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Unions show solidarity with European strikers

Thomas Naecke, left, from the EU embassy to Switzerland, is handed a letter of protest in Bern by staff at the Portuguese embassy Keystone

Swiss unions have expressed solidarity with millions of workers across Europe who downed tools on Wednesday to protest against public spending cuts.

Demonstrations were held in front of various consulates and a letter was sent to the ambassador of the European Union to Switzerland.

Unia, Switzerland’s largest trade union, organised actions of solidarity outside the Spanish, Portuguese and Greek consulates in Bern and Geneva, according to the Swiss Trade Union Federation.

In Geneva, protests were also planned in the banking quarter to highlight the fact that the people are having to pay for the banking and financial crisis, according to the unions.

In Bern, staff at the Portuguese embassy handed a letter to a representative of Richard Jones, EU ambassador to Switzerland.

The trade union federation said it had sent a letter to Herman Van Rompuy and José Manuel Barroso, respective presidents of the European Council and European Commission, demanding them to “end a policy of austerity which is a failure”.

The trade union federation said Switzerland was also feeling the effects of the crisis, with the strong franc hurting exports and tourism. The result was less income and austerity programmes launched by certain cantons.

In response, unions will take to the streets in the city of St Gallen over the next ten days.

For its part, the trade union umbrella group Travail Suisse expressed solidarity with workers “heavily affected by the crisis”, who, it added, were not responsible for the very tough financial and economic situation in their countries but who were bearing the brunt of the consequences, with “intolerable” unemployment rates.

North-south divide

On Wednesday, millions of workers across the EU sought to present a united front against rampant unemployment and government spending cuts with a string of strikes and demonstrations.

It is said to be organised labour’s biggest Europe-wide industrial action for three years. 

But while austerity-hit countries such as Spain and Portugal saw a high turnout of striking workers, wealthier countries such as Germany and Denmark experienced only piecemeal action.

To combat a three-year financial crisis over too much debt, governments across Europe have had to cut spending, pensions and benefits and raise taxes. As well as hitting income and living standards, these measures have also led to a decline in economic output and rapidly rising unemployment.

The 17 countries that use the euro are expected to fall into recession when official figures are released on Thursday. Meanwhile, unemployment across the eurozone has reached a record 11.6 per cent with countries like Spain and Greece hitting the 25 per cent mark.

Taking a stand

With no end in sight to the economic hardship, workers were trying to take a stand.

In Spain, more than 120 people were arrested and several dozens injured, including 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 per cent with factories idled.

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.

Swiss airports and Swiss International Airlines were also affected. About 30 flights to Spain and Portugal were cancelled. Local train links from Ticino to neighbouring Italy were suspended due to strikes.

In Rome, students pelted police with rocks in a protest over money-saving plans for the school system. About 60 demonstrators were detained.

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.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR