REPORTING FROM ATHENS -- Flights were grounded, schools closed and government offices shut as thousands of civil servants walked off their jobs in Greece on Wednesday to protest a fresh batch of austerity measures.
The general strike, organized by the country's two biggest labor unions, is the first since the government unveiled a controversial property tax, pension cuts and plans to slash 30,000 public-sector jobs by the end of the year to meet the deficit-reduction demands of the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.
"These are barbaric policies that suck dry workers' rights and revenues," said Stathis Anestis, a union spokesman for the General Confederation of Greek Workers. "With this strike, the government, the Europeans and the International Monetary Fund will be forced to reconsider these disastrous policies."
The walkout follows Athens' admission that it will miss its deficit-reduction targets through 2012, an acknowledgment that has postponed the disbursal of $11 billlion in international bailout loans until November.
Without the funds, Athens will be left without enough cash to pay its bills, forcing either a complex restructuring of its near-$500 billion debt or an outright default. A Greek default, analysts have warned, would devastate European banks that sit on more than $60 billion of Greek government debt.
On Tuesday, Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos insisted that Athens would be able to pay pensions, salaries and bondholders through November, weeks more than it had initially estimated. But how it planned to do so remained unclear, an uncertainty that rattled stock markets worldwide.
With tens of thousands of workers expected to take to the streets of Athens on Wednesday, the general strike signals a dramatic show of public anger against the government's handling of the debt crisis. Squeezed by a deepening recession and rising unemployment rates, Greeks have struck back by setting tax bills ablaze at demonstrations and staging sit-ins at government offices.
-- Anthee Carassava
Photo: A passenger sits inside an empty hall at the Athens Eleftherios Venizelos airport during a 24-hour labor strike. Credit: Yiorgos Karahalis / Reuters