|Greece hit by general strike against austerity||| Print ||
|Written by By Associated Press|
|Wednesday, 20 February 2013 06:31|
ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Thousands of anti-austerity demonstrators took to the streets of Athens on Wednesday as unions staged a general strike to protest the government's spending cuts and tax hikes, which some predict will push unemployment to a stunning 30 percent this year.
The 24-hour walkout disrupted flights, kept ferries and long-distance trains idle and crippled public services. It was the first general strike of the year, renewing confrontation between labor groups and the conservative-led government that has pursued punishing austerity policies to cut debt — a key condition imposed by international bailout creditors.
State schools and tax offices closed down, public hospitals functioned on emergency staff, court cases were stalled as lawyers walked off the job, and even neighborhood street fruit and vegetable markets were cancelled. Private doctors and dentists also joined the strike.
In Athens, several thousand members of a Communist Party-affiliated labor union marched peacefully towards Parliament, while the main public and private sector unions were planning a separate march later Wednesday.
Previous protests have been marred by clashes between riot police and masked youths armed with fire bombs and stones. Up to 3,000 police officers were on duty for the street rallies.
Conservative Prime Minister Antonis Samaras has won praise from bailout lenders for pushing through major cost-cutting measures after forming a three party coalition last June.
French President Francois Hollande was in Athens on Tuesday to express the "support of France and trust in the actions of (Greece's) government in recent months."
But a new round of tax increases this year and a surge in unemployment to 27 percent have angered unions, as Greeks battle a rapid increase in poverty during a sixth year of recession.
In recent weeks, the Samaras government has twice used rare emergency powers to force an end to strikes by workers on ferry services and the Athens subway.
"The Greek people have no tolerance left," Ilias Iliopoulos, general secretary of the civil servants union ADEDY, told the AP in an interview ahead of the strike. "For us, the time has come for a major confrontation with the government ... and policies that are taking our country from bad to worse and leading people to poverty and desperation."
Unions are also angry at a government decision to scrap collective wage agreements across the public sector as part of an overhaul of state pay scales that will usher in further salary cuts.
Unemployment is expected to reach an alarming 30 percent this year, while national output will contract a further 4.1 percent, according to a study by a government funded research agency published last week. By the end of the year, the Greek economy is forecast to have shrunk 25 percent since 2008, a year before the crisis started.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.