Greece public sector shuts down in strike over debt crisis steps

For 24 hours Wednesday, Greece’s public sector lay in a coma.

Flights were grounded, state schools closed and government offices stopped services as tens of thousands of civil servants walked off their jobs to protest a fresh batch of brutal budget cuts and a debt crisis showing no signs of ending.

Organized by the country’s two biggest labor unions, the strike was the first since Greece’s beleaguered socialist government last month unveiled new controversial austerity measures that include more pension cuts and property tax and plans to terminate 30,000 public sector jobs by the end of the year in a desperate bid to stave off a dangerous default.

At least 15,000 protesters spilled into the streets of Athens, marching outside the nation’s sprawling Parliament, banging drums, blowing whistles and chanting, “Thieves, robbers and crooks!” Tension rose and the mostly peaceful protest was marred when stone-throwing youths bolted through the crowds, clashing with riot police outside Greece’s towering symbol of the austerity: the Finance Ministry.

At least 10 protesters were detained as security forces fired percussion grenades and tear gas to push crowds into side streets and away from public buildings. One man was seen bleeding from a head wound; two officers, pelted with chunks of balustrades, were treated for head and chest injuries, authorities in Athens said.


Protests against the austerity measures demanded by Greece’s European and International Monetary Fund creditors also swept other major cities, including Thessaloniki in the north, as the general strike paralyzed the country.

The 24-hour walkout came after the government’s said it would miss deficit-reduction targets through 2012, an acknowledgment that postponed disbursal of an $11-billlion tranche of rescue aid to Greece until November.

Without the rescue funds, Athens will be left without enough cash to pay its bills, forcing either a complex restructuring of its nearly $500-billion debt or an outright default.

On Tuesday, Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos moved to ease market fear of an imminent debt default, saying Athens could pay pensions, salaries and bonds through November.

A Greek default, analysts have warned, would devastate European banks that sit on more than $60 billion of Greek government debt.

Squeezed by a deepening recession and rising unemployment rate, thousands of angry and angst-ridden Greeks have struck back at the austerity reforms, setting tax bills ablaze at demonstrations and staging sit-ins at government offices, including the Finance Ministry.

The strike Wednesday was a dramatic show of public anger over the government’s handling of the debt crisis and one more sign of how agonizing life has become for crisis-hit Greeks.

“Within two years my family has gone bust,” said Dimitris Argyriou, a 50-year-old Defense Ministry employee. “Do I care, really, if my country goes bust at this point?”

Carassava is a special correspondent.