March 4, 2010 / 2:55 PM / 10 years ago

Shocked Greeks digest cuts, unions call strikes

ATHENS (Reuters) - Communist protesters occupied the finance ministry and Greece’s main unions called a 3-hour work stoppage for Friday in mounting discontent at austerity measures designed to stem the country’s debt crisis.

Greeks greeted news of 4.8 billion euros ($6.6 billion) in wage cuts, pensions freeze and tax hikes with a mixture of anger and resignation, with one pollster warning the government would have to move quickly to counter a general sense of shock.

About 70 communist trade unionists occupied the finance ministry peacefully on Thursday morning and prevented workers entering. Police did not intervene.

Groups ranging from anarchists to hotel workers planned protests in central Athens later in the day.

“It is a shock, we are talking about very tough decisions,” ALCO pollster Costas Panagopoulos said after the government on Wednesday unveiled its latest moves to tackle a 300 billion euro ($410 billion) debt mountain that has shaken the euro zone.

“I am expecting that the Sunday opinion polls (in newspapers) will be difficult for the government,” he said.

Opposition to austerity measures has so far been relatively muted for a country with a tradition of street protest that descended in December 2008 into riots triggered by the police killing of a teenager.

Opinion polls conducted before the latest cuts showed more than half of voters back government efforts to stem the crisis.

The cuts to civil servants’ bonuses and two point rise in value added tax drew headlines ranging form “Shock!” in liberal Ta Nea daily to “May God help us” in conservative Apogevmatini.

“CRUEL”

The measures were the main topic of discussion in shops and street corners in Athens, with frequent complaints that the poor were made to pay for the errors of the rich balanced by a feeling of resignation in the face of such a daunting crisis.

“Why don’t they open the secret bank accounts in Switzerland first?” said 48-year old Markostamou Violetta, 48, who runs a stationery shop in central Athens. “When I see all those who took bribes punished, then I will pay whatever they want.”

But Yannis Matthaiou, who runs a jewelry shop said: “The measures are unpleasant, but with all the mistakes we have made over the past 30 years, at the point we have reached, there is no other solution.”

ALCO’s Panagopoulos said the government would have to act fast to prove to the public that the measures were working.

“If public opinion believes that those sacrifices are able to offer hope for the future, then I believe the government will pass this difficult period,” he said.

“On the other hand, if after 2, 3 or 4 weeks public opinion believes that, despite those tough measures, the situation will remain the same, then this could be a very serious problem, not only for the government but also for our political system.”

Failure to convince the public could shatter the political system and lead to a coalition government, he said.

The private sector GSEE union and its sister public sector union ADEDY, who together represent half of Greece’s 5-million-strong workforce, urged workers to strike from 1000 GMT on Friday and rally outside parliament.

“The measures are cruel, unjust and one-sided. The burden is not equally shared,” GSEE spokesman Stathis Anestis said.

ADEDY has already called a 24-hour stoppage for March 16.

Additional reporting by Angeliki Koutantou and Tatiana Fragou; Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Paul Hoskins

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