Europe rises up: Day of anti-austerity rage grips the continent
November 14, 2012
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.
In Portugal, all trains and subways shut down and about 200 flights to and from the country were canceled. Hospitals operated on a skeleton staff while thousands of government workers including most in the justice system and trash collectors failed to go to work.
In Spain, some television channels went off the air and assembly lines at the big union-dominated factories shut down. Spanish unions claimed that 9 million Spaniards stayed at home, or 77% of the workforce.
Much of Spain’s school system was closed and more than half of its hospital employees went on strike.
In Barcelona, high-end stores such as Gucci and Chanel on the Paseo de Gracia closed for the day. In the neighborhoods, only a few bakeries and grocery shores dared to open, intermittently closing when they saw trouble.
In Greece, the strike shut down the subway system for part of the day. About 5,000 Greeks protested in Athens. Port workers blocked the entrance to the Ministry of Defense demanding back wages, they said.
In Italy, about 60,000 turned out in Rome. The president of Rome province, Nicola Zingaretti, condemned “groups of rioters” among peaceful protesters. Zingaretti said a climate of “aggressiveness and intolerance” risked sullying Rome’s image abroad following reports of protesters yelling anti-Semitic slogans outside a Rome synagogue.
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.
Photo 1: Madrid, Spain
Photo 2: Google map locations of all general strikes in Europe today
Photo 3: London, UK
Photo 4: Paris, France