Athens - Tens of thousands of Greek workers walked off the job on Wednesday at the start of a two-day general strike to protest a new round austerity measures that the debt-ridden government must pass through Parliament on Thursday to secure crucial aid and avert a default that could shake the euro zone and reverberate through the global economy.
The strike, the second this month, was one of the biggest since Greece first appealed for foreign support two years ago, with even shops, bakeries and gas stations closing. Most international travel was suspended, with all flights canceled, the national rail service halted and ferries moored in port. Public transportation was running on a limited service to enable workers to attend protest rallies. Tax offices, courts and schools shut down, hospitals were operating with only emergency staff and customs officials walked off the job. The action, which follows a wave of smaller protests, including a walkout by garbage collectors that have left the streets of the capital swamped in trash, was called by the country’s two main labor unions. The unions, which represent about 2.5 million workers, are leading resistance to the new package of cutbacks which include additional cuts in wages and pensions, thousands of public-sector layoffs and changes to collective-bargaining rules.
Their protest comes as European Union leaders prepare to meet on Sunday to decide on the release of about $11 billion in aid to Greece, the latest installment of a $150 billion bailout engineered last year, and on a much broader European rescue designed to protect the bloc against a potential Greek debt default. The Greek government has said it will run out of money next month without the aid.
A spokesman for the Athens police put the number of protesters on Wednesday at around 70,000. Some news web sites said the figure was closer to 100,000. The spokesman said one officer was injured by stone-throwing demonstrators but did not have information about any other injuries or arrests.
Civil servants, who have been the most vociferous in their protests, continued sit-ins at ministries and state agencies, obliging government officials to meet in other venues including the Parliament building. Parliament, where lawmakers are to vote on the new measures on Thursday, is expected to be the focus of angry demonstrations. It was the scene of violent clashes between protesters and police in June when the last set of austerity measures was voted into law.
As in June, Thursday’s vote is expected to be close. The governing Socialist Party has a fragile majority of four in the country’s 300-seat Parliament, and some lawmakers are said to be wavering. One legislator, Thomas Robopoulos, resigned his seat in protest on Monday, although he was replaced by another Socialist deputy and so his move did not narrow the government’s majority. Another, former labor minister Louka Katseli, has said she would reject one article in the bill on collective bargaining.
Resistance is limited, with most governing party legislators expected to approve the changes, and support from a smaller opposition party is possible. But the government was taking no chances. In a bid to galvanize support on Tuesday, Prime Minister George Papandreou appealed to Socialist lawmakers to put the common good above personal concerns.
“We must endure this battle so that the country can win, we must be calm and rise to the challenge,” he said, noting that passing the new measures were crucial to clinching crucial rescue funding from foreign creditors.
“The vote will boost our negotiating position, it will give us strength for the E.U. summit,” he said. The key goal for Greece, Mr. Papandreou said, was “to stay in the euro zone.”
Later on Tuesday, Mr. Papandreou met Antonis Samaras, leader of the conservative opposition New Democracy Party, but failed to gain his support. The prime minister was to meet with the heads of smaller opposition parties later.