In bailed-out Portugal, where the government intends to intensify austerity measures next year, the second general strike in eight months left commuters stranded as trains ground to a virtual halt and the Lisbon subway shut down. Some 200 flights to and from Portugal — about half the daily average — were canceled. Hospitals provided only minimum services and municipal trash was left uncollected.
Protest marches in 40 Portuguese cities reportedly were peaceful but as night fell a small group of protesters threw rocks and bottles at riot police protecting the parliament building in Lisbon. A police charge dispersed the protesters who fled into narrow side-streets and set fire to trash cans. At least five people were injured.
Airports across Europe were forced to cancel flights to and from striking nations.
In Belgium, a 24-hour rail stoppage severely disrupted the Thalys and the Eurostar high-speed rail services — vital links that connect Brussels, London and Paris.
Philippe de Buck, chief of the EU employers' federation Eurobusiness, said the strike would cost billions of euros and hurt Europe's ability to attract investors.
"If you start striking at national level and in companies you only will harm the economy," he said. "And it is not the right thing to do today."
Europe has a long history of union action, and workers' rights and benefits have been one of the cornerstones of its welfare state, with its guaranteed medical care, generous unemployment benefits and often comfortable pensions.
The union action was not felt across the entire region, however, with countries where austerity has not hit as hard experiencing little disruption.
In Austria, which has the eurozone's lowest unemployment at 4.3 percent, only about 350 people gathered in a central square in Vienna to express solidarity with Greece. Many danced a sirtaki, Greece's traditional dance.
"So far, there are only symbolic demonstrations here in Germany, because we were able to avoid the crisis," said Michael Sommer, the head of Germany's main labor union federation.
In Denmark, too, there were no strikes, since cooperation between workers and employers has largely survived the crisis.
"The employers speak the same language as we do and we understand each other's needs and demands," said Joergen Frederiksen, a 69-year-old retired worker and former shop steward. "There are good vibes between us and that means a lot."
Among the Associated Press writers contributing to this report were Alan Clendenning and Ciaran Giles in Madrid; Geir Moulson in Berlin; Jan Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark; Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands; Barry Hatton in Lisbon, Portugal; Colleen Barry in Milan, Italy; and Elena Becatoros in Athens, Greece.