Anti-austerity Strikes Sweep Southern Europe
Nov. 13, 2012
Spanish and Portuguese workers will stage the first
coordinated general strike across the Iberian Peninsula
on Wednesday, shutting transport, grounding flights and
closing schools to protest against spending cuts and
Unions in Greece and Italy also planned work
stoppages and demonstrations on a "European Day of
Action and Solidarity" against austerity policies,
which labor leaders blame for prolonging and worsening
the continent's economic crisis.
The international coordination shows "we are looking
at a historic moment in the European Union movement,"
said Fernando Toxo, head of Spain's biggest union,
Comisiones Obreras. Spain, where one in four workers
is unemployed, is now teetering on the brink of calling
for a European bailout, with Prime Minister Mariano
Rajoy trying to put off a rescue that could require
even more EU-mandated budget cuts.
Passion has been furtherinflamed since last week when
a Spanish woman jumped from her apartment to her death
as bailiffs tried to evict her when her bank foreclosed
on a loan. Spaniards are furious at banks being rescued
with public cash while ordinary people suffer.
"We're going to protest because they're ignoring people's
rights. People are being evicted and they're raising our
taxes," said Sandra Gonzalez, 19, a social work student
at Madrid's Complutense University who plans to march
In Portugal, which accepted an EU bailout last year,
the streets have been quieter so far but public and
political opposition to austerity is mounting,
threatening to derail new measures sought by Prime
Minister Pedro Passos Coelho. His policies were held up
this week as a model by Germany's Angela Merkel, a hate
figure in crisis-hit southern European countries.
"The first ever Iberian strike" would be "a great signal
of discontent and also a warning to European authorities,"
said Armenio Carlos, head of Portugal's CGTP union
which is organizing the action there.
Some 5 million people, or 22 percent of the workforce,
are union members in Spain. In Portugal about one fourth
of the 5.5 million strong workforce is unionized. Unions
have planned rallies and marches in cities throughout both
countries, with a major demonstration beginning at 6:30
p.m. (1730 GMT) in Madrid.
Just 20 percent of Spain's long-distance trains and
a third of its commuter trains are expected to run.
Lisbon's Metro will be shut completely and only 10
percent of all trains will run under court-ordered
minimum service. More than 600 flights were cancelled
in Spain, mainly by Iberia and budget carrier Vueling.
Portugal flag carrier TAP cancelled roughly 45 percent
of flights. Hospitals inSpain will fully staff emergency
and surgery rooms but non-essential care will be scaled
Italy's biggest union, CGIL, called for a work stoppage
for several hours across the country. The transportation
ministry expects trains and ferries to halt for four hours.
Students and teachers are expected to march. In Greece,
which saw a big two-day strike last week while
parliament voted on new cuts, the main public and
private sector labor unions called for a three-hour
work stoppage and an anti-austerity rally in solidarity
with the Spaniards and Portuguese. Athens police expect
10,000 demonstrators, small by the standard of protests
This will be the first time
Spanish unions have held two general strikes in one
year. Spain's last general strike, in March, brought
factories and ports to a standstill and ignited flashes
of street violence.
Protests against cuts and economic
reforms have since gained even more steam. A violent
march in Madrid in September - coupled with riots in
Greece - sparked a September 26 sell-off in the euro
and European and U.S. stock markets. Spain's economy,
the euro zone's fourth biggest, will shrink by some 1.5
percent this year, four years after the crash of a
decade-long building boom left airports, highways and
high-rise buildings disused across the country.
Portugal's economy is expected to contract by 3
percent. Every week seems to bring fresh job cuts.
Spain's flagship airline Iberia, owned by UK-based
International Airlines Group, said last week it will
cut 4,500 jobs. The prestigious El Pais newspaper just
laid off almost a quarter of its staff.
Portugal has long avoided the street unrest seen
in Spain and Greece, but that appears to be changing
as the government continues to seek new measures to
shrink a budget deficit. A strike organized by CGTP
in March had little impact, but in September hundreds
of thousands of Portuguese rallied against a government
plan to raise workers' social security contributions.
"This austerity is a never-ending story. We see no light
at the end of the end of the tunnel, just more pain and
difficulties. We have to protest, do something to stop
it," said Lisbon pensioner Jose Marques, who plans to
march on Wednesday.
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