With no end in sight to Europe's economic hardship, workers were trying to take a stand on Wednesday.

"There is a social emergency in the south," said Bernadette Segol, secretary general of the European Trade Union Confederation. "All recognize that the policies carried out now are unfair and not working."

Spain's General Workers' Union said the nationwide strike â¿¿ the second this year â¿¿ was being observed by nearly all workers in the automobile, energy, shipbuilding and construction industries. The country, reeling from austerity measures designed to prevent it from asking for a full-blown international bailout, is mired in recession with 50 percent unemployment among its under-25s.

Ignacio Fernandez Toxo, a CCOO Spanish union leader, called Wednesday's actions "a political strike against the policies of a suicidal and anti-social government."

The Spanish strike shut down most schools, and hospitals operated with skeleton staffs. Health and education have both suffered serious spending cutbacks and increased moves toward privatization.

Frustration spilled into violence when riot police clashed with demonstrators in Madrid and Barcelona. Television images showed protesters hurling rocks and bottles at officers, who clubbed demonstrators to the ground and hauled away others in police vans. At least one police vehicle was torched in Barcelona, and Spanish media showed images of a 13-year-old boy with his head bloodied from a beating by a riot police officer.

In the evening, tens of thousands filled the downtown streets of Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia and other cities, though officials and organizers gave differing turnout figures. The Interior Ministry said there were 35,000 in central Madrid, but unions said there 350,000. In Barcelona, organizers claimed more than 1 million turned out. Authorities there said it was around 50,000.

By early evening, 118 people had been arrested across Spain and 74 people, including 43 police, injured.

In Italy, protests turned violent as well, with some of the tens of thousands of students and workers clashing with riot police in several cities. Dozens of demonstrators were detained and a handful of police were injured, according to Italian news reports.

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