Austerity plans leave Europe awash in strife

BRUSSELS — Tens of thousands of workers marched Wednesday through the streets of Europe, decrying the loss of jobs and benefits they fear will come with stinging austerity measures seeking to contain government debt.

Police fired shots in the air to disperse protesters at a general strike in Spain. Greek bus and trolley drivers walked off the job, joined by doctors who staged a 24-hour strike at state hospitals. Unions claimed a crowd of 100,000 marched on European Union headquarters in Brussels.

From Ireland to Greece, workers united around the theme that they are victims of a debt crisis caused by reckless high-spending bankers undermining Europe's cherished welfare state. They complained of higher taxes, job cuts, soaring unemployment and smaller pensions.

"We are protesting mainly for our children, because they're not here — they are out looking for jobs," said Emilio Martella, a 62-year-old retiree demonstrating with 2,000 others in Rome.

Like Italy, many nations are raising, or considering to raise, the pension age, fearing there won't be any money left to pay retirees in the future.

France's conservative government is moving through the legislature a controversial plan to increase the retirement age from 65 to 67, which officials say would save nearly $25.9 billion in 2018 and bring the pension system back into the black that year.

Countries including Greece and Spain have cut workers' pay, and across the continent governments have trimmed benefits that have long been generous by American standards. Unemployment benefits were cut from four years to two in Denmark, Germany trimmed support for the long-term jobless and new parents who stay home, and Spain and England dropped bonuses to families for having babies.

In Dublin, police arrested a man who blocked the entrance to the Irish parliament with a cement truck painted with the blood-red slogans "Toxic Bank" and "All politicians should be sacked." The Anglo Irish Bank, which was nationalized last year to save it from collapse, owes some $97 billion to depositors worldwide.