The march through the heart of Dublin - organized by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions - was meant as a warning shot to the government, which wants to cut public sector pay even as it pumps billions of euros into its troubled banks.
The government has argued that wage reductions are needed to keep Ireland's ballooning deficits under control and reassure international markets that Ireland isn't spiraling toward a default.
But the plan - which effectively docks 7 percent from the paychecks of 350,000 Irish workers - comes amid revelations of shady dealings and irresponsible lending at the banks now getting the taxpayers' help.
Anglo Irish Bank, which was nationalized last month after collapsing under the weight of its bad debts, said Friday it expected to lose about €300 million ($385 million) on loans made to favored investors. Anglo's former chairman, Sean FitzPatrick, was forced out last year after it emerged that he secretly took out €87 million in personal loans from the bank.
Organizers originally planned the demonstration as a protest at the wage cutbacks, but later called on all Irish workers to turn out in a show of strength. Uniformed members of the Irish Fire Brigade rubbed shoulders with health workers and red flag-waving activists to vent their anger at the government - and the country's financial elite.
"Our generations yet unborn have been mortgaged in order to keep this banking system together," Congress of Trade Unions General Secretary David Begg told cheering crowds at Dublin's Merrion Square.
"Your children and my children and our grandchildren will all have to try to deal with what has been laid upon their shoulders."
Sean Whelan, 45, said he was outraged by the bank bailout.
"You could practically say it's illegal what they are doing," said Whelan, an employee of Dublin's city council. He said the salary reduction would leave him only a few euros a week to live on.
The trade unions are hoping the turnout will convince the government that organized labor is ready to strike if its demands are ignored. The Congress, an umbrella group representing about 55 unions in Ireland and Northern Ireland, recently published a wish-list which included, among other things, more support for the unemployed, a moratorium on home repossessions and the nationalization of the country's banking sector.
The Irish government said in a statement Saturday that much of the plan was "entirely consistent" with its own agenda, before warning that the measures it was taking to salvage the country's economy would necessarily have to be "difficult and, in some cases, painful."
Ireland once had one of the fastest-growing economies in Europe, but boom turned to bust last year as shock waves from the subprime lending crisis in the United States spread across the globe.
By Associated Press Writer Raphael G. Satter