ATHENS (Reuters) - Greek public sector workers walked off the job on Wednesday in protest at new austerity measures and layoffs demanded by foreign lenders, disrupting transport and shutting public schools and tax offices.
The 24-hour strike is the latest in a series of protests since September against a package of wage cuts and tax hikes demanded by Greece’s European Union and IMF lenders as the price of bailout loans to keep the country afloat.
About 6,000 teachers, doctors, municipal and transport workers rallied in central Athens as part of the walkout called by the ADEDY union, which represents half a million public sector workers - roughly a quarter of the country’s workforce.
The demonstrators marched to the ministry overseeing public sector reform chanting “They won’t stop unless we stop them” and held banners reading “Kick them out!”, but the turnout was much smaller than for previous protests this year.
“We want to tell the government enough is enough! Enough with layoffs, wage and pension cuts, the collapse of the public sector, enough with these tax hikes,” said ADEDY’s Despina Spanou. “People are fed up and will show their rage.”
The latest measures - which include earmarking 27,000 civil servants for eventual dismissal - are deeply unpopular among Greeks who say society is crumbling under the weight of repeated spending cuts and tax hikes that punish the middle class.
But the rallies have lost some of their momentum since the austerity package was approved and Athens received long-delayed funds from its foreign lenders, averting the risk of bankruptcy that had hung over the cash-strapped country for months.
Unions also say that some Greeks, although fed up with austerity, could no longer afford to lose a day’s wages by taking part in strikes.
Greece’s other major union, the private sector union GSEE, held a three-hour stoppage in solidarity and joined the march through the streets of central Athens. The Communist-affiliated PAME group also held a separate rally.
State hospitals operated on skeleton staff, some domestic flights were grounded and about 100 workers occupied the offices of Athens’ city train company in protest at planned wage cuts.
Train workers also started a 48-hour strike against the conservative-led coalition’s plans to privatize Greece’s national railways. Metro and tram workers walked out for a few hours on Wednesday and plan a 24-hour strike on Thursday.
Police deployed about 2,000 officers in central Athens, but there were no reports of the violence or clashes that have come to mark many protests in the Greek capital.
Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’s government has implored Greeks to endure the cuts, and promised they will be the last. But that has convinced few in a nation where unemployment tops 26 percent and poverty levels have soared.
A survey by polling group MARC showed that more than 65 percent of Greeks expect conditions in the country to worsen in 2013, while half of those polled said they had a negative opinion of the ruling coalition.
If elections were held now, the opposition leftist Syriza party would win with 28.5 percent of the vote, the poll showed.
“We, the unemployed, will never see the bailout funds in our pockets,” said Stavroula Kandelanou, 34, a mother of two who is jobless. “They keep talking about growth but I don’t see any.”
Additional reporting by Yiorgos Karahalis and Phoebe Fronista; Editing by Deepa Babington and Stephen Nisbet