BRUSSELS – Tens of thousands of workers marched Wednesday through the streets of Europe, decrying the loss of jobs and benefits they fear will come with stinging austerity measures seeking to contain government debt.
Police fired shots in the air to disperse protesters at a general strike in Spain. Greek bus and trolley drivers walked off the job, joined by doctors who staged a 24-hour strike at state hospitals. Unions claimed a crowd of 100,000 marched on European Union headquarters in Brussels.
From Ireland to Greece, workers united around the theme that they are victims of a debt crisis caused by reckless high-spending bankers undermining Europe's cherished welfare state. They complained of higher taxes, job cuts, soaring unemployment and smaller pensions.
"We are protesting mainly for our children, because they're not here — they are out looking for jobs," said Emilio Martella, a 62-year-old retiree demonstrating with 2,000 others in Rome.
Italian public school teachers with temporary contracts didn't get them extended, and parents have complained that class sizes are getting bigger under the cuts.
Like Italy, many nations are raising, or considering to raise, the pension age, fearing there won't be any money left to pay retirees in the future.
France's conservative government is moving through the legislature a controversial plan to increase the retirement age from 65 to 67, which officials say would save nearly €19 billion ($25.9 billion) in 2018 and bring the pension system back into the black that year.
Countries including Greece and Spain have cut workers' pay, and across the continent governments have trimmed benefits that have long been generous by American standards. Unemployment benefits were cut from four years to two in Denmark, Germany trimmed support for the long-term jobless and new parents who stay home, and Spain and England dropped bonuses to families for having babies.
In Dublin, police arrested a man who blocked the entrance to the Irish parliament with a cement truck painted with the blood red slogans "Toxic Bank" and "All politicians should be sacked." The Anglo Irish Bank, which was nationalized last year to save it from collapse, owes some €72 billion ($97 billion) to depositors worldwide.
Waves of demonstrators in bright red, green and blue union jackets marched through Brussels toward EU buildings. Unions estimated the turnout at some 100,000 people, but police spokesman Christian De Coninck put it at 56,000. He said 244 were briefly detained.
The Brussels march came as the EU Commission proposed new penalties to punish member states that have run up deficits, mainly to fund social programs in a time of high unemployment. The proposal, backed by Germany, was running into strong opposition from France, which wants elected politicians, not rigid accounting rules, to decide on what sanctions big spending countries should face.
"It is a bizarre time for the European Commission to be proposing a regime of punishment," John Monks, general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation, told Associated Press Television News. "How is that going to make the situation better? It is going to make it worse."
He said Europe already has 23 million jobless.
Unions fear workers will become the biggest victims of an economic crisis set off by bankers and traders, many of whom were rescued by massive government intervention.
"It is not right that people on low salaries have to pay to prop up the country. It should be the banks," said Belgian demonstrator Evelain Foncis.
Several governments, already living with high debt, were pushed to the brink of financial collapse and have been forced to impose punishing cuts in wages, pensions and employment — measures that have brought workers out by the tens of thousands in the past months.
"There is a great danger that the workers are going to be paying the price for the reckless speculation that took place in financial markets," Monks said. "You really got to reschedule these debts so that they are not a huge burden on the next few years and cause Europe to plunge down into recession."
Wednesday general strike in Spain was the country's first since 2002 and marked a break in the once-close relationship between unions and the Socialist government.
Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's government is under severe pressure because of unpopular measures put in place to save Europe's fourth-largest economy from a bailout like one that saved Greece from bankruptcy in May.
The cuts have helped Spain trim its central government deficit by half through July but the unemployment rate still stands at a shocking 20 percent, and many businesses are struggling to survive.
Whistle-blowing picketers blocked trucks from delivering produce to wholesale markets in Madrid and Barcelona. Strikers hurled eggs and screamed "scabs" at drivers trying to leave a city bus garage in Madrid. Airlines canceled hundreds of flights at Spanish airports.
The two measures which angered most people in Spain were the decision to cut civil servants' wages — which are already low — by an average 5 percent and introduce labor reforms that make it easier and cheaper for companies to lay people off.
Greece, which had to be rescued this spring by the 15 other nations that share the euro currency just to stave off bankruptcy, has also been forced to cut deep into workers' allowances.
Greece's Socialist government has imposed stringent austerity measures, including cutting civil servants' salaries, trimming pensions and hiking consumer and income taxes.
Greek bus and trolley drivers walked off the job for several hours, and Athens' metro and tram systems shut down. National railway workers also walked out, disrupting rail connections across the country, while doctors at state hospitals went on a 24-hour strike.
Greece has already been suffering from two weeks of protests by truck drivers who have made it difficult for businesses to get supplies. Many supermarkets are seeing shortages.
About 400 protesters held an illegal demonstration in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius to demand authorities halt harsh austerity measures such as salary cuts.
"All of working Europe is on the streets today to express dismay over nearsighted income-cutting politics," said Vytautas Jusys, a 40-year-old engineer who lost his job this year.
AP writers across Europe contributed to this story.