Labor unions were hoping a total of 100,000 workers would turn out for a march on EU institutions in Brussels yesterday, as well as a general strike in Spain, to protest the budget-slashing plans and austerity measures of governments seeking to control debt.
The march was timed to coincide with the EU Commission making proposals to punish member states that have run up deficits, often by funding social and employment programs.
The unions fear that workers will become the biggest victims of a crisis set off by bankers and traders, many of whom had to be rescued by massive government intervention.
Rafael Garcia, a 42-year-old Spanish plumber, said he would give up a day’s pay to join the strike and march in protests.
The hugely unpopular measures were put in place by Spanish Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero to save Europe’s fourth-largest economy from a bailout like one that saved Greece from bankruptcy.
The cuts have helped Spain trim its central government deficit by half through July, although that reduction does not reflect spending by regional governments. However, the unemployment rate stands at 20 percent, and many businesses are struggling to survive.
As the general strike got under way in Spain early yesterday, whistle-blowing picketers blocked trucks from delivering produce at the main wholesale markets in Madrid and Barcelona. Strikers hurled eggs and screamed “scabs” at drivers trying to leave a garage housing city buses in Madrid.
The salary cuts for civil servants, pension reforms and new laws that make it easier for companies to fire workers were rushed into law quickly, without traditional negotiations between management and workers.
Public transport workers in Greece also scheduled a series of work stoppages, with buses, trams, the Athens metro and railway halting services for several hours.
Many say though, that whatever unions try, the towering debt will force drastic changes in Europe’s labor situation.
“The party is over,” former EU Commissioner Frits Bolkestein said at the financial Eurofi conference in Brussels. “We shall all have to work longer and harder, more hours in the week, more weeks in the year, and no state pension before the age of 67.”