ATHENS -- Greece's ruling coalition threatened Monday to arrest public high school teachers if they walk off work later this week, a strike that would potentially disrupt university-entrance exams for thousands of students.
But the government's move only stoked the fury of civil servants, whose powerful union called for a nationwide strike Tuesday in sympathy with teachers protesting longer hours and looming job losses. The union also announced a four-hour work stoppage Thursday together with unions for private-sector employees; all told, the labor groups represent about half of Greece's 5-million-strong workforce.
The ruling coalition's "civil mobilization order" forbidding teachers to strike is the third such decree it has issued this year alone, although such emergency measures are normally reserved for natural disasters and other times of national crisis. Until this year, only 10 civil mobilization orders had been issued by successive Greek governments since the collapse of the country's military dictatorship in 1974.
"Now they have become lollipops for the government … used excessively to stifle even the thought of a strike," said Ilias Iliopoulos, the leader of the civil servants' union. He called the move undemocratic.
About 88,000 high school teachers threatened to stage rolling strikes beginning Friday to protest longer working hours and threatened layoffs for 10,000 educators because of austerity cuts.
Although a final decision on the job action was due to be taken by local teachers' unions Wednesday, the government issued its civil mobilization order pre-emptively Sunday to safeguard the May 17-31 university exams. On Monday, officials threatened any potential strikers with arrest.
"It was a moral obligation," government spokesman Simos Kedikoglou said of the emergency order. "We are dealing with a threat to the national interest. We cannot accept a situation that allows 100,000 children and their families to be held to ransom."
Pay and staffing cuts have become routine in crisis-hit Greece in exchange for multibillion-dollar rescue loans keeping the country afloat since 2010.
Later Monday, finance ministers from the 17-nation Eurozone were scheduled to meet in Brussels to decide whether to disburse a new slice of bailout funds to Athens in exchange for added austerity measures approved last month, including some 15,000 layoffs of state employees.