Greek strike wave grows ahead of austerity vote
ATHENS, Greece, October 17, 2011 – Greek railway workers and journalists joined ferry crews, garbage collectors, tax officials and lawyers on Tuesday in a strike blitz against yet more austerity measures required if the country is to avoid defaulting on its debts.
The protests will lead into a general strike over the coming two days, culminating on Thursday when Parliament holds a crucial vote on the new painful cutbacks that follow nearly two years of austerity. A similar strike before an austerity bill in June was accompanied by large protest marches which degenerated into street battles between rioters and police.
The highly unpopular new measures include further pension and salary cuts, the suspension on reduced pay of 30,000 public servants out of a total of more than 750,000 and the suspension of collective labor contracts.
Meanwhile, European countries are trying to work out an overall solution to the continent’s deepening debt crisis, ahead of a weekend summit in Brussels.
“The situation is exceptionally difficult, because there is great uncertainty in Europe, great uncertainty internationally,” Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos said in a meeting with the country’s president, Karolos Papoulias. “People … are making big sacrifices. We are carrying out a patriotic duty because we have to save the country.”
Venizelos also tempered expectations for reaching a definitive deal on a second rescue package for Greece at a European Union summit this weekend. The second bailout, worth euro109 billion, was initially agreed in July, but crucial details remain to be worked out.
“We must not have great expectations for Sunday’s summit,” Venizelos said. “We will seek what is best for the country and the eurozone. Everyone understands that if Greece is saved, the eurozone will be saved too. And the reverse is also true: if the Europeans fail on Greece they will not be able to safeguard themselves.”
Greece’s embattled Socialist government needs to pass the new measures — which some of its own backbenchers have threatened to block — to receive the next euro8 billion ($11 billion) installment of the original euro110 billion package of international rescue loans that have been keeping it afloat since May 2010.
“It must be understood that we are fighting a war here,” the finance minister said, adding that a “national fight” must be waged against tax evasion. “If some people think that we live under normal circumstances and we are implementing a policy we want to implement of cutbacks and austerity, they are very much mistaken.”
The bailout was needed after the country’s borrowing rates soared on international markets upon revelations that Athens had misrepresented its financial data for years. Rating agencies cut Greece’s credit grade to the lowest in the world.
The country has maintained a market presence through regular sales of short-term debt — up to six months — and on Tuesday successfully auctioned euro1.62 billion worth of 13-week treasury bills. The country had to offer buyers a slightly higher yield, 4.61 percent compared with 4.56 percent at the previous sale last month. Investor interest was slightly higher, with the auction 2.86 times oversubscribed.
The government has said it will run out of cash in mid-November if the next bailout loan installment is not forthcoming.
Tuesday’s strikes kept island ferries in port for a second day, while stinking mounds of rotting garbage remained uncollected for the 17th day on the streets of Greece’s cities, carpeting sidewalks and forcing pedestrians to make detours through speeding traffic.
Tax collectors and lawyers joined the strikes, while civil servants occupied the finance and labor ministry buildings.
The new austerity measures were announced after the government failed to meet its savings targets, despite some 22 months of austerity that saw a record loss of jobs during a deep recession.
In July, unemployment rose to 16.5 percent, from 16 percent in June and 12 percent a year earlier, according to data provided Tuesday by Greece’s statistical authority. The total number of unemployed exceeded 820,000.
On Wednesday and Thursday, teachers, doctors, taxi drivers and bank employees will be on strike, together with air traffic controllers — whose walkout will halt all flights for two days.
The country’s two main labor unions have also called rallies and protest marches to Syntagma Square outside Parliament in central Athens during the general strike, while a Communist union has urged members to block off the assembly building on the day of the vote.
Vans mounted with loudspeakers did the rounds of central Athens Tuesday, urging workers to “flood Syntagma Square and surround Parliament.”