ATHENS Greek workers begin a 48-hour strike on Tuesday to protest against a new round of austerity cuts that unions say will devastate the poor and drive a failing economy to collapse.
The walkout, called by Greece's two biggest labor organizations, is the third major strike in two months against a package of spending cuts and reforms that Prime Minister Antonis Samaras's government is trying to push through parliament to unlock aid.
Athens needs parliamentary approval for the package - which includes slashing pensions by as much as a quarter for some and scrapping holiday bonuses - to ensure its European Union and International Monetary Fund lenders release more than 31 billion euros ($40 billion) of aid, much of it aimed at shoring up banks.
The government has implored Greeks to endure the cuts in a bid to avoid national bankruptcy and insists they will be the last round of pain. But few are impressed in a nation where over a quarter are jobless while poverty and suicide levels soar.
"They should go to hell and beyond," said Anais Metaxopoulou, a 65-year-old pensioner, expressing the anger many Greeks feel towards their political class.
"They should ask me how I feel when I have to go to church to beg for food. I wouldn't hurt a fly but I would happily behead one of them."
The strike is timed to coincide with a crucial vote on Wednesday, when the government is expected to just about win backing for austerity cuts and labor reforms that the smallest party in Samaras's coalition has refused to back.
SENDING A MESSAGE
"We are striking on Tuesday and Wednesday to send a message to the government - these measures must not pass!" said Nikos Kioutsoukis, general secretary of the GSEE private sector union that called the strike along with the ADEDY public sector union.
"It's unacceptable that the people have to pay for the funds bankers are getting from the state."
Transport is expected to be severely disrupted across the country as trains, buses and the subway come to a halt. Many flights have been cancelled, ships will remain tied up at ports and taxi drivers plan to stay off the streets.
Schools, banks and local government offices will be shut, while hospitals are expected to work on emergency staffing.
Police were beefing up security for midday rallies in Athens that often culminate in a small-scale rioting and clashes with hooded protesters, but officials said violence was more likely during the parliamentary vote on Wednesday.
Greece has gone through several rounds of austerity that has helped shrink its economy by a fifth since the debt crisis exploded but failed to bring its finances back in order.
The country's public debt is seen at a whopping 189 percent of gross domestic product next year and Athens is expected to be widely off track from targets under its latest bailout agreed with the troika of the IMF, the European Commission and the European Central Bank.
Anger has given away to a sense of resignation for many Greeks, who warn the latest cuts could tear a beleaguered society apart.
"I don't understand this fixation by the troika to press for more cuts and austerity when unemployment is already at 25 percent. How can they insist when the economy is in free fall?" said Nikos Maniatis, a 43-year-old electrician.
"They are fooling themselves if they think a social explosion here would not lead to domino effects in Europe."
(Additional reporting by Renee Maltezou; Writing by Deepa Babington; Editing by Giles Elgood)