Mass Strikes Sweep Europe

By: NBC News Staff Email
By: NBC News Staff Email

Pockets of violence broke out as public demonstrations and strikes over rising unemployment and austerity measures took place in many parts of Europe Wednesday.

Spanish and Portuguese workers staged a coordinated general strike across the Iberian Peninsula, shutting transport, grounding flights and closing schools to protest against spending cuts and tax hikes.

International rail services were disrupted by strikes in Belgium and workers in Greece, Italy and France planned work stoppages or demonstrations as part of a "European Day of Action and Solidarity.”

Hundreds of flights -- including those between southern Europe and connection hubs such as London Heathrow, Paris Charles de Gaulle and Amsterdam Schiphol -- were also canceled.

More than 60 people were arrested in Spain and 34 injured, 18 of them security officials after scuffles at picket lines and damage to storefronts, Reuters reported. Riot police arrested at least two protesters in Madrid and hit others with batons, witnesses said.

Protesters jammed cash machines with glue and coins and plastered anti-government stickers on shop windows. Power consumption dropped 16 percent with factories idled.

In Italy, students pelted police with rocks in a protest in Rome over money-saving plans for the school system. The windows of a bank in Milan were reportedly smashed by protesting students, according to a report on the website of the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper.

In Greece, state workers, holding banners reading "Enough is Enough," started rallying on several squares in central Athens on Wednesday morning.

The international coordination shows "we are looking at a historic moment in the European Union movement," said Fernando Toxo, head of Spain's biggest union, Comisiones Obreras.

Spain, where one in four workers is unemployed, is now teetering on the brink of calling for a bailout from the European Union, with Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy trying to put off a rescue that could require even more EU-mandated budget cuts.

Passion has been further inflamed since last week when a Spanish woman jumped from her apartment to her death as bailiffs tried to evict her when her bank foreclosed on a loan. Spaniards are furious at banks being rescued with public cash while ordinary people suffer.

"We're going to protest because they're ignoring people's rights. People are being evicted and they're raising our taxes," said Sandra Gonzalez, 19, a social work student at Madrid's Complutense University who plans to march with friends.

In Portugal, which accepted an EU bailout last year, the streets have been quieter so far, but public and political opposition to austerity is mounting, threatening to derail new measures sought by Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho. His policies were held up this week as a model by Germany's Angela Merkel, a hate figure in crisis-hit southern European countries.

A strike organized by CGTP in March had little impact, but in September hundreds of thousands of Portuguese rallied against a government plan to raise workers' social security contributions.

"The first-ever Iberian strike" would be "a great signal of discontent and also a warning to European authorities," said Armenio Carlos, head of Portugal's CGTP union which is organizing the action there.

Unions have planned rallies and marches in cities throughout both countries, with a major demonstration beginning at 6:30 p.m. (12:30 p.m. ET) in Madrid.

Some 5 million people, or 22 percent of the workforce, are union members in Spain. In Portugal about one fourth of the 5.5 million-strong workforce is unionized.

"This austerity is a never-ending story. We see no light at the end of the end of the tunnel, just more pain and difficulties. We have to protest, do something to stop it," said Lisbon pensioner Jose Marques, who planned to march Wednesday.

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