by our European Affairs correspondent
The European Union was rocked by a wave of working class anger that swept through the continent on Wednesday with general strikes in Spain and Portugal and walkouts in Greece and Italy – grounding flights, closing schools and shutting down transport.
Millions of workers took part in anti-austerity strikes and demonstrations throughout the European Union this week with protests ranging from the delivery of an open letter from the TUC in London to the President of the European Commission, to all-out mass action in the countries worst hit by the capitalist crisis.
Greek workers, who have already taken part in 20 general strikes over the past two years, limited their action to a three-hour walk-out and a rally in Athens while many Italian workers took part in rolling four-hour stoppages throughout the day.
The strikes were all part of the day of action called by the social-democratic European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) to mobilise union opposition to the draconian austerity programmes that have sent unemployment rates soaring while plunging millions upon millions into poverty and destitution.
Transport and commercial life was brought to a standstill in Portugal and Spain by workers who overwhelmingly backed the call for a one-day general strike against rising unemployment and the austerity measures. Other unions called out their members in Greece, Italy and Belgium and major rallies were held in many cities across the EU.
Unions in Spain and Portugal started their strikes at midnight to protest against austerity measures that have combined tax rises with cuts in salaries, pensions, benefits and social services. The general strikes brought Spain and Portugal to a standstill on Wednesday but police and pickets clashed in Madrid and Lisbon and a number of other towns in both countries.
In Spain this is the second general strike in a year. Nuria Manzano, from the UGT (General Union of Workers) said: “The cuts aren’t limited to Spain.
They are happening in the whole European Union. That’s why it is important that all Europe protest against these cuts and against this way to do politics.”
Spain has the highest unemployment levels in the EU. One in four Spanish workers is on the dole. Only last week a woman behind on her mortgage repayments jumped from her flat to her death as bailiffs tried to evict her — the second apparent suicide linked to evictions.
Though Spain’s largest banks have now agreed to halt repossessions for the most vulnerable for two years, the Spanish government is on the verge of calling for a EU bail-out that will only lead to even more crippling cuts.
Portuguese workers are already paying the price of their €78 billion bail-out with record-high 16 per cent unemployment and colossal cuts in state welfare and the social wage.
The Brussels-based ETUC, which brings together 85 trade unions from 36 European countries, was established in 1973. But this was the first time it had appealed for a day of action that includes simultaneous strike action in four countries.
General secretary Bernadette Segol said austerity had plunged Europe into recession and destroyed the European social model. “By sowing austerity, we are reaping recession, rising poverty and social anxiety,” she said. “In some countries, people’s exasperation is reaching a peak. We need urgent solutions to get the economy back on track, not stifle it with austerity.
Europe’s leaders are wrong not to listen to the anger of the people who are taking to the streets.”
And the ETUC intends to award European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso in Brussels with a “Nobel Prize for cruelty” in a mocking parody of the ludicrous Nobel Peace Prize given to the European Union last month.