LONDON - Workers in several European countries went on strike Wednesday to protest austerity measures designed to help their governments get out of debt, but which cut their salaries, pensions and benefits.
Angry workers chanted "strike, strike" inside Madrid’s main train station as they scuffled with police. Outside, workers blew whistles and set off firecrackers, as commuters rode by, many on bicycles for the day.
Commuter and inter-city trains were canceled in several countries, along with flights and other forms of transport, while government services and some businesses also went idle.
“They are taking all our rights away," complained a Spanish union member who spoke for many of his co-workers. "The banks and other business people are bringing us onto the streets, they are stealing our salaries. We do not have any rights anymore.”
French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault admonished workers to be patient in what is a global crisis, and said what is at stake is nothing less than the identity of the French nation.
“Today, this social model is in danger. There are many things to correct, to change, to modernize and to reform. And France will reclaim somehow its freedom and its autonomy," Ayrault said.
The one-day strike was called by the European Trade Union Confederation, which has called for more fairness as European countries work their way out of debt. The strike drew large numbers of workers in economically hard-hit Spain and Portugal, with less-widespread strikes in France, Italy, Belgium and Greece, which has seen large protests this week over its government’s latest austerity program.
At London’s Kingston University, labor union expert and Professor Craig Phelan is sympathetic to the workers’ concerns.
“It's a sense of crisis. It's a sense that austerity programs have not worked," Phelan said. "Trying to fight recession by simply making budget cuts hasn't been working in Africa, in South America for decades.”
Professor Phelan says the unions are right to urge governments to fight recession mainly through economic growth. That would require borrowing more money, which the European Central Bank and other international lenders are not willing to provide without austerity. But Professor Phelan says the political ground may be shifting.
“At this stage there is very little that can be done by political leaders," he said. "They have made this commitment, recovery through austerity, and they are kind of boxed in at this stage. We are going to see a continuation of these protests, lower productivity levels, increasing unemployment, insecurity. But it will lead to a change in policies in the next few years.”
That will likely sound like a long time to workers in countries that have already had several years of recession.