For many the journey started well before dawn as they piled into buses and trains to carry them to Bucharest.
Outside the huge, impressive Parliament building in the Romanian capital, they gathered in small numbers: twos and threes to begin with – their anti-government chants carried away on the chill wind blowing down the wide sweeping boulevards.
Across the city, they were more. Numerous. In Victory Square, outside the official government offices, the unions marshalled their efforts more effectively.
As they set off on their march across the city, there was perhaps 10,000 but they grew in strength as people stepped off the pavement to join the protest.
At its peak, the wide open spaces of Constitution Square were packed and the crowd stretched back some distance. The protest organisers promised 80,000. The police say there was 30,000 and that seems about right.
This was not a militant mob. These were teachers and students and medical workers and police officers voicing their anger. Faced with a massive budget deficit, the Romanian government led by Emil Bocn took drastic action. All public sector workers had a 25 per cent wage cut imposed. That affects 1.3 million people, a third of the workforce. A move to do the same to state pensions was ruled unconstitutional. And there was a rise in the sales tax to 24 per cent – hitting the cost of almost everything.
The moves are backed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), but not by the majority of the people, according to opinion polls.
Seizing on the mood, the opposition tabled a motion of no confidence in Boc’s fragile coalition government. And as MPs debated, the people protested.
Howls and jeers
Big screen TVs carried pictures from inside Parliament. Every time the prime minister’s face popped up, the howls and the jeers began. And they were loud.
One man wearing a military uniform told me: “I have come to get my money back. I took a loan on my old salary. I now have lost my job and my home. My children have moved abroad to find work. That cannot be right.”
One well dressed elderly woman asked if I spoke English: “This is the first time I have been to Bucharest. I had to come to get rid of these idiots”.
The unions – speaking from the platform – made bold claims: of linking hands to stop the politicians leaving if the vote failed of staying until the government quit.
But as the vote began, the crowds began to wander away. The protest had been given permission to stay until 7pm – but then extended until 10pm. But coaches had been booked, trains had to be caught.
There was disappointment and disillusion on the faces of many.
This had been Bucharest’s biggest protest since the last Communist dictator was chased from office in 1989.
One man who had been there in the days of bloody chaos was angry: “I was shot in 1989 when we got rid of the Communists – and for what. This?”
Another who looked tired and cold and weary was still defiant: “When you have thousands of people gathered, you should have told the people to storm the building to force those idiots to resign. Instead we were told to behave.”
As the last few groups huddled together in the dark, the news came through. As expected, Boc and his coalition government survived. The opposition claimed a moral victory and promised another vote in the spring. After a tough winter, it believes it may have a better chance of success.
The government though is determinded it must push on with it’s controversial budget measures – hoping this was the public’s anger at its peak.