said that the coordinated strike action across the Iberian Peninsula, as well as work stoppages in other parts of Europe, amounted to "a historic moment in the European Union movement."

But support for trade unions has been dwindling in recent years, in part because of disillusionment over their failure to prevent job losses and austerity policies and their reliance on government subsidies rather than members' dues. In Spain, only about 16 percent of workers are now unionized.

"The unions have long shown that they won't really bite the hand that feeds them," said Carlos Martin, owner of a Madrid bakery. "Striking is a kind of theater performance that unions want to maintain."

Some workers, too, were skeptical of the unions' strategy. "I can afford to protest but not to lose a day of pay," said Carlos Sánchez, a mechanic at a Madrid garage. "Striking at this stage in the crisis brings absolutely nothing to the workers."

But Daniel, a 36-year-old subway driver who took part in the transit strike in Barcelona, said he was protesting against policies that were destroying Spain. "I am worried about the future," he said. "We are fighting because they don't stop cutting everything."

Reporting was contributed by Elisabetta Povoledo and Gaia Pianigiani from Rome; Nicola Clark from Paris; Da Bilefsky from Barcelona, Spain; and Niki Kitsantonis from Athens.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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