Workers aimed to present a united front against unemployment and government spending cuts with strikes and demonstrations across the EU today.
However, while austerity-hit countries such as Spain and Portugal saw a high turnout, wealthier northern countries like Germany and Denmark experienced only piecemeal action.
To combat a three-year financial crisis over too much debt, governments across Europe have had to cut spending, pensions and benefits and raise taxes. As well as hitting income and living standards, the measures have also led to a decline in economic output and rapidly rising unemployment.
The 17 countries that use the euro are expected to fall into recession when official figures are released tomorrow. Meanwhile, unemployment across the eurozone has reached a record 11.6% with countries like Spain and Greece hitting the 25% mark.
With no end in sight to the economic hardship, workers were trying to take a stand.
“There is a social emergency in the south,” said Bernadette Segol, Secretary General of the European Trade Union Confederation. “All recognise that the policies carried out now are unfair and not working.”
Spain’s General Workers’ Union said the nationwide stoppage, the second this year, was being observed by nearly all workers in the car, energy, shipbuilding and construction industries. The country, left reeling by a series of austerity measures designed to prevent it from asking for a full-blown international bailout, is mired in recession with 50% unemployment among the under-25s.
“Of course it’s a political strike, against the policies of a suicidal and anti-social government,” said Ignacio Fernandez Toxo, a CCOO Spanish union leader.
The Spanish strike shut down most schools and while hospitals operated with a skeleton staff. Health and education have both suffered serious spending cutbacks and increased moves toward privatisation.
In neighbouring, bailed-out Portugal, where the government intends to intensify austerity measures next year, the second general strike in eight months left commuters stranded as trains ground to a virtual halt and the Lisbon subway shut down. Around 200 flights to and from Portugal – about half the daily average - were cancelled.
Hospitals provided only minimum services in Portugal, and municipal trash was left uncollected overnight.
Airports across Europe suffered from the strikes, forced to cancel flights to and from striking nations.
In Belgium, a 24-hour rail stoppage and scattered strikes through the south of the nation disrupted daily life. Both the Thalys and Eurostar high-speed rail services that connect Brussels with London and Paris were severely disrupted.
“Austerity means cuts in the public services and public companies and also cuts in the buying power for the working class,” said Belgian socialist union leader Filip Peers. “Austerity means recession and it deepens the crisis.”
However, Philippe de Buck , the chief of Eurobusiness the Brussels-based EU employers’ federation, took a different view.
“If you start striking at national level and in companies you only will harm the economy,” he said. “And it is not the right thing to do today.”
“It costs billions” of euros, he said, adding that Europe’s reputation as a hotbed of trade union action would not attract global investors.
The union action was not felt across the entire region, however, with countries where austerity has not hit as hard experiencing little disruption.
“So far, there are only symbolic demonstrations here in Germany, because we were able to avoid the crisis,” said Michael Sommer, the head of Germany’s main labour union federation.
In Denmark, too, there were no strikes, since cooperation between workers and employers have largely survived the crisis so far.
“The employers speak the same language as we do and we understand each other’s needs and demands,” said Joergen Frederiksen, a 69-year-old retired worker and a former shop steward. “There are good vibes between us and that means a lot.”