Greek workers stage general strike

 

Thousands of striking Greeks marched on parliament today, in a test of the government's resolve to implement tough austerity measures demanded by the EU and IMF to drag Greece out of its debt crisis.

The strength of the march will indicate whether anger against the government's wage cuts, tax hikes, and planned pension reform is growing or beginning to recede.

"Thieves come out," the protesters chanted in front of parliament where hundreds of riot police carrying batons and shields filled the steps of the neo-classical building.

Thousands more marchers carrying banners filled a wide, mile-long boulevard leading into the square in front of parliament.

"These measures are destroying everything we have fought for. Where are the measures against unemployment? We were not the ones who created this crisis," said unemployed Nikos Galiatsatos (26), one of the marchers.

Candles stood among the now drying flowers of an impromptu shrine outside a blackened bank where three employees, including a pregnant woman, were killed after rioters smashed windows and lobbied petrol bombs inside during a march on May 5th.

Those deaths, or the fear of further violence, could dampen the strength of the protests this time round. The main Communist union PAME, normally a well-disciplined vanguard of Greek labour protests, abandoned plans to join the march on parliament.

"I don't know what they will do outside parliament, but we don't belong with them and we will not be there," a senior PAME unionist said.

Riot police closely shadowed a group of young protesters carrying anarchist flags further back along the march.

Today's strike was called by unions representing 2.5 million workers, half the country's workforce, who want the government to withdraw austerity measures agreed with the EU and IMF in return for a €110 billion emergency aid package.

Schools and government offices were shut and hospitals were operating on skeleton staff. Tourist sites such as Athens' ancient Acropolis were also closed, ships were kept in port or prevented from docking, and domestic flights were disrupted.

While there is palpable public anger against the measures, opinion polls show most Greeks agree reform is necessary to stem the debt crisis. But the overwhelming majority feel ordinary people are being made to pay while the rich still evade taxes.

"These measures are unfair and they burden us who have been working for all these years. The ones who became rich after stealing money from the state, those should be the ones who pay," said Angeliki Papageorgiou, a striking public sector employee outside the gutted bank.

The fear of being stranded by strikes or getting caught up in violent protests has chilled the tourism sector, leading to thousands of cancellations in an industry which generates nearly 20 percent of GDP and provides one in five jobs.

Three cruise ships with more than 7,000 passengers were prevented from docking in Athens today because of the strike and left for other destinations, coastguard officials said.

Air traffic controllers said they would not strike today because they did not want to hurt tourism, but other walkouts affected some domestic flights.

Political analysts say the government may now face a period of relative calm as Greeks start fleeing the capital for the summer break next month. But come autumn, people could demand to see their sacrifices paying off or take to the streets again.