Athens: Thousands of Greeks demonstrated on Wednesday against a new wave of austerity cuts as a general strike brought the country to a standstill, paralysing air, rail and maritime services.
Some 15,000 protesters according to police estimates marched in separate Athens demonstrations at the call of the main public and private-sector unions.
Other protests against austerity measures were expected Wednesday in other European capitals, including Brussels, Luxembourg and Dublin.
“Enough is enough,” read a banner carried at the head of the protest organised by the General Confederation of Greek Workers (GSEE) and the main union of civil servants ADEDY.
“History is written in the streets,” the demonstrators chanted.
Communist-affiliated workers had earlier staged another demonstration.
The general strike, the seventh this year, came as the ruling Socialists hurried through additional reforms under a tough economy overhaul mandated by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund in return for a rescue loan.
A bill slashing salaries in the country’s poorly managed public utilities was approved in the early morning, months after civil servants in the broader public sector had also had their wages and pensions cut.
“Work rights are being suppressed and I think the whole Greek people should rise up,” said Ellada Christodoulou, a lawyer in her fifties as she marched in the protest with a sign that said “default on payments now”.
“This is a fight not only in Greece but in the entire world,” she said.
In addition to grounding planes and paralysing rail and ferries, the general strike shut down schools, courts, banks and pharmacies while hospitals ran on reduced staff.
Civil engineers, journalists and lawyers also joined the action.
For a third consecutive day after previous action by disgruntled transport workers, Athens witnessed giant traffic jams as even taxi drivers prepared to stage a stoppage in support of the strike.
Prime Minister George Papandreou late on Tuesday called a crunch cabinet meeting to discuss privatisation and “better coordination” in the use of state properties.
Hours later, the government secured parliamentary approval of salary cuts in the country’s badly mismanaged public utilities but was forced to axe a dissenting lawmaker, reducing its majority in the chamber to six.
The new bill spelled salary cuts for staff at utilities, known as Deko’s in Greece, who earn more than €1,800 ($2,413) a month.
“We have tough decisions ahead of us, but it is only through bold strokes that we can overcome the difficulties,” Papandreou told his ministers late on Tuesday ahead of the parliamentary vote.
The finance ministry had recently released figures showing that Deko staff were annually paid some €40,000 on average, far more than other public or private-sector employees.
This was despite the fact that most of the public utilities were deep in debt.
Greece is trapped under a debt mountain of over €300 billion ($402 billion) and came near bankruptcy in May before it was rescued by a loan from the European Union, the European Central Bank and the IMF.
The government in November announced a plan to reduce the deficit of loss-making state enterprises by €800 million ($1 billion).
The adoption of such reforms follows a first round of austerity measures aimed at reducing the Greek public deficit, which stood at over 15.4% of output last year, more than five times the EU ceiling.
The economy overhaul is a condition set by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund for the release of a €15-billion installment from the €110-billion EU-IMF rescue package granted Greece in May.
Athens is now hoping in exchange to get an extension to repaying this EU-IMF loan in order to avoid facing an impossible mission to settle it among other debts that expire in 2015.
On Tuesday, unions brought hundreds of protesters outside the Greek parliament, carrying banners that read “Strike until final victory”.
“We cannot take any more (austerity)” read another banner.
Several hundred police officers and coastguards, whose wages were targeted in a previous wave of cuts, staged a separate demonstration later in the day.
“Your profits cost human lives,” read a banner held up by uniformed security staff, some of them standing under a crossed-out emblem of the IMF.