By Sonya Dowsett and Andrei Khalip
MADRID/LISBON, Nov 14 (Reuters) - Millions of workers joined strikes across southern Europe on Wednesday to protest against spending cuts and tax hikes that trade unions say have brought misery and deepened the region’s economic crisis.
Spanish and Portuguese workers were holding their first coordinated general strike and unions in Greece, Italy and France, Belgium also planned work stoppages or demonstrations as part of a “European Day of Action and Solidarity”.
Spanish police arrested 32 people in the early hours of the morning as scuffles broke out at picket lines. Power consumption dropped 11 percent as factories shut down production lines. Portugal’s trains were barely running and the metro was shut.
“We’re on strike to stop these suicidal policies,” said Candido Mendez, head of Spain’s second-biggest labour federation, the General Workers’ Union, or UGT.
International lenders and some economists say the programmes 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 sent unemployment to 25 percent, has seen some of the biggest protests and 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 unionised. Unions have planned rallies and marches in cities throughout both countries, with a major demonstration beginning at 6:30 p.m. (1730 GMT) in Madrid.
Just 20 percent of Spain’s long-distance trains and a third of its commuter trains were expected to run. Lisbon’s Metro was completely shut early on Wednesday 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 prevent 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, the main public and private sector labour unions called for a three-hour work stoppage although Athens police only expect 10,000 demonstrators.
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.
Every week seems to bring 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. She has had to take a 15 percent pay cut.