Friday, March 12, 2010

General strike grinds Greece to halt

Demonstrations by Unions Against Government Austerity Measures Hobble Transit Services, Spark Clashes With Police

ATHENS—Flights were grounded and trains suspended amid a nationwide general strike Thursday, as Greek police fought running street battles with anarchist youths in fresh and violent signs of anger at the government's austerity plans. Unions called a strike to protest wage and benefit cuts being put in place to trim Greece's swollen budget deficit as the country draws closer to a financial reckoning. An estimated 50,000 people took to the streets.

What is the alternative?

Greece must refinance a chunk of its giant debt next month, and Greek leaders are leaning hard on counterparts in richer European states to provide some measure of support that could ease those debt sales. Eyes are on European Union finance ministers' meetings early next week.

In the capital city Thursday, masked and hooded youths went well beyond protest—throwing rocks and bottles, smashing shop windows, setting alight trash cans and burning at least one private car. Police fired tear gas and detained more than a dozen people. There were also separate clashes outside the Greek parliament, Agence France-Presse reported. Greece has a history of sometimes-violent anarchist protesters, though they are well outside the mainstream.

Greece's two umbrella unions, for private- and public-sector workers, called the strike to protest the €4.8 billion ($6.55 billion) package of spending cuts and tax increases that the government announced March 3, which was voted into law days later. The communist-backed PAME union held a separate protest that drew an estimated 15,000 people.

Communists? They're still around? Haven't they gotten the news?

"There is a big turnout today and that shows people are concerned," said Dimitris Papageorgiou, a 49-year-old worker at the Bank of Greece. "Today's protest is because of the austerity measures. Why do the people always have to pay? Who is at fault? It's the foreign speculators and the useless policies of previous governments."

Recent polls show that the Greek public is divided over the austerity plan. While the public opposes some measures, such as an increase in Greece's fuel and value-added taxes, analysts say there is a broad acceptance that something must be done. "No one really expects the measures to be withdrawn. They were adopted by the government to avoid even worse consequences," said Lefteris Eleftheriadis, 48, a biologist who works in Greece's agriculture ministry and participated in Thursday's protest.

The strike affected public transport, government ministries and state-owned companies. All flights into and out of the country were grounded and all ferry and rail services suspended. On the streets of Athens Thursday, normal workday activity was muted. Street lights and road signs were festooned with strike posters. Usual morning news shows on local television were replaced with alternative programming. Many businesses were shut amid fear of violence, and police blocked main thoroughfares around the city center. Just off the city's central square, a group of about 200 police and fire officials also staged a sympathy protest, challenging the government to fulfill its pre-election promises to protect workers' salaries.


Under pressure from the EU and financial markets, Greece's socialist government last week presented the latest in a series of austerity packages to trim the budget deficit to 8.7% of gross domestic product this year, from an estimated 12.7% last year. Among other things, the package raises Greece's top value-added tax rate to 21% from 19%, freezes public-sector pensions, cuts civil-service entitlements and bonus pay, and raises taxes on fuel, alcohol and cigarettes.

The general strike follows several days of escalating labor actions by a variety of smaller unions.

— By ALKMAN GRANITSAS. Charles Forelle contributed to this article.

Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page A13

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