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Europe's workers stage austerity protests

BRUSSELS — Workers across the European Union sought to present a united front against rampant unemployment and government spending cuts Wednesday with a string of strikes and demonstrations across the region.

However, while austerity-hit countries such as Spain and Portugal saw a high turnout of striking workers, wealthier countries like Germany and Denmark experienced only piecemeal action.

To combat a three-year financial crisis over too much debt, governments across Europe have had to cut spending, pensions and benefits and raise taxes. As well as hitting income and living standards, these measures have also led to a decline in economic output and rapidly rising unemployment.

The 17 countries that use the euro are expected to fall into recession when official figures are released Thursday. Meanwhile, unemployment across the eurozone has reached a record 11.6 percent with countries like Spain and Greece hitting the 25 percent mark.

With no end in sight to the economic hardship, workers were trying to take a stand on Wednesday.

"There is a social emergency in the south," said Bernadette Segol, Secretary General of the European Trade Union Confederation. "All recognize that the policies carried out now are unfair and not working."

Spain's General Workers' Union said the nationwide stoppage the second this year, was being observed by nearly all workers in the automobile, energy, shipbuilding and constructions industries. The country, left reeling by a series of austerity measures designed to prevent it from asking for a full-blown international bailout, mired in recession with 50 percent unemployment among the under-25s.

"Of course it's a political strike, against the policies of a suicidal and anti-social government," said Ignacio Fernandez Toxo, a CCOO Spanish union leader.

The Spanish strike shut down most schools and while hospitals operated with a skeleton staff. Health and education have both suffered serious spending cutbacks and increased moves toward privatization.

In neighboring, bailed-out Portugal, where the government intends to intensify austerity measures next year, the second general strike in eight months left commuters stranded as trains ground to a virtual halt and the Lisbon subway shut down. Some 200 flights to and from Portugal — about half the daily average — were canceled.

Hospitals provided only minimum services in Portugal, and municipal trash was left uncollected overnight.

Airports across Europe suffered from the strikes, forced to cancel flights to and from striking nations.

In Belgium, a 24-hour rail stoppage and scattered strikes through the south of the nation disrupted daily life. Both the Thalys and Eurostar high-speed rail services that connect Brussels with London and Paris were severely disrupted.

"Austerity means cuts in the public services and public companies and also cuts in the buying power for the working class," said Belgian socialist union leader Filip Peers. "Austerity means recession and it deepens the crisis."

However, Philippe de Buck , the chief of Eurobusiness the Brussels-based EU employers' federation, took a different view.

"If you start striking at national level and in companies you only will harm the economy," he said. "And it is not the right thing to do today."

"It costs billions" of euros, he said, adding that Europe's reputation as a hotbed of trade union action would not attract global investors.

Europe has a long history of union action and workers' rights and benefits have been one of the cornerstones of its welfare state, with its guaranteed medical care, unemployment benefits and often generous pensions.

The union action was not felt across the entire region, however, with countries where austerity has not hit as hard experiencing little disruption.

"So far, there are only symbolic demonstrations here in Germany, because we were able to avoid the crisis," said Michael Sommer, the head of Germany's main labor union federation.

In Denmark, too, there were no strikes, since cooperation between workers and employers have largely survived the crisis so far.

"The employers speak the same language as we do and we understand each other's needs and demands," said Joergen Frederiksen, a 69-year-old retired worker and a former shop steward. "There are good vibes between us and that means a lot."

___

Ciaran Giles from Madrid, Geir Moulson from Berlin, Jan Olsen from Copenhagen, Mike Corder from The Hague, Barry Hatton from Lisbon, Colleen Barry from Milan and Elena Becatoros from Athens contributed to this article.

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