21st Mar 2019

Greece comes to standstill as citizens focus anger on EU

Greece came to a standstill on Wednesday as millions of workers, both public and private, stayed away from work in protest at the government's austerity programme and anger at the European Union's role in enforcing the cuts.

A one-day general strike grounded all flights and buses, trains and ferries were halted. Schools, government ministries, local authorities were also closed, with hospitals only manned by emergency staff.

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  • The strike drew high a participation rate although the demonstrations was more modest in size (Photo: solidnet_photos)

An estimated 2 million people downed tools, although according to both organisers and commentators, the crowds taking part in the main demonstrations in Athens only amounted to around 60,000 people, slightly higher than the usual turnout for major protests.

In an echo of the youth riots that shook the Greek capital in December, 2008, crowds of young protesters from left-wing and anarchist groups clashed with riot police firing tear gas, although violence was sporadic and on the margins of the main demonstrations.

The general strike follows a wave of sectoral actions, with further industrial action expected in the coming weeks. Greek trade unions are currently discussing their next steps and another day of action is expected in March although there are no plans for any future general strikes.

While demonstrators said they felt betrayed by the centre-left Pasok government, who had campaigned in the recent election to protect jobs and public services, the party retains high support in the polls, with chants focussing on the outgoing centre-right New Democracy, bankers and the European Union.

One worker said: "The EU wants to squeeze Greece like a lemon. It wants to get all the money from us."

Zoe Lenora, the head of international relations at the GSEE, the country's private sector union, told EUobserver: "People are really distressed and disappointed with politicians, and there is a strong feeling that the EU should be there for all its citizens, show them support, not the bankers and the wealthy."

The strike comes a day after a series of demonstrations across Spain against the Socialist government's own programme of cuts aimed at reducing the budget deficit and ahead of a general strike in Portugal on 4 March targeting similar reductions in public spending by another centre-left administration.

John Monks, head of the European Trades Union Congress and in Greece for the strike, told EUobserver: "Right across Europe, countries are in trouble. This is true of northern Europe as well as southern Europe. The EU could have a more sympathetic approach than what has been developed."

"No doubt there will be more strikes in other parts of Europe. People know that the debt increased in order to bail out the banks, but who are they making pay the price? The rich and bankers who are responsible or working people?"

He said that there is also disappointment in centre-left administrations. "Some were hoping that social democrats would do a bit better, but it is worrying for the union side that we see them doing the same as right-wing governments."

Mr Monks said that trade unions across the bloc will be co-ordinating actions. "It's not only Greece that's hurting."

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