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Anti-austerity strikes sweep Europe

Commuters wait for trains at Atocha rail station during a 24-hour nationwide general strike in Madrid, November 14, 2012. REUTERS/Paul Hanna
Commuters wait for trains at Atocha rail station during a 24-hour nationwide general strike in Madrid, November 14, 2012. REUTERS/Paul Hanna

By Carlos Ruano and Andrei Khalip

MADRID/LISBON (Reuters) - Police and protesters clashed in Spain on Wednesday as millions of workers went on strike across Europe to protest spending cuts they say have made the economic crisis worse.

Hundreds of flights were cancelled, car factories and ports were at a standstill and trains barely ran in Spain and Portugal where unions held their first ever coordinated general strike.

Riot police arrested at least two protesters in Madrid and hit others with batons, witnesses said, and in Rome students pelted police with rocks in a protest over money-saving plans for the school system.

International rail services were disrupted by strikes in Belgium and workers in Greece, Italy and France planned work stoppages or demonstrations as part of a "European Day of Action and Solidarity".

"We're on strike to stop these suicidal policies," said Candido Mendez, head of Spain's second-biggest labor federation, the General Workers' Union, or UGT.

More than 60 people were arrested in Spain and 34 injured, 18 of them security officials after scuffles at picket lines and damage to storefronts.

Protesters jammed cash machines with glue and coins and plastered anti-government stickers on shop windows. Power consumption dropped 16 percent with factories idled.

International lenders and some economists say the programs of tax hikes and spending cuts are necessary for putting public finances back on a healthy track after years of overspending.

While several southern European countries have seen bursts of violence, a coordinated and effective regional protest to the austerity has yet to gain traction and governments have so far largely stuck to their policies.

Spain, where the crisis has pushed millions into poverty, has seen some of the biggest protests. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is trying to put off asking for European aid that could require even more budget cuts.

Passion was inflamed when a Spanish woman jumped to her death last week as bailiffs tried to evict her from her home. Spaniards are furious at banks being rescued with public cash while ordinary people suffer.

In Portugal, which accepted an EU bailout last year, the streets have been quieter but public and political opposition to austerity is mounting, threatening to derail new measures sought by Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho.

His centre-right government was forced by protests to abandon a planned increase in employee payroll charges, but replaced it by higher taxes.

Passos Coelho's policies were held up this week as a model by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is despised in much of southern Europe for insisting on austerity as a condition of her support for EU aid.

"I'm on strike because those who work are basically being blackmailed into sacrificing more and more in the name of debt reduction, which is a big lie," said Daniel Santos de Jesus, 43, who teaches architecture at the Lisbon Technical University.

Some 5 million people, or 22 percent of the workforce, are union members in Spain. In Portugal about a quarter of the 5.5 million strong workforce is unionized.

Major demonstrations were planned for the evening in Madrid, Lisbon, Barcelona and other cities.

FLIGHTS, FERRIES CANCELLED

Just 20 percent of Spain's long-distance trains and a third of its commuter trains were running. Lisbon's Metro was completely shut and only 10 percent of all trains will run under a court-ordered minimum service.

In Barcelona, Spain's second-biggest city, hundreds of trash containers were taken off the streets to stop them being burnt.

More than 600 flights were cancelled in Spain, mainly by Iberia and budget carrier Vueling. Portugal's flag carrier TAP cancelled roughly 45 percent of flights.

Italy's biggest union, CGIL, also called for a work stoppage of several hours across the country. The transport ministry expected trains and ferries to stop for four hours. Students and teachers were expected to march.

In Greece, which saw a big two-day strike last week while parliament voted on new cuts, unions geared for a march to parliament around midday although police expected a low turnout.

Holding banners reading "Enough is Enough" state workers started rallying on several squares in central Athens on Wednesday morning.

Spain's economy, the euro zone's fourth biggest, will shrink by some 1.5 percent this year, four years after the crash of a decade-long building boom left airports, highways and high-rise buildings disused across the country. Portugal's economy is expected to contract by 3 percent.

Spanish unions have never held two general strikes in one year before. The previous one in March brought factories and ports to a standstill and ignited flashes of street violence.

Unemployment stands at 25 percent and every week brings fresh job cuts. Spain's flagship airline Iberia, owned by UK-based International Airlines Group, said last week it will cut 4,500 jobs. The prestigious El Pais newspaper just laid off almost a quarter of its staff.

"We have to leave something better for our children," said Rocio Blanco, 47, a railway worker on the picket line at Madrid's main rail station, Atocha.

(Additional reporting by Miguel Pereira in Lisbon, Ben Deighton in Brussels, Braden Phillips in Barcelona, Naomi O'Leary in Rome and Renee Maltezou in Athens; Writing by Fiona Ortiz; Editing by Peter Graff and Anna Willard)

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