The wheels came off Portugal’s public transport system again yesterday thanks to the country’s third general strike in a year.
The state-owned airline TAP cancelled 45 per cent of its flights, the Lisbon metro – which carries half a million passengers daily – closed down completely, and the country’s main railway operator, CP Comboios, said most trains would not run.
The latest strike comes a fortnight after the Portuguese parliament voted in favour of legislation that will lead to the country’s most sweeping tax increases in recent history – averaging 30 per cent – which are said to be the equivalent of two months’ income for some Portuguese households.
A second vote on the bill, designed to keep the country’s €78bn (£62bn) bailout on track, is due later this month.
Some sectors of Portuguese society, such as Lisbon’s dock workers, have been on strike for months, and the usual anti-austerity protests in the city centre were swelled by large numbers of health workers – reportedly up to 90 per cent of the workforce in some hospitals.
Hundreds of thousands of Spaniards took part in dozens of demonstrations that concluded the country’s second general strike in eight months, protesting against severe anti-austerity measures in a country suffering both from a recession now in its fifth quarter and record-level unemployment.
Whilst well over 100,000 demonstrators marched in Barcelona and Valencia, the worst violence of the day’s strike suddenly erupted in Madrid at the tail end of of a demonstration that had seen tens of thousands of protesters take to the city’s central avenues.
Close to the Spanish parliament in the Paseo del Prado boulevard - where some of the worst anti-austerity violence in the country took place in late September - police fired rubber bullets and charged to disperse groups of young protesters setting fire to rubbish bins, tearing down barricades and hurling missiles. Then as ambulance sirens blared and some small groups sat chanting on the ground opposite quickly formed police lines, others tore through a maze of nearby narrow streets setting more refuse containers ablaze, smashing some shop windows and leaving a dense smell of burnt plastic hanging in the air.
Prior to the evening’s violent conclusion, amongst the tens of thousands of Madrid protesters, the mood had been mostly good humoured, although the messages on many of the banners - “They rob and divide”, “Without fighting, what will you have?” and a simple “No” next to a giant pair of scissors representing the cuts - were defiant.
“There have been so many cuts we haven’t got any paper left in my department. We can’t even afford ink for the printer,” one protester, a university teacher named Rubén, told The Independent.
“People are more and more angry. This strike isn’t going to achieve anything, but this is the only way of protesting we’ve got.”
“One day’s strike is not good enough... three days would be much more effective,” Antonio Rodriguez, carrying a flag of Spain’s former Republic, said.
With much of heavy industry and transport paralysed by the strike, trade union leaders claimed overall 78 per cent of Spanish workers downed tools yesterday, slightly higher than in March 29th’s general strike, although Spain’s main business association, the CEOE, put the figure far lower - at 12 per cent.
Violent anti-austerity protests involving tens of thousands flared in towns and cities across Italy yesterday, while public services were crippled as the left-wing Cgil union called a general strike.
In Milan, where students and public sector workers led the protests, 10 police officers were injured as they attempted to stop stone-throwing activists from reaching the European Parliament offices. Elsewhere in the city banks were attacked, shop windows smashed and flares were let of in railway stations.
In Rome, groups of workers, students, teachers and the unemployed organised marches across the city. Some of the worst violence in the capital flared between far-right student groups and the police as authorities tried to seal off the Prime Minister’s residence, Palazzo Chigi, from the protesters, with running battles between police armed with tear gas and protesters.
Police also used tear-gas against thousands of students in the northern city of Turin after they massed at the construction site of the new Intesa San Paolo bank. One officer was reportedly beaten by a group of activists armed with sticks and baseball bats.
Teachers and municipal workers walked off the job at midday yesterday to attend a peaceful rally in the centre of Athens, while the union of journalists also called a three hour work stoppage. Protesters unfurled massive Greek flags and banners that read: “austerity kills dignity, reclaim Europe” and “the bailout will damage your health”.
But Athens is no stranger to strikes and violent protests, and yesterday the crowds were much smaller even than last week, when tens of thousands of Greeks assembled to vent their anger at the latest austerity measures.