Hundreds of flights were cancelled, schools were shut, factories were at a standstill and trains barely ran in Spain and Portugal where unions held their first joint general strike. Stoppages in Belgium interrupted international rail services.
Workers also protested in Greece and France against austerity policies that have taken a heavy economic toll and aggravated mass unemployment. But the demonstrations organised by the European Trade Union Confederation seemed unlikely to force hard-pressed governments to change their cost-cutting strategies.
In Spain, 110 people were arrested - including two allegedly with material to make explosives - after confrontations at picket lines and damage to storefronts. Riot police fired rubber bullets at protesters in central Madrid in one brief clash.
Even non-union workers jointed protests and marches. "This isn't about politics or unions. This is social and economic. If we have to shut down the country we'll shut it down," said 24-year-old Mariluz Gordillo, a non-unionised phone operator at El Corte Ingles department store.
In Rome scuffles broke out between police in riot gear and demonstrators who threw stones, bottles and fireworks at police. About 60 demonstrators were detained. Protesters occupied Pisa's mediaeval leaning tower for an hour, hanging a banner reading "Rise up. We are not paying for your crisis".
Portuguese unemployment jumped to a record 15.8 percent while in neighbouring Spain, one in four of the workforce is jobless. Greece's economic output shrank 7.2 percent on an annual basis in the third quarter as the debt-laden country staggers towards its sixth year of depression.
Close to 26 million people are unemployed in the European Union while governments take aim at spending on treasured universal health care and public schools.
"Things have to change... Money has ended up with all the power and people none. How could this happen?" said Esteban Quesada, 58, a hardware store owner in Barcelona who closed his shop to join the protests in Spain's second city.
Throughout southern Europe governments are trying to put public finances back on track after years of overspending. Portugal and Greece have cut pensions and, with Spain, have slashed public sector wages as well as spending on hospitals and schools. Italy and France are also under pressure to control their budget deficits.
In Spain, most of the savings have been gobbled up by higher interest payments on the national debt, swollen by the cost of rescuing banks after a real estate bubble burst in 2008.
Germany's central bank, the Bundesbank, said in a report on Wednesday that the euro zone debt crisis is still the number one risk to German banks and insurers, and the situation had not improved from last year.
Promises from the European Central Bank to support sovereign bond prices for countries that seek aid have brought some relief to Spain and Italy in the capital markets. On Wednesday Italy sold 3-year bonds at the lowest borrowing cost in two years.
SPAIN TO STAY THE COURSE
While several southern European countries have seen bursts of violence, a coordinated and effective regional protest against austerity has yet to force a significant policy shift.
Spanish Economy Minister Luis de Guindos told reporters on Wednesday the government would stay the course with spending cuts to meet ambitious deficit cutting targets, despite the strike.
Union leaders in Spain said more than 9 million workers joined the strike - the second this year. The government said participation was much lower and played down the impact, saying many services were functioning normally. Stores opened normally in many parts of the country, though some had protesters outside.
Passions were inflamed when a Spanish woman jumped to her death last week as bailiffs tried to evict her from her home. Spaniards are furious at banks being rescued with public money while ordinary people suffer.
In Lisbon, thousands filled a square in front of the Portuguese parliament shouting "This debt is not ours" and "Out IMF, out troika". Police were guarding the building.
"I'm on strike because those who work are basically being blackmailed into sacrificing more and more in the name of debt reduction, which is a big lie," said Daniel Santos de Jesus, 43, who teaches architecture at the Lisbon Technical University.
Protesters jammed cash machines with glue and coins, and plastered anti-government stickers on shop windows around Spain. Power consumption dropped 16 percent with factories idled.
In Greece, which saw a big two-day strike last week as parliament voted to approve new cuts, hundreds of strikers rallied peacefully in central Athens, holding aloft giant Italian, Portuguese and Spanish flags and banners proclaiming "Enough is enough."
In France, five trade unions organised marches in more than 100 cities but did not call for a strike. Left-wing critics of Socialist President Francois Hollande said he has failed to address the concerns of French workers who have the same fears as their counterparts in southern Europe.