By Clare Kane
MADRID, May 1 (Reuters) - Workers hit by lower living standards and record high unemployment staged May Day protests across Europe on Wednesday, hoping to persuade euro zone governments of the case for easing austerity measures and boosting growth.
Thousands of protesters marched in Madrid, snaking up the Gran Via central shopping street, waving flags and carrying placards reading "austerity ruins and kills" and "reforms are robbery".
"The future of Spain looks terrible, we're going backwards with this government," said former civil servant Alicia Candelas, 54, who has been without a job for two years.
The Spanish economy has shrunk for seven consecutive quarters, and unemployment stands at a record 27 percent.
There had "never been a May 1 with more reason to take to the streets", said Candido Mendez, head of UGT, one of two main unions that called on workers and the unemployed to join more than 80 demonstrations across the country.
Trains and ferries were cancelled in Greece, and bank and hospital staff walked off the job after the main public and private sector unions there called a 24-hour strike, the latest in a string of protests in a country in its sixth year of recession.
About 1,000 police officers were deployed in Athens, but the demonstration passed off peacefully, with about 5,000 striking workers, pensioners and students marching to parliament holding banners reading: "We won't become slaves, take to the streets!".
Earlier, hundreds of protesters affiliated with the Communist KKE party raised their arms in a clenched fist salute on Syntagma Square, scene of violent clashes between police and protesters during previous protests.
"The economy won't be resurrected by the bankrupt banks and the corrupt political system but by the workers and their fight," Alexis Tsipras, leader of the anti-bailout Syriza party, told protesters.
"Our message today is very clear: 'Enough with these policies which hurt people and make the poor poorer,'" said Ilias Iliopoulos, general secretary of public sector union ADEDY.
Turnout in Greece was lower than last year when 100,000 marched on Syntagma Square. The May 1 holiday falls a few days before Greek Orthodox Easter, so public schools were shut and many workers have left for holidays.
AUSTERITY VS GROWTH
Four heavily indebted euro zone countries - Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Cyprus - have received sovereign bailouts.
With little or no sign of growth in the euro zone, the European Central Bank is expected to cut interest rates to a record low 0.5 percent at its policy meeting on Thursday.
But analysts say that alone will do little to lift the euro zone out of recession, and several governments are now openly discussing policies to try to boost growth.
Italy's new Prime Minister Enrico Letta told Germany on Tuesday that his government would meet its budget commitments but expected Europe to drop its austerity mantra and do more to lift growth.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, seen by many in southern Europe as the champion of the euro zone's belt-tightening approach, struck a conciliatory tone, saying "budget consolidation and growth need not be contradictory".
Tens of thousands marched in Italy's major cities to demand government action to tackle unemployment - at 11.5 percent overall and 40 percent among the young - and an end to austerity and tax evasion. Most marches were peaceful, but demonstrators in Turin threw hollowed eggs filled with black paint at police.
Pope Francis made a May Day appeal for governments to tackle unemployment, as "work is fundamental to the dignity of a person".
"I think of how many, and not just young people, are unemployed, many times due to a purely economic conception of society, which seeks selfish profit, beyond the parameters of social justice," he told tens of thousands of people packed into St. Peter's Square for his weekly general audience.
Traditional May Day marches were also taking place outside the euro zone. In Russia, about 1.5 million people were expected to take part in parades, a fraction of the millions that used to march in Soviet times.
In Istanbul, Turkish riot police fired water cannon and tear gas to disperse crowds gathering for a rally on what has become a traditional labour holiday. A Reuters photographer said at least six people were injured in the clashes.
Thousands of police were stationed across the city centre to block access to the main Taksim square. Authorities often use force to prevent the rally in the city centre, having this year denied trade unions permission to march on Taksim, saying construction work there would make it too dangerous.
Two officers were wounded by stones and metal objects thrown at police lines, state-run TRT television said.