231-922-9460 | Google +

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Greek State Workers Escalate Protests at Budget Cuts


Greek government workers shut down schools and hospitals and disrupted flights as demonstrators occupied the Acropolis in an escalation of protests against 30 billion euros ($40 billion) of additional wage cuts and tax increases unveiled this week.

The ADEDY union federation, which represents more than 500,000 civil servants having their pensions and pay slashed under measures announced May 2 by Prime Minister George Papandreou, will hold a rally at midday joined by striking teachers. A general strike, the third this year, is planned for tomorrow, with private-sector workers due to participate.

“Protests will increase,” said Spyros Papaspyros, the head of ADEDY. “Opting for the easy path of cutting wages and pensions can’t be accepted.”

Papandreou has called on Greeks to endure more sacrifices in return for an unprecedented 110 billion-euro bailout from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. The austerity measures, called “savage” by union groups, include a second set of wage cuts for public workers, a three-year freeze on pensions and a second increase this year in sales taxes and the price of fuel, alcohol and tobacco.

Protesters from the Communist Party of Greece draped banners over the walls of the ancient Acropolis citadel in Athens today that said “Peoples of Europe Rise Up” in Greek and English, as tourists took photographs. Unemployed teachers yesterday disrupted the evening news show on state-run NET TV.

‘Terrorizing’ Tourists

Government spokesman George Petalotis condemned the occupation of the Acropolis, saying on NET TV that such protests “aimed to destroy tourism to Greece by terrorizing foreign visitors.”

“My trip is complete,” said Roger Smith from the U.S. as he took photos of the protests below the Acropolis. Smith, on his first visit to Greece with his wife, Diane, said rich Greeks, like rich Americans, needed to pay their taxes.

Elected in October on pledges to raise wages for public workers and step up stimulus spending, Papandreou revised up the 2009 budget deficit to more than 12 percent of gross domestic product, four times the EU limit, and twice the previous government’s estimate. EU officials revised the deficit further on April 22, to 13.6 percent of GDP.

Investor Concern

The surge in the budget gap as the economy contracted fueled investor concern about Greece’s ability to finance the deficit and sent borrowing costs to the highest since before the start of the euro in 1999. Papandreou has pledged to cut the shortfall to within the EU limit of 3 percent in 2014.

Fifty-one percent of Greeks say they won’t accept new austerity measures and would join protests against them, according to a poll of 1,000 people by ALCO for Proto Thema newspaper. That compared with 33 percent who would accept them. No margin of error was given for the poll, which was conducted from April 27 to April 29.

Most Greeks feel anger and dismay rather than relief over Papandreou’s decision to request emergency loans, a separate survey showed. Just 14.8 percent of the 1,256 people polled by Kappa Research April 28-29 for To Vima newspaper felt relief or hope after the move, compared with 31 percent who answered “anger,” 30.6 percent “disappointment or fear” and 22.8 percent who said they felt “shame.” The margin of error for the poll was 2.6 percentage points.

Aid Package

Greeks were divided on whether Papandreou needed to ask for the aid package with just over 50 percent saying it was necessary and 41.9 percent saying it could have been avoided, according to the Kappa poll.

With cuts in wages and increases in taxes, the Greek economy is forecast to shrink 4 percent this year and 2.6 percent in 2011. Unemployment has risen to 11.3 percent, a six- year high.

Archbishop of Athens and All Greece, Hieronymos, the leader of the Greek Orthodox Church, said the Church, which represents most of the 11 million Greeks, would stand by the “battered Greek people” and urged “unity, strength and optimism,” according to the state-run Athens News Agency.

Finance Minister George Papaconstantinou said the government plans to submit legislation on the latest budget cuts to parliament today. Papandreou has a 10-seat majority in parliament, enabling the government to push through the measures.

Electricity Company

Tomorrow’s general strike could disrupt public transport, air traffic, ferry sailings and other services as workers from shopkeepers to sportswriters walk off the job. Employees at Public Power Corp SA, the state-controlled electricity company, also will strike.

An air-traffic controllers’ strike will mean all flights at the Athens International Airport, the country’s biggest, will be cancelled. Greek carriers Aegean Airlines SA, which cancelled 17 flights for today, and Olympic Airlines SA won’t operate any flights tomorrow.

The government also promised changes to the pension system, such as raising the retirement age for women in the public sector, increasing the number of years worked before qualifying for a pension and overhauling labor rules to make firing workers easier and cheaper. Labor Minister Andreas Loverdos plans a press conference on the measures today.

Some economists say the worst is yet to come. Paul Mylonas, chief economist at National Bank of Greece, anticipates social unrest “will be muted this year” and could grow as the austerity measures continue into the coming years.

“The risk is more for ‘adjustment fatigue’ going down the road,” Mylonas said. “There’s a higher risk of social opposition for further reforms in 2011 and 2012 if light doesn’t begin to appear at the end of the tunnel.”