Millions of workers from almost every country in the European Union went on the march on Wednesday to protest against rising unemployment and taxes brought on by austerity measures.
It was the first time that Europe has seen unified strike action with workers in Spain and Portugal holding their first coordinated general strike as part of a “European Day of Action and Solidarity” organised by the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC).
“In some countries, people’s exasperation is reaching a peak,” said ETUC general secretary Bernadette Segol in a press statement.
“We need urgent solutions to get the economy back on track, not stifle it with austerity.
“Europe’s leaders are wrong not to listen to the anger of the people who are taking to the streets.”
Spanish and Portuguese workers are also supported by sector-level strikes and demonstrations in Greece, Italy, France, Belgium and elsewhere.
In fact, more than 40 labour movements from 23 countries are said to be involved in Wednesday’s demonstrations.
They are protesting against public spending cuts and tax hikes which trade unions blame for deepening the economic crisis rather than providing a solution to it.
But so far governments have stuck to the guns handed to them by international lenders who say austerity is the only way to get public finances back on track after years of overspending.
On Wednesday, the ETUC – which brings together 85 trade unions from 36 countries across Europe – plans to award European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso in Brussels with a “special Nobel Prize for Austerity” in protest against EU policies.
For Spain, the fourth-largest economy in the Eurozone with an unemployment rate of 25 per cent, this is the second general strike in less than a year.
A spokesperson for the General Workers’ Union (UGT), Spain’s second-biggest trade union, said that the strike had resulted in a total shutdown of the automobile, energy and construction industries, as well as a drop in power consumption of 13 per cent as production lines across the country shut down.
The Spanish strike was called by unions after the country’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy presented a tough austerity budget for 2013 in the wake of historic unemployment levels.
Spanish unions have planned rallies and marches across the country, with a major demonstration in Madrid beginning at 18.30.
Meanwhile, in Portugal, where protesters booed German Chancellor Angela Merkel when she visited country on Monday, protests have being called in some 40 towns and cities across the country, including Lisbon and Porto.
In Greece, where a two-day strike took place last week, unions called a three-hour work stoppage starting at noon.
In Italy, students demonstrated throughout the country, with rallies in Turin and Rome, while the country’s biggest union, CGIL, also called for workers to ‘down tools’ for four hours on Wednesday afternoon.
Speaking to Equal Times, CGIL general secretary Susanna Camusso said that the strikes were strong sign that governments needed to rethink their austerity policies:
“This is a big European mobilisation to put work back at the centre of the policies and to have concrete proposals for youth employment”.
Also speaking to Equal Times, Karl-Petter Thorwaldsson, president of LO Trade Union Confederation in Sweden, said that the protests proved that governments “can’t only help the banks – we need to help the people”.
ITUC general secretary Sharan Burrow also came out in support of the protests, saying that “attacks on workers’ rights and the austerity business model in Europe threaten prosperity and social cohesion everywhere.”
She also called for urgent action on youth unemployment.
“Youth unemployment is one of the most damaging consequences of the Troika’s obsession with the discredited economics of austerity.
“More than half of young people in Greece and Spain are without work, more than a third in Italy and Portugal, and 27 per cent in Cyprus.
“This is simply intolerable, and even worse, the architects of austerity have no idea and no plan of how to rebuild economic growth – they are simply focused on keeping financial markets happy without regard to the social and economic costs.”