Greece: Strikes halt public transport, more to follow as unions rail against labor shake-ups

Public and private sector workers on strike in November.

The Associated Press, December 14, 2010

ATHENS, Greece – Escalating strikes halted public transport and caused traffic jams in Athens on Tuesday, as lawmakers prepared to vote on far-reaching labor reforms demanded as part of Greece’s euro 110 billion ($146 billion) rescue loan package.

Commuters carpooled and used taxis to get to work as the 24-hour strike stopped all state-run urban transport services. The action also came before a general strike Wednesday that will probably close schools, disrupt services, and ground all flights.

The labor reforms includes fresh pay cuts, salary caps and involuntary staff transfers at state companies. They will also reduce unions’ collective bargaining powers in the private sector, where employers will be able to substantially reduce salaries. Unions and opposition parties oppose the reforms, which left-wing parties claim will take labor relations “back to the Middle Ages.”

But the governing Socialists cite the need to turn around loss-making public corporations while saving private sector jobs by allowing struggling businesses to cut costs. “Right now, there is just chaos and anarchy in labor relations,” Prime Minister George Papandreou said. “There is no kind of protection.” “We want to keep firms afloat and prevent layoffs,” he said.

Finance Minister George Papanconstantinou said the measures were timed to meet negotiating deadlines with European countries and the International Monetary Fund, which are providing the bailout loans. “These are indeed historic moments,” he told parliament.

“I don’t remember another time when the country was on the brink of bankruptcy or another time when Greece had entered a euro 110 billion loan agreement with very specific terms and evaluations every three months.”

The 300-member parliament, where the Socialists hold a seven-seat majority, is expected to pass the legislation late Tuesday or early Wednesday.

Outside parliament, about 1,000 demonstrators from labor unions gathered in protest, demanding a more extended debate on the proposed reforms, and changes to most of the proposals.

“They are forcing us to work long into old age, they have looted the money from our pension funds, torn up the benefits for working mothers, cut salaries, abolished collective wage agreements, leaving workers at the mercy of their employers,” protest organizer Giorgos Kakariaris said.

“This isn’t happening in a Third World dictatorship but in a European country with a Socialist government — not over years, but in six months.”

Later Tuesday, hundreds of police, firefighters and coast guard employees, many of them in uniform, marched to the finance ministry to protest the proposed reforms.

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