BRUSSELS - Tens of thousands of people marched through Brussels on Wednesday on a day of protests across Europe against government austerity measures, which unions say will slow economic recovery and punish the poor.
Trade unions said they had called rallies in 13 capitals from Lisbon to Helsinki, while Spanish unions held a general strike to oppose measures such as spending cuts and pension and labor market reforms intended to stave off economic crisis.
"The main feeling of the people is that for the banking system there are millions and billions of euros, but the social payments are being cut. That's not right," said Ralf Kutkowski, a German coal miner protesting in the Belgian capital.
Marchers in Brussels, heading for the EU's headquarters, waved union flags and carried banners saying "No to austerity" and "Priority to jobs and growth." The 50 unions represented included German coal miners, Romanian gas workers and Polish shipbuilders.
The protest was led by a group dressed in black suits with black face masks, carrying umbrellas and briefcases, acting as the head of a funeral cortege mourning the death of Europe.
The protest organizers, the European Trade Union Confederation, were aiming to get 100,000 people to march. Belgian police and the unions did not immediately estimate crowd numbers but one police official told Reuters at least 50,000 people were taking part.
Spain's first general strike for eight years, a protest against the Socialist government's public spending cuts and easier hire-and-fire laws, had a limited impact beyond disrupting transport and some factories.
Spanish unions said 10 million people, or more than half the workforce, were on strike. The government gave no numbers.
European governments say they have been forced into austerity to avert the danger of a sovereign debt crisis like the one suffered by Greece, but many workers feel they are being punished for problems that were not of their making.
"We don't want to take it on our backs," said Philipp Jacks, a German trade unionist marching in Brussels.
Graham Smith, a public sector youth worker from Edinburgh in Scotland, said: "The message is we need our public services because the people who need them most are the people being hit most by the crisis."
REFORMS SET TO CONTINUE
Protests have taken place in many countries in the last few months. Protests on Wednesday were planned in Brussels, Dublin, Lisbon, Rome, Paris, Riga, Warsaw, Nicosia, Bucharest, Prague, Vilnius, Belgrade and Athens.
Greece's main unions, representing about 2.5 million workers, did not strike on Wednesday but plan to march to parliament in the evening to protest against measures prescribed by the EU and the IMF in return for bailing the country out.
A few smaller unions called job walkouts. Greek hospitals doctors stopped work for 24 hours and public transport was disrupted.
In Slovenia, about half of public sector workers remained on strike for the third day against a planned wage freeze, causing jams at border crossings with non-EU Croatia.
Economists say strikes and protests are unlikely to force any government to abandon structural reforms or savings measures but could make it harder for some leaders to win re-election and limit the scope of some reforms in the long run.
Economic growth has revived in the European Union, home to 500 million people and the executive European Commission expects the bloc's economy to grow 1.8 percent this year after a 4.2 percent contraction in 2009.
But EU unemployment is running at 9.6 percent of the workforce, and at around twice that rate in Spain, Latvia and Estonia. Unions say austerity will curb job creation.
Financial markets are also worried about whether countries such as Ireland and Portugal can manage their debt burdens and the Commission wants tough sanctions imposed on countries that break debt and budget deficit rules.
"We understand there is a crisis, but it is being used as a very good excuse for all kinds of pressure on the people who are employees, workers and not in big business," said Alexander Nikolov, who drove from Bulgaria to protest in Brussels.
Dennis Radtue, a coal mining union representative from Germany, said the gap between rich and poor was growing.
"Rich people have a lot of opportunity to save their money and pay no taxes, while a normal worker has to pay taxes whether he wants to or not," he said.
(Additional reporting by Emily Coleman, writing by Timothy Heritage; Editing by Ruth Pitchford )