Anti-Austerity Protests Draw 60,000 in Athens



Anti-Austerity Protests_GreeceEnraged by more coming pay cuts, tax hikes and slashed pensions, an estimated 60,000 people converged on the center of Athens on Feb. 21 during a 24-hour general strike that shut down services.

Ferries stayed in port, schools closed, public services weren’t operating and hospitals were on skeleton staff. Scuffles broke with police firing tear gas to disperse hooded youths throwing rocks and firebombs in the central neighborhood of Exarchia. In the city of Iraklio on the island of Crete, demonstrators overturned a squad car, Reuters reported

Beating drums and chanting “Robbers, robbers!” demonstrators marched to Parliament in the biggest anti-austerity protest so far this year in an event organized by the country’s two biggest labor unions, representing 2.5 million public and private workers.

Austerity has worsened the country’s recession, now in its sixth year, creating a record 27 percent unemployment, some 67.1 percent for those under 25. All that is in the private sector as the government has not acted for three years to reduce a hugely bloated public workforce to meet demands by international lenders to let go 150,000 employees.

The pressure seemed to be getting to the uneasy coalition government led by Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, the New Democracy Conservative leader, as he backed off his plans to lay off 1,900 public workers. The Troika of the European Union-International Monetary Fund-European Central Bank (EU-IMF-ECB)is putting up $325 billion in two bailouts to prop up the country’s economy but demanded harsh conditions in return.

“Today’s strike is a new effort to get rid of the bailout deal and those who take advantage of the people and bring only misery,” Ilias Iliopoulos, Secretary General of the ADEDY public sector union which organized the walkout with private sector union GSEE. “A social explosion is very near,” he told Reuters from a rally in a central Athens square, as police helicopters clattered overhead.

Samaras had been playing hardball with protesters, twice last month sending in riot police to break up strikes by Metro workers and seamen, but has backed off from being tough on protesting farmers who want big tax breaks.

“Greece is making a huge effort to return to growth, to see better days, and when we’re doing everything we can to attract investment, this image does nothing to help this effort,” government spokesman Simos Kedikoglou told Greek radio.

“The strike highlights the growing gap between the plight of ordinary Greeks and the demands of Greece’s international creditors,” Martin Koehring, analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, forecasting more social unrest this year, said to Reuters.

Greece secured $69 billion in bailout funds in December, ending months of uncertainty over the country’s future in the Eurozone, and analysts said this had created expectations among Greeks that things would improve for them. Workers also fear the minimum wage, already slashed 22 percent to 580 euros ($773) a month before taxes, will be cut again.

“If these expectations are not satisfied by the summer, then whatever is left of the working class will respond with more protests,” said Costas Panagopoulos, head of Alco pollsters. “I’m on the brink of going hungry. My life is misery,” said Eleni Nikolaou, 60, a civil servant who supports her unemployed brother on her reduced wage. “If this government had any dignity it would resign. I want them to leave, leave, leave.”

“The (strike) is our answer to the dead-end policies that have squeezed the life out of workers, impoverished society and plunged the economy into recession and crisis,” said the private sector union GSEE “Our struggle will continue for as long as these policies are implemented,” the statement added.

“We are on our knees. The country has been destroyed, the young people have been destroyed,” Nikos Papageorgiou, 56, a civil servant, told Reuters. “I’m outraged with the Europeans and our politicians as well. They should all go to jail.”