Athens - Greek workers walked off the job for the second time this week on Friday in a snap 48-hour general strike called to protest new austerity measures the country must take to avert a disastrous default next month.
The walkout came a day after the government reached a provisional deal with the so-called troika of foreign lenders — the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund — on the terms of a new loan program. The government of Prime Minister Lucas Papademos pledged to cut private-sector wages by more than 20 percent, lay off thousands of civil servants and slash public spending.
But skeptical creditors have demanded additional cuts to cover a $430 million shortfall created by the refusal of political leaders to slash supplemental pensions as well parliamentary approval and written commitments to the terms of the deal from the leaders of the three parties in Mr. Papademos’s coalition before additional financing is released.
Condemning the new barrage of measures as “a tombstone” for Greek society, the country’s two main labor unions called the action on Thursday immediately after government officials announced the deal with creditors on the new austerity measures, which are expected to be voted on in Parliament on Sunday or Monday. Unions are planning protest rallies for both days of the strike, and the day of the vote when the crowds are expected to be largest.
The strike on Friday and Saturday will suspend most public transportation services, though flights will operate normally. Ferries will remain in ports and train services will be suspended. An urban rail service will run a limited service to allow protesters to join protest rallies. Government offices, schools and courts will close, and hospitals will be left to operate with emergency staff. Unionists and the leaders of leftist opposition parties have appealed to austerity-weary Greeks to fight the new barrage of cuts and not “bow their heads” to foreign creditors.
The leader of the third party in Greece’s shaky coalition on Friday called on Mr. Papademos to reshuffle his government and replace Socialist ministers with technocrats. He also said he would not support the new deal between the government and foreign creditors.
“The creditors are asking for 40 years of submission,” Georgios Karatzaferis, the leader of the Popular Orthodox Rally, told a news conference. “Greece will not give itself up,” Mr. Karatzaferis said.
“Greece can survive outside the E.U., but cannot survive under a German boot,” Mr. Karatzaferis said, referring to German officials who have struck an increasingly hard line in negotiations with Athens. He accused creditors of trying to “deprive Greece of the last trace of national sovereignty.”
Earlier this week, Mr. Karatzaferis had threatened to withdraw from the coalition over proposed cuts to supplemental pensions. He did not say whether his party’s 16 legislators would back the austerity deal, but even if his party rejects the deal, the government will retain a comfortable majority of 236 in the 300-seat chamber.
Speaking from Brussels in the early hours of Friday after a grueling summit with euro zone peers, Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos issued his own appeal to Greeks — citizens and politicians — to make “a strategic choice” and back the measures. “If we see the future of our country within the euro zone, within Europe, we should do what we have to do for the program to be approved and for the PSI to be concluded on time before major bonds expire in March.” He was referring to negotiations on private sector involvement in a Greek bailout, which is expected to write off about $130 billion of the country’s debt.
Both deals must be finalized in the coming weeks to ensure the release of rescue financing so that Greece can pay a $19 billion bond that matures on March 20 and avoid a default that would shake the euro zone.
Despite the high stakes, the leaders of the three parties in Greece’s coalition government have opposed too much austerity, mindful of early elections expected in April. The Conservative New Democracy leader, Antonis Samaras, whose party is leading in the polls, repeated calls for elections as soon as possible in a televised speech late on Thursday. Mr. Karatzaferis, of the Popular Orthodox Rally, indicated earlier this week that he may pull out of the government over objections to some points of the austerity package. The former prime minister and Socialist PASOK leader, George Papandreou, whose administration signed the first bailout with the troika in May 2010, has been the least militant.
The government is expected to pass the new package. However, several coalition legislators have indicated that they object to certain measures — chiefly wage cuts — and may vote against them. The measures were expected to by approved by the cabinet on Friday as coalition parties convened their lawmakers to discuss the bill ahead of the vote.
This article, "Disgruntled Greeks Start 48-Hour National Strike," originally appeared in The New York Times.