ATHENS, Greece — Labour unions in recession-hobbled Greece are holding another general strike against a new harsh austerity programme, as European leaders beset by a deep debt crisis and economic stagnation gather for a summit meeting in Brussels.
Yesterday's strike was set to close down public services and severely hamper most forms of transport — with even taxi drivers joining in for nine hours — while shopkeepers in Athens and other cities are planning to shut down for the day. It is the second general strike in less than a month.
Unions are organising two separate marches in central Athens. Demonstrators' ire will focus on the new belt-tightening for 2013-14, demanded by bailout creditors to release a desperately needed new rescue loan payment.
The city has seen hundreds of anti-austerity protests — many violent — over the past three years, since Greece revealed it had been misreporting key deficit figures and sank into an economic gloom so deep it has been likened to the Great Depression of the 1930s.
The country is clinging to solvency with the help of two massive international bailouts worth a total (euro) 240 billion ($28 trillion). To secure them, it committed to drastic spending cuts, tax hikes and reforms, aimed to cure years of profligate government spending.
But while significantly reducing budget deficits, the measures accelerated a recession that after five years is closer to a depression. By the end of next year, the economy is expected to have shrunk by about a quarter from 2008 levels. And with one in four workers out of a job, Greece has the worst unemployment rate in the 27-nation European Union.
"In general, we're going from bad to worse," said 85-year-old pensioner Giorgos Ierodimos. "Salaries are being reduced, pensions are being reduced, everything is getting more expensive, from food to health care to hospitals, medicines, everything. So how will people live? How will we live?"
The country's four-month-old coalition government is negotiating a new austerity package with debt inspectors from the EU, International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank. The idea is to save (euro) 11 billion in spending — largely on pensions and health care — and raise an extra (euro) 2.5 billion through taxes.