ATHENS – After 18 months of protests, riots and strikes, another walk off the job by Greek workers on Dec. 1 shut down many services in the capital and elsewhere in the country, but there was no repeat of the frequent violence which has plagued other marches as weary Greeks seemed resigned to waiting for what a new coalition government might present. About 20,000 police took to the streets here, authorities said, many shouting outside Parliament in a repeat of the usual mantra directed at lawmakers inside they blame for instituting waves of pay cuts, tax hikes, slashed pensions and layoffs.
Interim Prime Minister Lucas Papademos, a former European Central Bank Vice-President, is charged with keeping together a fractious coalition of minsters from the former ruling PASOK Socialists, New Democracy Conservatives and the far Right-Wing LAOS party, and pushing through a second bailout of $175 billion and more austerity measures to complement a first bailout of $152 billion that has failed to halt the country’s slide toward a possible default. Much of the city’s transportation was halted as public and private workers stopped working for a day. One sign read: “People Fight, They are Sucking Your Blood.”
But except for one petrol bomb and a smashed car, calm reigned at two separate protests in the capital during the first general strike under Greece’s new technocratic coalition government. Riots during strikes have almost become the norm in the country that kicked off Europe’s massive debt crisis. Greece is crippled by debt, facing record unemployment and heading into a fourth year of recession. Most of its people are outraged over the repeated pay and pension cuts and tax hikes.
In the last general strike in October, more than 100 police and demonstrators were injured in two days of riots, 20 people were arrested and one man died of heart failure after protesters were tear-gassed. “You can’t explain it rationally,” police spokesman Athanassios Kokalakis said of this peaceful march. “We would like to believe that everyone understands the extent of their social and historic responsibility during these hard times the country is going through.” Most of protesters were Communist-linked unionists, who rarely seek violent confrontation with police. The relatively small turnout at other demonstration, held by the country’s two biggest labor unions, left-wing parties and anarchists, kept away rioters who use large crowds to dodge police retribution. The strike too was less disruptive than usual, with flights operating as normal and taxi drivers and pharmacists — who have joined previous strikes to protest plans to open their sectors to competition — working as usual.
Still the action showed that the two main labor unions – the General Confederation of Greek Labor (GSEE) and the civil servants’ union (ADEDY) are still set on fighting reforms that the country’s new three-party coalition has pledged to push through in exchange for rescue loans. The unions – particularly ADEDY — represent a key barrier to the government’s efforts. In a letter to Greece’s creditors last month, the outgoing premier and leader of Socialist PASOK, George Papandreou, indicated that the civil service was an obstacle to change. “There is not an issue of political will; it is much more a lack of capacity of our civil service and public administration, to carry out innovative and radical change in such a short time,” he said.
“Usually, street violence is used by some to lead others on,” Ilias Vrettakos, deputy leader of the main civil servants’ ADEDY union told Associated Press. He also said Greeks have been cowed by arguments that the only alternative to austerity is bankruptcy, and suggested that workers who have suffered repeated pay cuts may be loathe to lose another day’s wages to go on strike. “They are creating a situation that can no longer be tolerated, can no longer be endured. Unfortunately, people are in a state somewhere between poverty and despair,” said ADEDY General Secretary Ilias Iliopoulos.
Papademos has assured the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund who are putting up the money that he will, as did Papandreou before resigning on Nov. 11, keep ramming through austerity measures the banks are demanding, but which have created a deep recession of 18.4 percent unemployment, 100,000 closed businesses, 500,000 people with no income, and the highest rate of homelessness in Europe. Iliopolous said Greeks are stressed beyond belief. “The measures are supposed to improve the country’s financial situation, but the country is getting deeper into debt, unemployment is rising, and the recession — unprecedented in recent times — is worse than anywhere else in Europe,” he said. “People are falling apart.”