ATHENS (Reuters) - Striking Greek workers will take to the streets on Thursday to protest ahead of a vote in parliament on a sweeping pension reform, in a test of the Socialist government’s resolve to implement austerity measures.
Flights to and from Greece will be grounded for hours, ferries will remain docked at ports and public offices will shut down, as unions stage their sixth 24-hour strike this year.
“We reject the pension reform bill, a bill that erases fundamental principles,” Yannis Panagopoulos, head of private sector union GSEE, said. “We will not stop fighting.”
Thousands are expected to march to parliament around midday, where lawmakers will be debating a reform bill that curbs early pensions and raises the retirement age.
The reform is part of an austerity deal agreed with the European Union and the IMF in return for a 110-billion-euro ($138.6 billion) aid package to pull the country out of a severe debt crisis.
Greek lawmakers agreed in principle on the pension reform in a preliminary vote late on Wednesday. It was a first sign that the Socialist government with 157 lawmakers in the 300-seat parliament was also likely to pass the reform during a final vote on Thursday, despite grumblings in its own ranks.
“We are carrying out the great structural reform of the pension system without considering the political cost. We must put an end to the years of false prosperity,” Labour Minister Andreas Loverdos told lawmakers on Wednesday.
Parliament workers said they would also strike, in what is their first walkout in 25 years. It was not immediately clear how this would affect the voting process.
About half of Greeks believe the pension reform is necessary, a poll showed last week. It also indicated that Socialists would win just 23.4 percent of the vote if an election were held now, with almost twice as many undecided.
Turnout at rallies on strike days has fallen — about 12,000 people marched in Athens in the last joint stoppage on June 29, down from 50,000 in the biggest rally on May 5, when three people died in the fire-bombing of an Athens bank.
Support for protests appears to be waning as the summer kicks in. But some unions which did not participate in some previous strikes, such as air traffic controllers, said they would join Thursday’s walkout.
They will stop working between 0700 and 1100 GMT, grounding all but emergency flights.
Greece’s private and public sector unions represent about 2.5 million workers, or half the country’s workforce. Their repeated strikes and protests have hit tourism, a vital sector for the Mediterranean country’s 240 billion euro economy.
Olympic Air and Aegean canceled dozens of domestic flights and rescheduled some international flights.
Seamen unions warned port authorities and passengers that no ships would be leaving or docking at Greece’s main port of Piraeus.
On Wednesday, protesters climbed on Lycabettus hill which overlooks central Athens to unfurl a banner reading: “They (austerity measures) won’t pass.”
Additional reporting by Harry Papachristou; Editing by Peter Graff