ATHENS (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of Greek workers walked off the job on Tuesday and rallied in front of parliament in a noisy protest against government plans to fire public sector employees to satisfy foreign lenders.
The 24-hour general strike against a new scheme to transfer or fire state workers comes a day before parliament votes on a series of reforms that must be passed before the European Union and International Monetary Fund can disburse more financial aid.
Over 30,000 demonstrators - including municipal police and teachers targeted in the layoff scheme - gathered in the central square before parliament beating drums and blowing whistles in one of the biggest anti-austerity protests in Greece this year.
“It feels like Greece is dead and now the vultures are fighting over its corpse,” said Eleni Fotopoulou, 58, a retired teacher and mother of two. “I’m not angry anymore, I am disgusted. We have to fight back.”
Greeks are split over whether state workers - whose jobs are protected by the constitution - should also feel the pain of layoffs that have ravaged the private sector.
But virtually all agree that Greek society cannot handle any more spending cuts and tax hikes - a message the government will relay to Germany’s finance minister, Europe’s leading proponent of economic austerity, when he visits Athens later this week.
Outside parliament, protesters chanted “No more sacrifices” and waved banners that read “Fire the troika” in reference to the trio of European Commission, European Central Bank and IMF propping up Greece with over 200 billion euros in aid.
Domestic flights were disrupted after civil aviation unions staged a four-hour work stoppage and Athens’s main tourist attraction - the Acropolis - shut early.
City transport was also affected, with bus and trolley bus drives holding work stoppages in the morning and in the evening. Trains stopped running and tax offices and municipal services remained shut. Garbage collectors, bus drivers, bank employees and journalists were among other groups joining the walkout.
Representing about 2.5 million workers, the two public and private sector unions ADEDY and GSEE that called the strike have brought workers to the streets repeatedly since Greece slid into a debt crisis in late 2009, though several protests have fizzled this year amid a growing sense of resignation.
Protesters are likely to be out in force again on Thursday for the visit of German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble. Many Greeks blame Germany’s insistence on austerity for their economic crisis and pictures lampooning Chancellor Angela Merkel as a latter-day Nazi, festooned with swastikas, are commonplace.
Greece’s lenders, who have bailed it out twice with 240 billion euros worth of aid, are frustrated with the slow progress it has made in streamlining a 600,000-strong public sector widely seen as corrupt and inefficient.
After repeatedly missing deadlines, Athens in recent weeks has scrambled to put together a list of 12,500 workers slated for a “mobility pool” in which they are given eight months to find work in another department or get fired.
Some 25,000 workers will be placed in the scheme by the end of the year, sparking outrage at a time when unemployment stands at an all-time high of 27 percent.
The plan has turned into the latest headache for Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’ fragile coalition government, which nearly collapsed last month after it abruptly shut the state broadcaster ERT and fired its 2,600 staff.
The debacle prompted a small leftist party to leave the government, leaving Samaras with a much smaller backing of 155 deputies in the 300-seat parliament. Still, that is expected to be enough to secure passage of the reforms bill on Wednesday.
Many saw the ERT closure as a move to pave the way for mass firings in the public sector.
“The policy of mass layoffs, the dismantling of public institutions responsible and the demolition of any notion of labor rights inaugurate a new undemocratic governance of the country,” the ADEDY public sector union said.
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Writing by Deepa Babington; Editing by Gareth Jones