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Europe: Strikes Protest Austerity Measures, Delay Holiday Travel

By RAF CASERT   12/22/11 10:18 AM ET   AP

BRUSSELS -- Holiday strikes to protest austerity measures paralyzed ground traffic in Belgium, delayed flights in Paris, and promised days of headaches for Christmas travelers around Europe.

Workers were walking off the job to show their ire at budget-slashing measures by their governments to tackle debt and high deficits, and officials were scrambling Thursday to try to mitigate delays and cancellations.

Eurostar and Thalys idled part of their popular service through Brussels as Belgian transport workers walked off the job. In France, a strike by airport security personnel stretched into its seventh day, and in London, football club Arsenal postponed its day-after-Christmas game against Wolverhampton Wanderers by 24 hours because of a planned public transport strike on the U.K.'s Boxing Day holiday.

The French government, anxious to avoid angering voters ahead of next spring's presidential election, was looking at options to get police to replace security personnel and make sure Christmas Sunday is as undisturbed as possible. Delays appeared to be shortening.

"The issue is to have airplanes take off so that the French people who have had a tough autumn and are feeling the crisis can get to their families and not be blocked at airports," Transport Minister Nathalie Koscusko-Morizet said on France Info.

In the Netherlands, doctors got in on the act, with about one in six holding a three-hour wildcat strike after Parliament approved plans to reduce their reimbursement for many common procedures. Doctors who participated said they were only available in case of emergency.

In Greece, train workers planned a five-hour work stoppage from noon Thursday, and in Spain more airline and transport action is expected next week, with Iberia pilots to strike again Dec. 29 over the state company's decision to launch a low cost airline. Meanwhile, the small CGT union has called strikes at the public rail company Renfe for Christmas and New Year's.

Portuguese unions, too, are biting back after a euro78-billion ($102-billion) international bailout earlier this year brought tax hikes and pay cuts in return. Train engineers are due to strike from Friday until Christmas day, protesting disciplinary measures imposed on them by the national rail company for allegedly failing to ensure minimum services during a recent general strike over the cuts.

The major unions in Belgium were protesting pension reform being pushed through Parliament for early next year that would require people to wait two years longer before early retirement. All but one of Belgium's major airports were operating close to normally, but intermittent road blocks by strikers worsened road delays around the capital. The strike also affected postal services, schools and hospitals.

At the Brussels South train station, the tracks of the popular Eurostar and Thalys trains linking London and Paris through Brussels with Amsterdam and Germany, remained empty.

"Eurostar and other onward connecting rail services will not be able to operate to or from Brussels during this period," the rail company said of the 24-hour strike.

Simply waiting a day would be tough for holiday travelers since the trains are often fully booked for days on end. All local lines were canceled on Thursday, too, keeping many workers home.

"Again, it is at the expense of travelers. We are literally left out in the cold," said Kees Smilde of the TrainTramBus consumer group.

Unions were especially irked that the government is trying to push through pension reform, sidestepping the traditional worker-employer negotiations that have become a cornerstone of the nation's welfare state system.

Workers "are striking against the government retirement measures because they are imposed on us in the absence of any kind of social negotiations," the Socialist ABVV union said in a statement. Another day of action is planned for Jan. 30, when a summit of EU government leaders is planned, and further wildcat strikes are expected.

In London, Arsenal was forced to take action after subway workers decided to stage a strike the day after Christmas in a dispute over holiday pay, a walkout sure to cause problems on one of the busiest shopping days of the year. The London Underground's management calls the unions' demand for more pay and another day off "outrageous."

In Paris, the airport security personnel strike continued but delays were shortening and no flight cancellations were recorded at De Gaulle, Paris' busiest airport Wednesday.

Unions representing workers who conduct pat-downs on travelers and operate the bag-screening machines launched the walkout a week ago to demand negotiations over an increase in pay. It was timed for maximum effect during the holiday getaway season.

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Greg Keller from Paris, Elena Becatoros from Athens, Toby Sterling from Amsterdam, Barry Hatton from Lisbon and Ciaran Giles from Madrid contributed to this story.

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Empty rails and platforms are seen at Brussels South railway station in Brussels, Thursday Dec. 22, 2012. Strikes to protest austerity measures paralyzed ground traffic in Belgium and hit Christmas travelers in several nations across Europe, promising days of headaches through the holidays. (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)
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