Under pressure from markets and European Union partners, the government unveiled a new austerity package last week worth 4.8 billion euros (4.34 billion pounds). It included a rise in value added tax (VAT), cuts in civil service incomes and a pension freeze.
Many Greeks see the plan as unfair and hitting the wrong people, in a country where corruption and tax evasion are widespread.
Opinion polls showed increasing opposition to the taxes and cuts but the 24-hour strike was unlikely to halt government plans to slash spending and increase taxes to rein in a yawning deficit that has shaken the euro.
Asked about protests, Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou said in Washington on Wednesday: “Demonstrators have the right to demonstrate but the crisis is not this government’s fault.”
Hostility to the measures was growing.
The private sector union GSEE and its public sector sister ADEDY, which together represent half of the country’s 5 million workforce, say the EU-backed austerity plan will hurt the poor and aggravate the recession-hit country’s economic problems.
“Workers will raise their fist and shout with one voice: We won’t pay for the crisis,” GSEE said in a statement. “No one, nothing is going to terrorise workers.”
The level of participation in the strike and protests will be watched closely outside Greece.
EU policymakers, rating agencies and financial markets welcomed the latest austerity package but want to see it implemented quickly and smoothly. For that to take place, public support was crucial.
“NO OTHER OPTION”
Unions from taxi drivers to refuse collectors have stepped up protests over the past weeks. The polls showed most Greeks believed some belt-tightening was necessary and believed the government would press ahead. “Everything will be dead in Greece but the majority of people understand there is no other option,” ALCO pollster Costas Panagopoulos said. “I don’t believe a strike and rallies can seriously affect the government’s policies.”
Opposition to the cuts has been relatively subdued so far, but Greeks are prone to take to the streets in protests that can turn violent.
Police said they were bracing for trouble after clashes at an anti-austerity march last week. About 1,500 riot police would patrol the centre of Athens on Thursday and more would be ready to join in if needed, they said.
Communist labour union PAME was expected to kick off the day with a rally at about 11 a.m. (9 a.m. British time), followed by a march to parliament organised by the two public and private sector umbrella unions.
Bank employees, firemen, tax collectors and even police officers would be among those marching. Buses and trains were not operating in Athens, and ships were docked. Journalists and state TV also stopped work.
The new austerity package has driven a wedge between public employees and private sector workers, with resentful private staff seeing their state-employed peers as privileged and demanding they pay more for the crisis.
ADEDY has said, without giving details, that it is preparing further labour action in April and May.
Papandreou’s Socialist administration took office last October and shocked markets by sharply revising up the budget deficit forecast of its conservative predecessor.
Papandreou said last week’s measures already took account of the more pessimistic outlook for economic growth announced by the government on Wednesday. Reuters