ATHENS – Even Greeks inured to 18 months of protests, riots and strikes may not be ready for the next action against austerity measures: a wave of rolling 48-hour work stoppages planned by the labor union that oversees workers at the power producer PPC, a move that could affect electricity supplies.
The workers threatened to call the strikes in opposition to plans to loosen the company’s grip over the country’s coal reserves, Greece’s most abundant and cheapest source of energy. Greece’s international lenders are pushing Athens to lift state-controlled PPC’s de facto monopoly on the production of lignite, a form of soft, brown coal that forms the backbone of electricity production in Greece, the newspaper Kathimerini reported.
Under a European Union and International Monetary Fund bailout plan, debt-laden Greece needs to open up 40 percent of the lignite market to private energy firms. PPC, Greece’s dominant electricity player, is the EU’s second-biggest and the world’s sixth-biggest producer of lignite. The company’s labor union GENOP said in a statement it would announce rolling 48-hour strikes as soon as Greece’s new coalition government, led by former European Central Bank Vice President Lucas Papademos, announces measures to implement the plan. “This government of special interests, which was imposed on the Greek people against its will, has to know it will have to overcome many obstacles before it manages to sell off the Greek people’s property,” the union said in a statement. “It’s us or them,” it added.
GENOP has also vowed to boycott a property tax that is being collected through electricity bills, an emergency measure imposed in September as a last-ditch effort to meet the country’s budget targets. The tax was ordered by Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos to raise $2.7 billion to help close the country’s $460 billion debt. He said people who won’t or can’t pay will have their power turned off, wages garnished or property seized if they don’t comply, although labor union officials said companies with big bills would be exempt and only smaller debtors would be targeted. Under pressure from consumers, critics and the courts, Venizelos said the Ministry would set up an appeals process after officials admitted as many as 30 percent or more of the bills were wildly over-inflated and based on subjective criteria.
Papademos’ government, backed by Greece’s two major parties, received an overwhelming vote of confidence last week in Parliament to implement a second bailout deal of $175 billion and get a delayed $11 billion loan installment from a first bailout of $152 billion that failed to hold the country’s slide toward bankruptcy because of the attached pay cuts, tax hikes, slashed pensions and scores of thousands of layoffs that created a deep recession with 18.4 percent unemployment and has closed more than 100,000 businesses. Tax evaders costing the country more than $60 billion have largely gone untouched although the government has arrested a half dozen in the past week.
Greek Energy Minister George Papaconstantinou told Parliament during the confidence vote debate that Greece and the EU were close to finalizing a deal to open up the lignite market. GENOP is one of Greece’s most hard-line labour unions. Over the past years it has repeatedly held successful strikes that have disrupted electricity supplies and sabotaged government plans to sell a stake or find strategic private partners for the company. Strike dates will be announced once the government specifies plans, including the sale of four lignite-power production plants, GENOP stated. Greece and the European Commission have “almost” completed talks on opening PPC’s lignite-fueled capacity to competitors, Papaconstantinou said on Nov.15. The European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund said on Oct. 20 that Greece should speed up measures aimed at giving access to PPC’s capacity before the company is sold to investors next year.