Solidarity against austerity: How the protests took shape across Europe
Athens:Weary after four general strikes in seven weeks, Greece’s trade union federations decided that a three-hour work stoppage would be their contribution to what was billed as a European-wide day of anti-austerity action.
The crowd of a few thousand that attended at a protest rally in central Athens was minuscule in comparison to similar demonstrations in the past.
The majority of those in attendance were public sector workers, mostly middle-aged and above, but there were also cohorts of students from the city’s universities.
At best a symbolic offering to the pan-European effort, the protests were entirely peaceful. There was even some street theatre on Syntagma Square, a welcome alternative to petrol bombs and riot police, as many commented. Nonetheless, the language of the protesters was militant.
“Greek workers have been struggling for three years against neoliberal policies that are destroying the social state. These policies are ahistorical: just as austerity destroyed democracy in Weimar Germany, today it threatens our democracy,” said Kostas Tsikrikas, leader of the civil servants’ federation Adedy.
While Ireland may not have taken part in the protest, one Greek worker was flying the flag for the country. Kostas Minaidis, a municipal street cleaner, said he brought along the Tricolour “to send a greeting our Irish colleagues, to show them that we are all on the one side and face similar problems”.
More co-ordinated, European-wide protests could, he added, “reverse the neoliberal policies that are against the people’s interests”.
Like others at the demonstration, Mr Minaidis expressed his surprise when told that Irish workers had not joined the protests, but was diplomatic in his criticism. “It doesn’t matter if Irish workers are not striking today. Their unions have told us that they are in solidarity with us. If they decide to strike another day, then the better for all of us.”
Union leader Tsikrikas was more direct, describing the decision of the Irish unions as a bad one. “All workers must participate in the struggle as that is the only way we can we hope to embark in another political direction that serves the people.”
In front of parliament, members of the youth wing of leftist Syriza, the country’s main opposition, marched holding massive Greek, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese flags.
DAMIAN Mac CON ULADH
Heavy industry and many smaller businesses were brought to a virtual standstill in much of Spain as the country saw its second national strike in eight months yesterday.
In many car and metal production plants and other factories there was almost no activity, as workers took part in a strike led by the country’s two main labour unions, the UGT and Comisiones Obreras. Public transport offered minimum services that were negotiated ahead of the strike.
Several cities saw large street demonstrations and there were a number of violent clashes between strikers and police, with more than 80 people arrested and about 30 injured by the early evening.
In Madrid, many small shops and businesses closed down for the day, although larger establishments, such as Zara and El Corte Inglés, opened with a heavy police presence to ensure customers could shop without being harassed.
“The poorer sectors of the country are facing the brunt of the crisis, while the upper classes, people with money, the businessmen, are able to take their money to tax havens,” said Ruben Abad, a teacher who took part in the strike.
The conservative government of Mariano Rajoy has implemented a series of reforms and austerity measures in an effort to meet deficit targets set by the European Union.
“We’re aware of the difficulties people are facing, but the government’s route map is the only alternative,” said economy minister Luis de Guindos.
Thousands of protesters took to the streets in France in opposition to European austerity policies, but trade unions stopped short of calling for strikes. More than 130 marches were organised around the country, with lower-than-expected attendance reported in some cities.
Although French unions have objected to domestic budget cuts initiated by President François Hollande’s government, yesterday’s protests stressed solidarity with worse-affected countries such as Greece and Spain. At a march attended by several thousand people in Paris, members of the Unsa union chanted: “French, German, Italians — we are all Europeans.” “We want a European space where social progress is on the agenda at summits of heads of state,” said the head of the large CGT union, Bernard Thibault.
The protests marked the first co-ordinated action by trade unions since the coming to power of Mr Hollande, whose approach to the unions has been less confrontational than that of his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy.
On the eve of the demonstrations, the president said he thought those who would take part supported his desire for policies that would spur economic growth. “I believe the protesters are not calling into question our policies, but supporting them,” he said.
Turnout estimates varied considerably. Unions said 5,000 people marched in the western city of Nantes, but police put the figure at 1,500. Up to 3,000 took part in demonstrations in Marseille.
The Hollande government did not escape everyone’s ire. Radical-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon accused the socialist president of an “unconditional surrender” to liberal orthodoxy by targeting public spending and giving companies tax breaks.
But the prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, denied the government’s policies amounted to austerity. “A rigorous approach to get our public accounts under control, that’s true. But austerity, you know what than means — cuts to salaries, pensions, family benefits. It means thousands of job cuts. That’s not what we’re doing.”
RUADHÁN Mac CORMAIC
In a climate of increasing unrest, violence flared yesterday at some of the 100 or so anti-austerity protests held throughout Italy on a day when the country’s largest trade union, the CGIL, called a four-hour general strike.
Fiat workers in Naples, steel workers in Umbria, environmentalists in Piedmont and students throughout Italy took to the streets for a massive series of protests which were marked by violent incidents in Rome, Turin, Milan, Brescia, Padua and Naples.
The majority of the protesters targeted the technocrat government of Mario Monti with many featuring banners such as “No to the Social Massacre, Monti Go”.
Although yesterday’s protest came within the context of a European Day of Action and Solidarity, CGIL leader Susanna Camusso focused her criticism on the Monti government, saying in a speech in Terni, Umbria: “Monti has been in office for a year now, a disastrous year that has offered no answers to workers . . . Stop telling us that there is light at the end of the tunnel . . . This austerity is strangling labour, impoverishing the country and doing nothing for the future.”