LJUBLJANA, Slovenia – Slovenian schools were closed and other services scaled down Wednesday as public service workers went on general strike to protest government austerity measures in the small European Union nation.
The strike was organized by Slovenia's trade unions, which have rejected cuts proposed by the new, center-right government envisioning a 7 to 10 percent wage reduction in the public sector.
Union leaders said some 90,000 public sector employees have joined the action, as thousands of people marched in the capital and other Slovenian towns.
Slovenia's STA news agency described the strike as "one of the biggest in Slovenia's history," shutting down some 600 schools, limiting police intervention to urgencies only and slowing down customs services on the borders.
Slovenia has been hit by an economic crisis caused by the global downturn and euro debt crisis. The country's public debt has swollen to almost 46 percent and the government has said it wants to cut the budget deficit to 3 percent, partially by introducing pay cuts and a hiring freeze in the public sector.
Slovenia's Labor Minister Andrej Vizjak said Wednesday "the government must make cuts and reduce public spending by $1.3 billion in 2012."
Union leader Branimir Strukelj said teachers -- unhappy because much of the public spending cuts would be made in the education sector -- had formed the backbone of the strike.
"This is wrong if the idea is for Slovenia to grow," Strukelj said, adding that about 85 percent of teachers and other education employees were striking.
Oto Luthar, who heads the Research Center of Slovenia's Academy of Science and Arts, warned any further cuts in financing of education would harm Slovenia's progress.
"Structural reforms are about development and knowledge," Luthar said.
The government has said it would not bow to pressure, with Prime Minister Janez Jansa saying on state television on Tuesday evening "it is time for the public sector to accept reality."
Jansa has said Slovenia will have to borrow up to euro1.5 billion (about $2 billion) this year, of which about $920 million will go for interest on debt payments only.