ATHENS, Greece – Services in Greece, from garbage collection to public transport, shut down Friday as workers kicked off three days of strikes to protest new bailout austerity measures that they say will further reduce incomes.
Several thousand people held peaceful demonstrations in central Athens as part of protests that indicate a growing discontent with the left-led coalition government, which was only re-elected last September.
Unions on Thursday called a 48-hour general strike starting Friday, adding it onto a previously declared Sunday strike. State-run and many private services, including garbage collection, public transport, municipal offices and news broadcasts, were suspended.
Seamen, who had already declared separate strikes, joined in, leaving Greek islands without ferry connections until Tuesday morning. Doctors, dentists and journalists also walked off the job for two days, leaving state-run hospitals functioning with emergency staff and pulling all news broadcasts off the air.
The strike was timed to coincide with a vote in parliament Sunday night on a bill reforming some taxes and overhauling the pension system. The reforms were proposed by the government as part of the country’s third international bailout.
The vote will test Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, who initially came to power in January 2015 on promises to repeal austerity measures previous governments had imposed to qualify for international rescue loans.
Tsipras’ government has a majority of just three seats in the 300-member parliament, and has lost its lead to opposition conservatives in opinion polls amid mounting voter disillusionment.
“Everything the unions are doing now is to justify their existence. Absolutely nothing will change,” Athens resident pensioner Constantine Andreopoulos said. “And those who came to power after 50 years will not risk their seats. They’re not stupid. They will do anything, even sell their souls to the devil.”
Tsipras’ initial term in power after winning elections in January 2015 was marked by months of tumultuous negotiations with international lenders — the other European countries that use the euro currency, and the International Monetary Fund. Unable to ensure vital rescue loans from the lenders that would prevent Greece from potentially being forced out of the euro, Tsipras called a referendum and new elections last summer, eventually dropping his anti-bailout stance and signing up instead to a third bailout.
The planned pension reforms, under which workers will pay higher contributions, have triggered months of protests, including by farmers who blockaded highways and lawyers who have abstained from court appearances for months.
The government insists the reforms will create a fairer system and end years of political pandering to powerful labour groups. It moved up the parliamentary debate and vote to this week, ahead of a meeting on Greece by eurozone finance ministers — the so-called eurogroup — in Brussels on Monday.
“Despite the parliamentary activity over the coming weekend, however, no major announcement on the ongoing first review of the bailout is expected to come from the eurogroup meeting,” said Wolfgango Piccoli of Teneo Intelligence.
He said the finance ministers will possibly discuss ways to lighten Greece’s debt burden, but will not announce any concrete details.
Greece has been hammered by six years of austerity measures since the country was locked out of international borrowing markets in 2010 amid investor worries about its public finances. About a quarter of the workforce is unemployed.
Talks on further reforms as part of the country’s third bailout have been dragging on for more than six months, delaying the payout of vital bailout loans.
Derek Gatopoulos and Raphael Kominis contributed
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