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Strike to paralyze Greece as anger at austerity builds

ATHENS (Reuters) - Angry public and private sector unions are expected to bring Greece to a standstill on Thursday in a second nationwide strike in as many weeks against tough government austerity plans.

The 24-hour walk-out will ground flights and shut schools, hospitals and tourist sites such as the Acropolis but it is unlikely to halt Prime Minister George Papandreou’s plans to slash spending and hike taxes to rein in a yawning deficit and restore confidence in the ailing Greek economy.

Under pressure from markets and EU partners, the government unveiled a new austerity package last week worth 4.8 billion euros ($6.51 billion). It includes a rise in value added tax (VAT), cuts in civil servant incomes and a pension freeze.

“Workers will raise their fist and shout with one voice: We won’t pay for the crisis,” private sector union GSEE said in a statement. “No one, nothing is going to terrorize workers.”

GSEE and its public sector sister union ADEDY, who together represent half of the country’s 5 million workforce, say the EU-backed austerity plan will only hurt the poor and aggravate the recession-hit country’s economic problems.

The level of participation in the strike and protests will be watched closely outside Greece.

EU policymakers, rating agencies and financial markets have welcomed the latest austerity package but want to see it implemented quickly and smoothly. For that to happen, public support is crucial.

Opinion polls show increasing opposition to the taxes and cutbacks, and unions from taxi drivers to garbage collectors have stepped up protests over the past weeks. But the polls also show most Greeks believe some belt-tightening is necessary and think the government will press ahead. “Everything will be dead in Greece but the majority of people understand there is no other option,” ALCO pollster Costas Panagopoulos said. “I don’t believe a strike and rallies can seriously affect the government’s policies.”

Opposition to the cutbacks has been relatively subdued so far, but Greeks are prone to take to the streets in protests that can turn violent.

Police said they were bracing for trouble after clashes at an anti-austerity march last week. About 1,500 riot policemen will be guarding the center of Athens on Thursday and more will be ready to join in if needed, they said.

Communist labor union PAME will kick off the day with a rally at about 0900 GMT (4 a.m. EST), followed by a march to parliament organized by the two public and private sector umbrella unions.

Bank employees, firemen, tax collectors and even policemen will be among those marching tomorrow. Buses and trains will not be operating in Athens, and archaeological sites and museums will be shut. Journalists and state TV will also strike.

The new austerity package has driven a wedge between public employees and private sector workers, with resentful private staff seeing their state peers as privileged and demanding they pay more for the crisis.

ADEDY has warned, without giving details, that it is preparing further labor action in April and May.