Greece mirrors Ireland as public sector cuts spark mass strikes

A strike by civil servants today grounded all flights and shut down public services across Greece, as labour unions mounted their first major challenge to austerity measures in the debt-plagued country.

Air traffic controllers, customs and tax officials, hospital doctors and school teachers walked off the job for 24 hours to protest against sweeping government spending cuts that will freeze salaries and new hiring, cut bonuses and increase the average retirement age by two years to 63.

The strike left state hospitals working with emergency staff only and disrupted national rail travel, although urban mass transport was unaffected.

"It's a war against workers and we will answer with war, with constant struggles until this policy is overturned," said Christos Katsiotis, a representative of a communist-party affiliated labour union.

But prime minister George Papandreou declared that the austerity programme would go forward "in every measure".

Despite the harsh union rhetoric, turnout at two peaceful protest marches in Athens was low, at about 7,000 amid drizzly weather, in a country where union demonstrations typically draw tens of thousands. Another 3,000 people showed up for two rallies in Thessaloniki, Greece's second-largest city.

A weekend newspaper poll showed that 70% of Greeks back the prime minister's call to cut civil servants' pay and perks, but were against measures that could affect them individually like new taxes or a higher retirement age.

Greece has come under intense pressure from its European Union partners to slash spending after it revealed a massive and previously undeclared budget shortfall last year that continues to rattle financial markets and the euro, the currency shared by 16 EU members.

Mr Papandreou, who was in Paris today to discuss the economic crisis with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, has repeatedly said Greece will sink under its debt unless everyone contributes to a solution.

"We are absolutely decided that the stability programme will be implemented in every measure," he said after meeting with Mr Sarkozy. "We are ready to take any necessary measures to make sure the deficit goal is met."

Labour unions ended weeks of caution on Wednesday after Mr Papandreou's new Socialist government deepened cuts, raising the retirement age and even hitting the country's powerful Orthodox Church for more taxes.

"It wasn't the workers who took all the money, it was the plutocracy. It's them who should give it back," said Alexandros Potamitis, a 57-year-old retired merchant seaman.

Vassiliki Romanou, 50, an employee at the state Social Security Foundation, conceded that many civil servants enjoy high salaries and some can retire after working only 20 years.

"I can't say the government's measures are totally wrong, but I think they are unfair to me," she said.

The government has insisted that those on low incomes will be protected and the austerity plan will target the better off.

"I don't care about the (country's) problems. I didn't steal a single euro, why should I pay?" said Christos, an elderly man who said he retired after working for 47 years and was now barely surviving on a pension of €640 a month. He refused to give his surname, saying he was afraid he would lose his pension if he complained.

Finance minister George Papaconstantinou announced more austerity measures before the strike, including adding 14c in fuel taxes so a litre of unleaded petrol costs €1.29.

He also announced plans to force all Greek businesses - including petrol stations, cab drivers and vendors at farmers' markets - to issue receipts in an effort to fight Greeks' notoriously lax compliance in paying taxes. The average retirement age will also increase to 63 by 2015.

The umbrella civil servants' union that called today`s strike, ADEDY, said it will also join a private sector strike by Greece's largest labour organisation, the GSEE union, on February 24.

Taxi drivers in Athens also declared they will strike on Thursday.

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