Anti-austerity protests hit Europe

Tens of thousands march in Brussels; unions call strikes in 13 cities; Spain holds stir

Trade unions said they had called rallies in 13 capitals from Lisbon to Helsinki, while Spanish unions held a general strike to oppose measures such as spending cuts and pension and labour market reforms intended to stave off economic crisis.

“The main feeling of the people is that for the banking system there are millions and billions of euros, but the social payments are being cut. That's not right,” said Ralf Kutkowski, a German coal miner protesting in the Belgian capital.

Marchers in Brussels, heading for the EU’s headquarters, waved union flags and carried banners saying “No to austerity” and “Priority to jobs and growth”. The 50 unions represented included German coal miners, Romanian gas workers and Polish shipbuilders.

The protest was led by a group dressed in black suits with black face masks, carrying umbrellas and briefcases, acting as the head of a funeral cortege mourning the death of Europe.

Crowd numbers

The protest organisers, the European Trade Union Confederation, were aiming to get 1,00,000 people to march. Belgian police and the unions did not immediately estimate crowd numbers but one police official told Reuters at least 50,000 people were taking part.

Spain’s first general strike for eight years, a protest against the Socialist government’s public spending cuts and easier hire-and-fire laws, had a limited impact beyond disrupting transport and some factories.

Spanish unions said 10 million people, or more than half the workforce, were on strike. The government gave no numbers.

Workers being ‘punished’

European governments say they have been forced into austerity to avert the danger of a sovereign debt crisis like the one suffered by Greece, but many workers feel they are being punished for problems that were not of their making. “We don’t want to take it on our backs,” said Philipp Jacks, a German trade unionist in Brussels.

Graham Smith, a public sector youth worker from Edinburgh, said: “The message is we need our public services because the people who need them most are the people being hit most by the crisis.”

Protests have taken place in many countries in the last few months. Protests on Wednesday were planned in Brussels, Dublin, Lisbon, Rome, Paris, Riga, Warsaw, Nicosia, Bucharest, Prague, Vilnius, Belgrade and Athens.

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