Athens metro workers strike over cuts

Nov. 8, 2012 at 3:37 PM
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ATHENS, Greece, Nov. 8 (UPI) -- Railway workers in Athens are set to strike over the government's newest austerity measures and structural reforms submitted to parliament.

Union employees for the Athens metro, the Piraeus-Kifissia electric railway and the tram, have decided to halt services Friday, Ekathimerini reported.

Taxi drivers have agreed to end their strike at 5 a.m. Friday.

Greece's fragile coalition government was shaken Thursday after lawmakers passed a $17 billion austerity package in an effort to win more bailout funds.

Six lawmakers were expelled from the coalition's center-left Panhellenic Socialist Movement, or PASOK Party, and one was ousted from the center-right New Democracy Party after the 300-member Hellenic Parliament voted 153-128 to approve draconian measures analysts said would deepen the country's brutal recession, set to enter its sixth year.

The government says the cutbacks will contribute to a 4.5 percent economic contraction in 2013, but many economists argue the damage could be much greater. Greece is suffering from a record-high 25 percent unemployment.

Eighteen lawmakers voted "present," the equivalent of a blank vote, including 15 from the small social-democratic Democratic Left Party, which opposes the measures. One lawmaker abstained.

The approved measures include sharp cuts to pensions, salaries and social services, as well as tax increases and raising the retirement age from 65 to 67. They also make it easier to fire and transfer civil servants who until now were guaranteed jobs for life.

Those measures are expected -- but not guaranteed -- to persuade Athens' international creditors to unlock $40 billion the cash-strapped country says it needs this month to meet expenses.

The Parliament must approve a 2013 national budget to activate the austerity package in a separate vote Sunday.

Eurozone finance ministers are to discuss the issues in Brussels Monday.

Thursday's post-midnight approval was "a big, decisive and optimistic step -- a step toward recovery," center-right Prime Minister Antonis Samaras told reporters afterward. "I am very pleased."

Before the vote, he told lawmakers Greece had no choice but to approve the conditions the European Commission, International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank demanded.

He acknowledged the new cuts to pensions and salaries were "unfair" but said Greece had to comply with its agreement with creditors.

"A lot of what we're voting on today are measures we should have taken a long time ago," he said.

He said the cuts would be "the very last painful measures," promising future "adjustments" would come from a crackdown on tax evasion and public-sector waste.

Two prime ministers before him, after Greece first asked for a bailout in 2010, also promised cuts enacted during their administrations would be the last.

Samaras said the lawmakers' vote would determine "whether Greece would remain a member of the eurozone or return to international isolation, collapse into bankruptcy and go back to the drachma." The drachma was Greece's currency before the euro.

The session Wednesday was interrupted when parliamentary employees staged a noisy walkout to protest cutting their salaries in line with those of other public-sector workers, the Financial Times said.

The government quickly withdrew the proposal so the debate could continue.

Outside Parliament, police battled hundreds of hooded youths, firing tear gas and stun grenades and using truck-based water cannons for the first time in years as the protesters hurled rocks and Molotov cocktails.

The violence occurred as 80,000 to 100,000 people protested the measures, the largest protest since the coalition took over in July and in spite of torrential rain.

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