Anti-austerity strikes held in Greece


Greek public transport and media workers launched a week of anti-austerity strikes today expected to ground flights, disrupt services and pile rubbish on the streets in the run-up to Christmas holidays.

Parliament also began discussing a bill to cap wages at state-run firms and introduce company-level wage bargaining in the private sector, both key elements in a €110 billion bailout agreement with the EU and the IMF.

Public buses across the country and the Athens subway stopped operating for six hours today. Workers at the state broadcaster ERT joined the walkout while staff at the state-owned ATEbank went on rolling 24-hour strikes.

Protests will peak on Wednesday, when the main labour unions from the public and private sector have called a 24-hour general strike. Flights will be grounded and all state services, including garbage collection, disrupted.

"No plane will fly on Wednesday," said Yannis Kourmoulakis, secretary general of the air traffic controllers' union. "These measures are hurting us, we won't be able to make ends meet."

International lenders have insisted that public sector waste must be cut and labour contracts made more flexible to boost competitiveness and secure the economic growth the country needs to repay its debts - and avoid a sovereign default that would shake the euro zone.

But the bailout plan has enraged labour unions, which hold Greece's lenders responsible for a prolonged recession and rising unemployment in one of the euro zone's poorest countries.

Despite the protests, the ruling Socialists still enjoy the most public support, although this is waning.

Greece's 11 biggest loss-making firms, mainly public transport companies such as Hellenic Railways, have piled up more than €13 billion of deficits over the last five years.

The law, which is expected to come to a vote tomorrow, sets a €4,000 cap on gross monthly wages at non-listed state firms. Salaries above €1,800 a month will be cut by 10 per cent. Top management is excluded from the restrictions.

The new pay cuts will affect about 90 per cent of workers at these companies. They come on top a 15 per cent salary reduction passed earlier this year.

The cash-strapped government announced the law as part of additional budget cuts pledged after it missed its 2010 fiscal targets following weaker than expected tax revenues.

It has promised to make up the shortfall next year, when the budget gap is expected to narrow to 7.4 per cent of GDP, down from 9.4 per cent in 2010 and 15.4 per cent in 2009.