Greece hit by public sector strike


Police fired tear gas at stone-throwing youths in central Athens today, where thousands of striking state sector workers marched against cuts the government says are needed to save the nation from bankruptcy. 

A small number of youths broke up marble paving slabs and hurled the chunks of rock at police in full riot gear, who responded by firing tear gas grenades.

Hundreds of thousands of Greek state workers are staging a 24-hour general strike in protest at their government's €6.6bn austerity plan.

Hospitals are providing limited service with only emergency staff rostered and some state schools have closed in the first nationwide strike against EU-IMF-prescribed salary cuts and layoffs.

In Athens' airport, more than 400 domestic and international flights have been cancelled, an airport spokeswoman said.

The country's main labour unions ADEDY and GSEE expect thousands of people to take to the streets, while EU and IMF inspectors continue an inspection of Greece's finances that will decide on the release of an aid tranche Athens needs to pay wages and bills.

"Unfortunately the new measures are just extending the unfair and barbaric policies which suck dry workers' rights and revenues and push the economy deeper into recession and debt," GSEE spokesman Stathis Anestis said.

"With this strike, the government, the EU and the IMF will be forced to reconsider these disastrous policies."

The Greek government shocked international financial markets this week by announcing that it would miss 2011 deficit targets set as conditions of a bailout aimed at staving off bankruptcy, despite a series of tax increases and spending cuts.

Speaking yesteday, finance minister Evangelos Venizelos said Greek finances for this year could slip still further if the country failed to rally round the reforms and show "national cohesion and solidarity".

State workers, students and pensioners are gathering in central Athens. A few hours later they will march on the capital's central Syntagma Square and protest outside parliament.

"If we don't take our lives back into our own hands and go on strike, how will we survive?," said Athens resident Maria Bargiadaki, a public sector worker.

Communist union group PAME is expected to stage a separate rally. Police, fire brigade and coastguard unions said they would join the central Athens demonstrations.

The country's main labour unions, representing about half Greece's 5 million-strong workforce, have staged repeated strikes since Athens asked the European Union and the International Monetary Fund for a €110 billion bailout last year.

They say a new wave of salary and pension cuts, tax hikes and layoffs announced last month is hurting only the poor and pushing the economy deeper into recession. They have called a general strike on October 19th.

Workers at state utilities marked for privatisation, such as dock workers at the country's ports in Piraeus and Thessaloniki and Public Power Corporation, will join the strike.

About 1,000 police have been deployed in central Athens, fewer than in similar anti-austerity protests in June, when 100 were injured during clashes with riot police.

Analysts say the ruling Socialists, who face dissent within their own ranks and lag behind the conservatives in polls, have no choice but to implement the EU-IMF-prescribed reforms despite protests, to keep receiving aid and send a message at home and abroad that it is delivering on pledges to reform.

The state workers are particularly angry about a plan to put 30,000 of them on the road to redundancy as early as this year. They will be placed in a "labour reserve" with reduced pay and at least 12 months to find a new job or be fired.

In a further sign of the difficulty to push through unpopular reform, former Labour Minister Louka Katseli said she would vote against a reform of labour rules, asked by the EU and IMF, if it was put to parliament.

"I stated clearly and I mean it that I cannot vote for an abolition of the collective labour agreement," Katseli told Mega TV. "It is important for our partners to know where the red lines are."

Euro zone ministers postponed on Monday a vital aid payment to Greece until mid-November and talked of reopening a private sector bond swap deal.

Mr Venizelos said the country had enough cash to cope until then and insisted that ministers are not preparing for a Greek default, despite the ominous delay.