Spain, Portugal, Greece Strike Against Austerity

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General strikes against government austerity measures hit Spain, Portugal and Greece on Wednesday, but they appeared unlikely to influence government policy in countries becoming accustomed to wide protests after five years of economic distress.

The strikes come as governments in Europe’s financially stressed economies increase taxes and dramatically curtail public spending on health care, education and other public services to slash their budget deficits.

Unions hoped to channel growing discontent with the austerity measures as unemployment rates soar across the euro zone. In Spain and Greece, more than 25% of the workforce is jobless.

In central Madrid, police officers charged with clubs into a crowd of protesters. At least three people were sent to hospitals while another handful who were bleeding from their heads were treated on-site by medical staff.  

Large factories, including auto-making plants, shut down operations in Spain. Such large industrial manufacturers have among the most heavily unionized workforces in a country that on average has relatively low levels of union affiliation. Union leaders said traffic into retail stores that had opened was scarce.

Leaders of Spain’s largest unions, which called strikes for the entire day, said participation in the walkout was 80%, surpassing that of the first general strike this year in March.

“Austerity offers no solution, but only suffering instead,” said Ignacio Fernández Toxo, the head of Comisiones Obreras, Spain’s largest labor federation.

Other early indications suggested the impact on business activity had been relatively modest. Electricity demand, a key measure of economic activity, declined modestly compared with a normal business day. Spain’s power consumption was around 87% of normal early Wednesday afternoon, according to Red Eléctrica de España, Spain’s electricity-transmission company.

Spain’s government said it remained undeterred despite the strikes. “We’re aware of the difficulties Spanish society is experiencing,” said Finance Minister Luis de Guindos. But “the government’s road map is the only one that will help us emerge from the crisis,” he said.

Many analysts didn’t see the strike changing the government’s austerity plans. The governing Popular Party retains a large parliamentary majority and remains under pressure from European authorities to carry out economic reforms and budgetary adjustments. Meanwhile, the main opposition Socialist Party has failed to gain popular support. “I think it’s going to have a small impact,” said Alfredo Pastor, a professor at the IESE Business School of the University of Navarra.

He said much of the strike was confined to specific, highly unionized industries, such as transportation. “In some ways they have abused the term general strike,” Mr. Pastor said. “Many people are going on as they normally do, or at least trying to.”

In Greece, about 5,000 demonstrators took to the streets of Athens, according to police estimates, and staged a peaceful but vocal protest that went past Greece’s neoclassical parliament building.

Antiausterity demonstrations have become a regular feature in Athens in recent years, disrupting public and transport services, and often erupting in sporadic violence. There has been a growing sense of fatigue in the broader population over the frequent protests. Several blocks from the city center—the site of often-violent protests—shops were operating as normal, traffic was unimpeded and diners could be seen sitting at sidewalk cafes and restaurants.

In Portugal, a strike against a new round of austerity measures froze public-transport services and shrank the number of hospital staff on Wednesday. The strike wasn’t unanimous among unions, with Portugal’s second-largest confederation representing more than 500,000 workers declining to back it.

“People are saying enough to austerity and poverty,” said Armenio Carlos, head of CGTP, the country’s largest union confederation with more than 600,000 members.

In Italy, where only one union supported a four-hour strike, clashes broke out in several places across the country. In Turin, protesters seriously wounded a police officer by beating him with baseball bats outside a local government building.

In recent months, southern Europe has seen a wave of protests as governments have trimmed unemployment benefits, public-workers’ salaries and overall job protections. Most governments’ plans went ahead, but protests early in the fall in Portugal succeeded in pushing the government to backpedal from a proposal to lower payroll taxes for employers while raising them for workers.

Some workers said the deteriorating economy had prompted them to think hard about whether they would join the strike. Carlos García, who works at a shop that sells musical instruments in central Madrid, said he had always walked off the job during previous strikes. But on Wednesday he decided to come to work.

Sales have declined sharply since the most recent general strike in March, and he said he felt a responsibility to clients and himself to try to save the business where he has been employed 16 years. “I don’t feel well being here,” Mr. García said. “I feel that I’m betraying my principles. But we have to make this effort to save our livelihoods. It’s a question of enduring this crisis until times get better.”

On Atocha street, a commercial area of small shops and bars in downtown Madrid, more establishments were closed than were open. And those businesses that were operating often had their awnings rolled down to protect store windows from vandalism. “We have to work to earn a living, but we also have to protect ourselves from these bums,” said Margarita Martínez, the owner of a shop that sells perfumes, household utensils and imported goods. She hurled several obscenities at a group of protesters who passed by.

The group of about 20 protesters, who said they were members of a local neighborhood association, had gathered in sympathy of the strikers. One of the protesters smacked the door of a passing taxi and later swatted a motorcycle messenger. “We’re here as a show of strength and to make a statement that things can’t go on as they are,” said Alberto González, an unemployed 26 year old who was marching with the group. After a few minutes, a policeman on motorcycle came by and forced the protesters to move on.

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