ATHENS, Greece – A 24-hour anti-austerity strike by Greece’s largest labor unions crippled public services Wednesday, as the Socialist government was to begin a legislative battle to push through last-ditch cost-cutting reforms that will extend beyond its own term in office.
The strike left state hospitals running on emergency staff, disrupted port traffic and public transport, and forced radio and television news programs off the air. Flights, however, were operating normally after the air traffic controllers’ union called off their participation in the strike.
“They keep asking us to give more,” said Ilias Iliopoulos, general secretary of the civil servants’ union ADEDY. “Now, again, they will cut our salaries and bonuses, from the little that we have left.”
The government needs to pass a new 2012-2015 austerity program worth euro28 billion ($40.5 billion) this month – or face being cut off from continued funding from a euro110 billion package of rescue loans from European countries and the International Monetary Fund.
To meet its commitments, Prime Minister George Papandreou’s Socialists’ abandoned a pledge not to impose new taxes and have drawn up a four-year privatization program worth euro50 billion ($72 billion) – further fueling protests against austerity by public utility employees and other affected groups.
Dozens of demonstrators who have been camped out in the capital’s main Syntagma Square since May 25 banged drums through the night, and were joined by several dozen more protesters to chant slogans outside Parliament in the early morning.
Two major union-organized demonstrations through the center of the city were to start after 10:00 a.m. (0700 GMT). Such demonstrations have often turned violent in the past.
The Syntagma Square protesters have also said they plan to block access to the legislative assembly before lawmakers begin to debate the next round of cuts at committee level Wednesday afternoon.
Some of the lawmakers from the governing party have publicly criticized the new cuts. One of them defected on Tuesday, reducing Papandreou’s parliamentary majority to five in the 300-seat legislature. Another Socialist lawmaker said he will vote against the bill.
Facing an open revolt from within his own party and a refusal by the main opposition conservatives to back the new austerity bills despite EU pressure for cross-party support, Papandreou was to meet with the country’s president later in the day.
With its credit rating deep in junk status, Greece is being kept afloat by the EU and IMF bailout, but will need additional support to cover financing gaps next year as high interest rates will prevent it from tapping the bond market next year, contrary to what the original bailout agreement had predicted.
On Monday night, Standard & Poor’s slashed Greece’s rating from B to CCC, dropping it to the very bottom of the 131 states that have a sovereign debt rating. That suggests Greece’s creditors are less likely to get their money back than those of Pakistan, Ecuador or Jamaica.
It’s an astonishing low for Greece. As recently as January 2009, the country still had a stellar A rating despite a hefty debt burden.
Punishing austerity measures have seen the Socialists’ popularity plummet in recent weeks. A weekend opinion poll gave the main opposition conservatives a four-point lead over their Socialist rivals, the first time the party has been ahead in surveys since 2009. The next general election is scheduled for October 2013.
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