Anti-austerity protests sweep across Europe - Yahoo! News Anti-austerity protests sweep across Europe AP Austerity protest begins in Spain Play Video Reuters – Austerity protest begins in Spain BRUSSELS – European unions orchestrated a crescendo of anti-austerity protests across the continent Wednesday, sending workers ranging from Greek doctors to Spanish bus drivers to Lithuanian engineers out to vent over job cuts, higher taxes, soaring unemployment and smaller pensions. One man even blocked the entrance to the Irish parliament with a cement truck, decrying the country's enormous bank bailouts with blood red slogans like "Toxic Bank" and "All politicians should be sacked." Waves of demonstrators clad in bright red, green and blue union jackets marched through Brussels toward European Union buildings, aiming to reinforce the impact of Spain's first nationwide strike in eight years. Unions estimated the turnout in Brussels at 100,000 people. Some protesters there confronted riot squads with a sit-down protest in the middle of the street. About 150 people were detained, some in scuffles with police. Strikes or protests took place Wednesday in Greece, Portugal, Ireland, Slovenia and Lithuania, all aimed at the budget-slashing, tax-hiking, pension-cutting austerity plans that European governments have implemented to try to control their debt. The march in Brussels came as the EU Commission proposed new penalties to punish member states that have run up deficits, mainly to fund social programs in a time of high unemployment. The proposal, backed by Germany, was running into strong opposition from France, which wants elected politicians, not rigid accounting rules, to decide on what sanctions big spending countries should face. "It is a bizarre time for the European Commission to be proposing a regime of punishment," John Monks, general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation, told Associated Press Television News. "How is that going to make the situation better? It is going to make it worse." Unions fear workers will become the biggest victims of an economic crisis set off by bankers and traders, many of whom were rescued by massive government intervention. "It is not right that people on low salaries have to pay to prop up the country. It should be the banks," said Belgian demonstrator Evelain Foncis. Several governments, already living dangerously with high debt, were pushed to the brink of financial collapse and have been forced to impose punishing cuts in wages, pensions and employment — measures that have brought workers out by the tens of thousands over the past months. "There is a great danger that the workers are going to be paying the price for the reckless speculation that took place in financial markets," Monks said. "You really got to reschedule these debts so that they are not a huge burden on the next few years and cause Europe to plunge down into recession." The strike Wednesday in Spain was the country's first general strike since 2002 and marked a break in the once-close relationship between unions and the Socialist government. Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's government is under severe pressure because of unpopular measures put in place to save Europe's fourth-largest economy from a bailout like one that saved Greece from bankruptcy in May. The cuts have helped Spain trim its central government deficit by half through July but the unemployment rate still stands at a shocking 20 percent, and many businesses are struggling to survive. Whistle-blowing picketers blocked trucks from delivering produce to wholesale markets in Madrid and Barcelona. Strikers hurled eggs and screamed "scabs" at drivers trying to leave a city bus garage in Madrid. Airlines canceled hundreds of flights at Spanish airports. Greece, which had to be rescued this spring by the 15 other nations that share the euro currency just to stave off bankruptcy, has also been forced to cut deep into workers' allowances, with weeks of bitter strikes and actions as a result. Greek bus and trolley drivers walked off the job for several hours and Athens' metro and tram systems also shut down. National railway workers also walked out, disrupting rail connections across the country, while doctors at state hospitals went on a 24-hour strike. Greece has already been suffering from two weeks of protests by truck drivers who have made it difficult for businesses to get supplies. Many supermarkets are seeing shortages. Greece's Socialist government has imposed stringent austerity measures, including cutting civil servants' salaries, trimming pensions and hiking consumer and income taxes. In Dublin, police arrested a 41-year-old man who blocked the Irish parliament with a cement truck but gave few other details. His slogan on the truck — "Toxic Bank" Anglo — referred to the Anglo Irish Bank, which was nationalized last year to save it from collapse. The bank owes some euro72 billion ($97 billion) to depositors worldwide, leaving Irish taxpayers with a mammoth bill at a time when people are suffering through high unemployment, tax hikes and heavy budget cuts. Also Wednesday, some 400 protesters rallied in an illegal demonstration in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius to demand authorities cease harsh austerity measures such as salary cuts. "All of working Europe is on the streets today to express dismay over nearsighted income-cutting politics," said Vytautas Jusys, a 40-year-old engineer who lost his job this year. In Slovenia, thousands of public service workers continued their open-ended strike to protest the government's plan to freeze their salaries for two years — or until economy grows again at a rate of 3 percent. Unions in Portugal expected some 30,000 people to show up for demonstrations later Wednesday.