Big march in Brussels, general strike in Spain; unions flex muscle to protest austerity plans

By Raf Casert, AP
Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Unions count on 100,000 protesters at EU

BRUSSELS — Labor unions hope to organize a march of 100,000 workers on European Union institutions in Brussels on Wednesday, 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 could be one of the biggest in Brussels in years. It will 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.

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 — cuts that have brought workers out by the tens of thousands over the past months.

Rafael Garcia, a 42-year-old Spanish plumber, said he will give up a day’s pay to join the strike Wednesday and march in protests.

The hugely unpopular measures were put in place by 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. But the unemployment rate stands at 20 percent, and many businesses are struggling to survive.

As the general strike got under way in Spain early Wednesday, 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.

This is Spain’s first general strike since 2002 and marks a break in the once close relationship between unions and the Socialist government.

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, which has been a cornerstone of Europe’s welfare society.

“In this case, they favor business owners and not workers,” a bitter Garcia told APTN television news, referring to the Socialist government.

Spain’s austerity push “should have been consensual and not favoring one side more than the other,” he said.

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.

On Wednesday, public transport workers were scheduled to stage a series of work stoppages, with buses, trams, the Athens metro and national railway all halting services for several hours. Hospital doctors planned to hold a one-day strike, and unions were planning demonstrations in Athens in the evening.

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 planning similar actions.

Many say though, that whatever unions try, the towering debt 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,” he said.

The unions say, however, that the party was only there for society’s upper crust, leaving the workers to pay the bills. The crisis has also created an unemployment pool of 23 million in Europe, said John Monks, the General Secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation which organizes the march.

“Cutting (funds) in a recession is crazy and we must fight it,” Monks said. “We need Eurobonds to help the weaker economies and a new financial transaction tax so that speculators cannot escape paying a fair share of the debts they have dumped on the rest of us.”

Complicating his attempts to reach the 100,000 target for the march could be a wildcat strike called by Belgian air traffic controllers, which could well keep the Belgian airports closed until after Wednesday’s demonstration.


Associated Press Writers Alan Clendenning and Ciaran Giles in Madrid, Barry Hatton in Lisbon and Elena Becatoros in Athens contributed to this story.

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