Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP
Thousands of demonstrators march down a main boulevard in Brussels on Wednesday to protest the budget-slashing plans and austerity measures of European governments seeking to control spiraling debt.
Anti-austerity protests erupted across Europe on Wednesday — Greek doctors and railway employees walked out, Spanish workers shut down trains and buses, and one man even blocked the Irish Parliament with a cement truck to decry the country's enormous bank bailouts.
Tens of thousands of demonstrators poured into Brussels, hoping to swell into a 100,000-strong march on European Union institutions later in the day and reinforce the impact of Spain's first nationwide strike in eight years.
Irish police officers look at a cement mixer that was driven into the gate of Ireland's Parliament building in Dublin.
All the actions sought to protest the budget-slashing, tax-hiking, pension-cutting austerity plans of European governments seeking to control their debt.
Pushed To The Brink
In an ironic twist, the march in Brussels comes just as the EU Commission is proposing to punish member states that have run up deficits to fund social programs in a time of high unemployment across the Continent. The proposal, backed by Germany, is expected to run into strong opposition from France.
"It is a bizarre time for the European Commission to be proposing a regime of punishment," said John Monks, general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation. "How is that going to make the situation better? It is going to make it worse," Monks said in an interview with Associated Press Television News.
The confederation organized the march in Belgium and coordinated with member organizations that will be holding their own demonstrations across the Continent — protesters from 30 countries are expected to join the Brussels throng.
Public-sector employees also are striking in Romania, and French labor unions called for a third round of demonstrations Saturday against the government's plans to raise the retirement age. In Portugal, a country with one of the eurozone's most fragile economies, about 20,000 people took part in an evening demonstration in Lisbon, unions said.
Unions in Europe fear that workers will become the biggest victims of an economic crisis set off by bankers and traders, many of whom were rescued by massive government intervention.
Several governments, already living dangerously with high debt, were pushed to the brink of financial collapse and have been forced to impose punishing cuts in wages, pensions and employment — measures that have brought workers out by the tens of thousands over the past months.
"There is a great danger that the workers are going to be paying the price for the reckless speculation that took place in financial markets," Monks said. "You really got to reschedule these debts so that they are not a huge burden on the next few years and cause Europe to plunge down into recession."
Strike Support Lags In Spain
In Spain, Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's Socialist government is under severe pressure because of the hugely unpopular measures put in place 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, but the unemployment rate stands at 20 percent, and many businesses are struggling to survive.
The general strike, Spain's first since 2002, began at midnight. Pickets blocked trucks from delivering fruit and vegetables to markets, and garbage wasn't collected. In Madrid, most buses and trains stopped running. Aviation officials say more than half of international flights could be in doubt.
Unions want Spain's government to reverse some of its austerity plans, which include wage cuts for civil servants, pension freezes and new laws that make it easier for companies to fire workers. The changes were rushed into law quickly in Spain, without traditional negotiations between management and workers.
But the strike doesn't appear to have strong public support, and government's belt-tightening measures are viewed as inevitable.
A recent poll showed that though 55 percent of Spaniards think the strike is justified, only 18 percent plan to take part in it. And 71 percent believe it won't force Zapatero's government to change course.
"The government holds the trump card because citizens do not seem to be behind the strike," the center-left newspaper El Pais said.
Widespread Bitterness Over Greek Measures
Greece, which had to be rescued by the euro nations this spring to stave off bankruptcy, has also been forced to cut deep into workers' allowances, with weeks of bitter strikes and actions as a result.
Bus and trolley drivers walked off the job for several hours, while Athens' metro system and tram were to shut down at noon. National railway workers were also set to walk off the job at noon, disrupting rail connections across the country, while doctors at state hospitals were on a 24-hour strike.
Greece has already been suffering from two weeks of protests by truck drivers who have made it difficult for businesses to get supplies. Many supermarkets are seeing shortages, while producers complain that they are unable to export their goods.
Truck drivers unions voted late Tuesday to continue their protests against plans to liberalize their tightly regulated profession, despite a government threat to force them back to work or cancel their licenses.
Greece's government has imposed stringent austerity measures, including cutting civil servants' salaries, trimming pensions and hiking consumer and income taxes. Several other EU nations are also planning actions.
In Dublin, a man blocked the gates of the Irish Parliament with a cement truck to protest the country's expensive bank bailout. Written across the truck's barrel in red letters were the words: "Toxic Bank" and "All politicians should be sacked."
Police arrested a 41-year-old man but gave few other details.
The Anglo Irish Bank, which was nationalized last year to save it from collapse, owes some $97 billion to depositors worldwide, leaving Irish taxpayers with a mammoth bill at a time when people are suffering through high unemployment, tax hikes and heavy budget cuts.
France Girds For Severe Cuts
As unions take to the streets across Europe, France prepared to announce its most severe budget cuts in two decades to rein in a deficit that continues to run at more than 6 percent — double the limit of 3 percent of GDP established by the European Union and topped only by deficits in Ireland and Greece.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy's government faces mounting pressure from the European Union to bring its spending under control or face double penalties: from the EU and from bond investors who could decide to downgrade France's Triple-A bond rating. So far, Sarkozy has hesitated to talk of budgetary austerity — red-flag language to unions that have already staged massive strikes over retirement reform.
Unions have called for a huge nationwide demonstration Saturday and another strike on Oct. 12, when the Senate is set to decide on the retirement bill.
Many experts say that no matter what the unions try, the towering government debt across the Continent will force drastic changes in Europe's labor situation.
"The party is over," said former EU Commissioner Frits Bolkestein 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."
The unions say, however, that the party was only there for society's upper crust, and workers are being forced to pay the bills. The crisis has left 23 million people unemployed in Europe, Monks said.
With reporting from NPR's Philip Reeves in London, Eleanor Beardsley and Frank Browning in Paris and Teri Schultz in Brussels. Material from The Associated Press was also used in this story.