May Day protests

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MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman. This is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH Boston. Workers across Europe took to the streets today in their annual �May Day show of force.� This year, they're protesting the way their governments are handling the global economic crisis. They fear that working people will end up paying for the errors of bankers. The World's Gerry Hadden has more.

GERRY HADDEN: From Spain to Greece, millions of people marched. In Athens, they disrupted public transport, flights, and ferry services. During a protest that featured live music, labor leader Giorgos Skadiotis said today's turnout was a warning to Greek leadership.

GIORGOS SKADIOTIS: Our aim is for the working class of Athens to demonstrate and express its opposition to the anti-worker measures imposed by the government and by employers whose goal is to make the workers pay for the crisis in capitalism.

HADDEN: Skadiotis is referring to massive layoffs, reduced work time, and unpaid furlough that Greek companies have resorted to in recent months as the credit crisis has deepened. The story is similar to those playing out across Europe. France today saw about 300 separate marches that brought its labor unions together in an unusual display of unity. It was a formidable showing, but Jean-Claude Mailly, of the union Workers Force, said that marches will not be enough to protect jobs and Europe's generous welfare system.

JEAN-CLAUDE MAILLY: If the crisis continues for, who knows, 12 to 18 months, we are not going to demonstrate every month. So we'll have to step things up a bit. The idea we have put on the table is to hold a 24-hour strike, but everybody needs to call for it. That's the idea.

HADDEN: In Berlin today, protestors have already stepped things up � fighting with police in the streets and setting cars on fire. Berlin police spokesman, Frank Miller.

FRANK MILLER: On one hand, I can of course see the people's protest against the economic crisis. It's a protest which we all, I think, can understand and one that is perfectly acceptable if it is carried out peacefully on the streets. But where cars are set on fire and criminal acts are being committed, then in my view, it's nothing to do with political demands.

HADDEN: Political or not, acts of vandalism will likely increase if this crisis continues much longer, says Spanish labor expert Albert Recio. Recio says workers feel more vulnerable than ever, in part because European unions have lost their clout in recent years. That's due to infighting among unions themselves competing for members, but also because protesting against a traditional boss, or even one's government, is less effective than it used to be, he says, because governments have lost some key tools that they once used to protect jobs. �For example,� he says, �take the countries that use the Euro currency. They've lost one classic instrument from a bygone era: the ability to devaluate one's national currency. Today, only the European Central Bank can adjust interest rates. And I believe the ECB helped bring on this crisis by continuing to raise interest rates well into last year.� But starting last summer, the ECB steadily cut Europe's prime interest rate. Today it's at less than 2 percent, down from its high of over 5 percent. But so far, the rate cuts have not spurred borrowing. That's has the European economy trapped in a vicious circle. Without loans, companies are closing. That means fewer customers for the ailing banks, and so Europe's recession grows deeper � and layoffs continue. For The World, I'm Gerry Hadden.