ATHENS Greek unions said they would extend a planned general strike next week to 48 hours as protests against sweeping austerity measures continued on Thursday, shutting down public transport in Athens and barring tourists from the Acropolis.
With the beleaguered Socialist government of Prime Minister George Papandreou fighting to push new cuts through parliament, as demanded by international lenders, the unions said the October 19 strike would be extended to the following day.
The strike, which will shut down much of the country, will coincide with a vote on the austerity package on October 20, three days before a European Union summit which leaders are hoping will reach a comprehensive solution to the crisis.
"We want to overturn this bill which will destroy Greece and its people," said Ilias Iliopoulos, general-secretary of public sector union ADEDY, which is coordinating the strike with its private sector counterpart GSEE.
The two unions, which represent some 2.5 million members, or half the Greek workforce, have frequently been at odds over the crisis but have put aside differences for the moment to organize what is expected to be the biggest labor action in months.
The austerity bill, including savage pay and pension cuts and layoffs in the traditionally protected public sector, passed a preliminary vote at committee stage Thursday, despite misgivings from many in the ruling PASOK party.
"I have no intention of voting against the bill, but no one can stop me criticizing it," said PASOK deputy Leonidas Grigorakos. "What is taking place has no precedent, society is in turmoil, there is huge insecurity. We politicians must say where the country is heading."
Thursday, Athens public transport was halted, the Acropolis, symbol of Greece, was closed to tourists for a second day and protesters ranging from Finance Ministry officials to cancer patients demonstrated against the cuts.
Protesters also occupied the printing offices of Greek power utility PPC, to try to disrupt a deeply unpopular property tax which will be collected through electricity bills.
Greece, trapped in deep recession and fighting to control a public debt expected to reach 162 percent of gross domestic product this year, has struggled to get on top of a crisis which many economists now predict will end in default.
Memories are still fresh of the violent clashes at Syntagma Square in Athens between riot police and stone-throwing protesters in June but officials said there was no alternative to the austerity measures demanded by international lenders.
"We are fully aware that this is very tough," the European Commission chief inspector for Greece, Matthias Mors, told the daily Kathimerini in an interview.
"But I would say that we are at a critical moment, where Greece has to convince the international community and the other euro area members that it is willing and able to reach the objectives that it has committed itself to," he said.
Papandreou was in Brussels for talks with European officials as authorities weighed new measures, likely to lead to steeper losses for many banks.
Inspectors from the EU, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank, known as the "troika," ended a review of Greece's progress on a first, 110-billion-euro bailout plan Tuesday.
They gave the green light for the euro zone and the IMF to release an 8-billion euro aid tranche Greece needs to keep paying its bills past November but said Athens needed to take more determined action on reform in addition to more cuts.
(Additional reporting by Yiorgos Karahalis; Writing by Ingrid Melander and James Mackenzie; Editing by Alison Williams)