Two million Greek workers walked off the job for the second time in two weeks Thursday after the country’s Parliament backed Prime Minister George Papandreou’s slashing of the nation’s pension system. It was the sixth general strike in the country this year.
The cuts, pushed by international financiers, the International Monetary Fund and the European Union, include lowering pensions by at least 12 percent and raising retirement ages for most occupations. Members of the country’s two biggest unions took to the streets, rallying and marching on Parliament in Athens as lawmakers debated the cuts, which carried by 159 votes to 137.
The prime minister committed himself to the pension cuts in order to secure a 110 billion euro loan from the European Union and the IMF that allows Greece to avoid defaulting on its debt.
The mass walkout grounded flights, kept ferries docked and shut down banks, hospitals and the news media. Even Parliament workers went out on strike, with only a few remaining to assist the pension debate.
“Workers don’t want to strike every week but they can’t stand by and watch their fundamental rights being obliterated every week either,” declared Stathis Anestis, deputy secretary of the General Confederation of Labor, the nationwide federation for private workers. Stathis said the law will mean pension cuts of at least 12 percent, contrary to government estimates of 7 percent.
The pension cuts follow the approval in May of 30 billion euros’ worth of austerity measures, including wage cuts and tax increases.
Papandreou, who won the elections last October after pledging higher wages, has ended up cutting salaries and raising taxes on fuel and alcohol. He says the measures are needed to reduce budget deficits of 13.6 percent of economic output, prevent default and restore investor confidence in Greece.
The country’s labor movement says it is not government spending for social programs but tax evasion by the rich that is behind the crisis.
Globalization for Greece, labor leaders say, means that a quarter of the population lives in poverty while billionaires pay little or no taxes. Unions say higher wages and benefits are necessary to fuel the economic growth needed to sustain the economy and reduce deficits over the long haul.
World labor leaders gathered in Canada for a meeting of the G-20 recently heard Guy Ryder, the outgoing general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, call for “fundamental changes in globalization” and an end to the “dictatorship of the finance-atariate.”
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, representing U.S. labor at that gathering, called for a “new economic order.” He said that strong labor rights, human rights, collective bargaining and the right to organize were cornerstones of that new economic order.
Greece’s private and public sector unions represent about 2.5 million workers, just over half the country’s workforce.
The six general strikes this year have impacted on tourism, which accounts for 20 percent of the country’s 240-billion-euro economy.
Olympic Air and Aegean canceled dozens of domestic flights and rescheduled international flights.
Seamen’s unions shut down port authorities, with no ships leaving or docking at Greece’s main ports.
Protesters climbed on top of the hill overlooking central Athens where they unfurled huge banners.
Photo: Workers rally in central Athens, July 8. (AP/Alkis Konstantinidis)