European workers protest austerity measures

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LISA MULLINS: Many European cities had their routine disrupted today. Thankfully it wasn't because of terrorism, but because of demonstrations. Workers voiced their opposition to planned spending cuts by governments all over Europe. The governments, in turn, are under pressure from the European Union to rein in public debt. One focus of the protests was Brussels, the EU capital. Another was Spain, where a general strike was called for today. The World's Gerry Hadden has more from Barcelona.

GERRY HADDEN: At dawn this morning in Madrid picketers were already blocking buses. They're angry over salary cuts in the public sector, a plan to reduce pensions and to make labor laws more flexible. In cities across Spain, crowds were out showing their discontent with Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's austerity package. At a small rally in downtown Barcelona, a 19-year-old college student named Max Fallardo said he came to protest a law that makes it easier for employers to fire workers. In Fallardo's age bracket, unemployment is at 40%.


HADDEN: He says, even though I'm not yet working I figure I've got a lot of years of work ahead of me during which I might get easily fired. So now's the time to protest. The Spanish government says it must loosen labor laws, so that hiring will also be easier. It also defends spending cuts to reign in a rising deficit. Schoolteacher Ala Morello doesn't buy that.


HADDEN: This isn't just Zapatero but the entire European Union, she says. Europe used millions of euros of public funds to save the banks after the financial crisis. And to compensate for that, governments want to cut public worker salaries. For workers like Morello what's at stake today isn't just wages or unemployment benefits, but an entire way of life. The European social welfare-state. Europeans have had strong benefits and protections for more than half a century. And those are slipping away, as leaders try to make Europe more competitive globally. Unions have been quick to focus on this point.


HADDEN: This union leader in the southern Spanish region of Andalucia called on grandparents to strike today too, by not looking after their grandkids. In Spain more than half of grandparents baby sit at least part time because both the children's parents must work to make ends meet. The pressure on working parents was underscored last week in Strausbourg. An Italian member of the European Parliament, Licia Ronzulli, brought her 7-week-old baby, Vittoria, to work, casting a vote with the infant strapped to her chest in a sling.


LICIA RONZULLI: It wasn't really a political gesture. It was a choice, because of several factors, mainly maternal reasons. But it was also a logistical issue, a necessity. I have a very strong attachment to my daughter. I breast feed Vittoria and I do that six times a day.

HADDEN: Though Ronzulli's gesture might not have been politically motivated, it made a point. That Europe needs to strengthen family protections, not weaken them. But despite protests across Europe this month to maintain generous benefits, there's no sign that governments are backing away from austerity measures. The pressures from the financial markets to tighten belts has been strong. The Spanish government says it will wait until tomorrow to assess the impact of today's strike. On the street that impact appeared minimal. Here in Barcelona many shops stayed open. Isa Repintor owns a candy store just a block from the union rally site. She, like a majority of Spaniards, said she was against the strike.


HADDEN: A lot of money is lost when people don't work. And besides, the unions didn't really give good reasons for protesting. Look, she says, the workers are always the ones to pay when there's a crisis, strike or no strike. For The World, I'm Gerry Hadden in Barcelona.