ATHENS (Reuters) - Greek riot police stormed a train depot in Athens on Friday to disperse subway staff defying government orders to end their strike, intensifying a confrontation that has paralyzed public transport in the city.
The capital’s subway lines remained shut for the ninth day as most subway workers continued a strike against wage cuts. But some were back on the job after being served the orders to return to work or face arrest.
The showdown has turned into the latest test for Greece’s fragile three-party ruling coalition as it faces down unions to try to implement austerity measures demanded by foreign lenders as the price for bailout funds.
Scuffles broke out when police forced their way through a metal gate around 4 a.m. at the depot, where 90 workers had gathered overnight in protest. At least 10 workers were detained and then released, an official said on condition of anonymity.
Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’s government has taken a hard line on the strike despite criticism from the smallest party in his three-party government.
“When labor action is judged illegal and abusive, the law has to be implemented. Everyone has made sacrifices and no one can ask to be made an exception,” government spokesman Simos Kedikoglou told state television.
Other transport unions held strikes in solidarity with subway workers on Friday, leaving Athens without bus, tram, trolleybus or rail services, and causing traffic jams across the city.
Public anger has grown against the strike, which is affecting more than a million commuters in a city of 5 million people.
“HARD TO HAVE SYMPATHY”
“This week has been hell. How can they expect people to be on their side when they do this to us? We’re all suffering (from austerity) but it’s very difficult to have any sympathy for them,” said 50-year-old Dionisis Kefalas.
Other commuters, worn down by years of frequent strikes and exasperated by the long wait for a taxi to work, agreed.
“Ordinary people are being inconvenienced - as if our problems weren’t bad enough,” said Daphne Kiritsi, 46, an office clerk, who said she had paid 200 euros out of her 800-euro monthly salary for taxis this week.
The radical leftist opposition Syriza party, which is leading in some opinion polls, said the police intervention was a “barbaric” attack on workers’ rights.
Subway employees oppose being included in a unified wage scheme for public sector workers drawn up under an austerity program that would slash their salaries.
Government orders to return to work, issued under emergency legislation, were being served to subway employees but many had yet to receive the notices and continued to strike, a subway union official said.
Under the emergency law, which is meant to be used in times of war, natural disaster or risks to public health, workers can be arrested and jailed for up to five years.
Subway, shipyard and other public sector workers planned to march on Friday to parliament in Syntagma Square, the scene of sometimes violent protests.
The most powerful unions have backed the subway workers.
“The workers’ struggle will continue until justice is had,” said Nikos Kioutsoukis, general secretary of the GSEE private sector union, which has called a 24-hour strike against austerity measures next month.
Additional reporting by George Georgiopoulos; Editing by Deepa Babington and Kevin Liffey