Anti-austerity strikes rack Europe, but will they foment change?

Hundreds of thousands of workers marched in Spain and Portugal as part of a general strike to force leaders to rethink austerity measures. Workers also showed their discontent in Germany, Italy, Greece, and France.

Daniel Ochoa de Olza/AP
Demonstrators shout and wave flags as they march through Gran Via street during a general strike in Madrid on Wednesday.

Striking Spaniards and Portuguese brought transportation, industry, and public services to a halt Wednesday as part of a coordinated show of force in southern Europe, hoping to force leaders to reverse a wave of belt-tightening that has left millions struggling with unemployment and poverty.

Tens of thousands mobilized, many clashing angrily with police. Hundreds of flights were cancelled. Public transportation and ports operated at minimum levels, car assembly lines shut down, and many stores preferred to remain closed. “We demand profound change in the government’s policies, or else they’ll lead us over the cliff,” said Cándido Méndez, leader of UGT, one of Spain’s two biggest unions.

At least three dozen people were injured, half of them police, and dozens more were arrested in early clashes before the main protest marches called for the evening hours in major Iberian cities, including the Madrid one targeting a barricaded Parliament. Hundreds of thousands marched in evening protests in several cities, according to early reports.

Portuguese also came out in droves, affecting public services and industry. In Italy and Greece, there were also clashes during work stoppages.  Belgium and France saw limited impact, and even in Germany, small protests took place during the “European Day of Action and Solidarity.” Most of the action was in Spain, though, heart of the economic meltdown throughout 2012.

But despite the economic pain – unprecedented for most Spaniards – and the support of millions for the strike, it appeared unlikely the governments felt the kind of pressure that would result in a change of course.

Indeed, after loud shouting matches and clashes early on in the day, by early afternoon, streets in Madrid’s center were once again filled with shoppers and tourists and stores reopened, albeit under a heavy presence of police in riot gear.

In the war of words and numbers in Spain, unions claimed historic following while the government and businesses minimized it. Media described slightly smaller support than in the previous strike this year in March. Electricity demand during today's strike, a barometer for the industrial impact, decreased 16 percent, less than in the previous strike.

Economy Minister Luis de Guindos criticized the strike as “not the proper path to reduce uncertainty” over the Spanish economy. “We are conscious of society’s difficulties, but the government plan is the only possible alternative,” he said.

“There are alternatives,” Ignacio Fernández Toxo, leader of Comisiones Obreras, the other major union, told thousands of followers waving flags and chanting. They “will come as a result of public pressure,” he said, threatening the government with more strikes if it doesn’t change course.

However, Spain is largely expected to stay on its current path. For months, the government has delayed an official request for a European bailout, as the cost of borrowing has decreased enough to allow it to secure its financial requirements.

But most agree it is only a question of time for a bailout, something that would almost certainly bring even more austerity to a population already stricken by a 25 percent unemployment rate, rising poverty, and a shrinking welfare system.

Government cuts are insufficient to pay even the interest on an accruing debt and the recessions appears to be worsening, making it virtually impossible to alleviate the crisis any time soon.

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