Greece on Strike


General Strike in Greece (Photo: Clark Boyd)

The Greek parliament today gave initial approval to another round of budget cuts and tax hikes. That's not what the protesters and rioters outside parliament's doors wanted to hear.

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Greece is in the middle of a 48-hour general strike against the government's austerity measures. Those are measures are key to the government's efforts to ensure Greece gets its EU bail-out money next month.

But many public sector employees in the country say that they are being unfairly targeted for wage and pension cuts.

Athens' Syntagma Square, where the Greek Parliament building sits, is once again the focal point for Greek anger.

Protesters lobbed Molotov cocktails at police on Wednesday.

Recently, though, Greece's civil servants have staged a different kind of protest.

A loudspeaker blares an old Greek protest song in front of an Interior Ministry building. The employees here are occupying their own building.

Under Greek law, if they leave the office to march, they won't get paid. This way, they protest, and get their salary — what's left of it.

Nikos Alexopolous heads the union of Interior Ministry workers.

"I've already experienced a 20 percent cut in pay," Alexopolous says. "And The new measures would cut another 30 percent."

"Gas, food, everything is more expensive," he says. "And I'm married, with three children, so you understand."

At a community center just outside Athens, I hear similar stories from some teachers. Their pay has been cut but that's just the start of it, says Stella Mazioti.

"There are no supplies, and no computers," says Mazioti. "We're worried — winter is coming, and we're not sure we can afford to heat the school."

ADEDY is Greece's confederation of civil service unions. For two years, ADEDY has been calling for strikes and other actions to protest public sector cuts.

ADEDY'S Vassilis Xenakis says the government is preying on public workers.

"Two years of austerity measures, two years of destroying our system, destroying our fundamental rules. And now — we don't know what can be the future for civil servants anymore. All this made the Greek society very angry. We can't stand anymore. It's enough with austerity measures. We're not numbers. We're human beings," says Xenakis.

Stefanos Manos is a former Greek finance minister: "Greece can stand a lot of cuts. The political system, in order to gain votes, has been hiring hundreds of thousands of people who actually do not work. For instance, we have roughly four times as many teachers per pupil compared to Finland," says Manos. "Four times! And we have a lousy educational system. Whereas the Finns, with a quarter of the teachers, have a splendid system".

Manos says that the government shouldn't cut wages for everyone, just get rid of the dead weight.

He recommends trimming the work force and then paying the productive civil servants more but economist Yanis Varoufakis disagrees.

"Firing people during a recession is a very silly idea". Greece's public sector may be bloated, he says, but if you fire civil servants and cut their wages, they'll have less money.

And that means, lower tax revenues for the state. So the vicious cycle of debt and deficits will continue.

"The Greek public sector, the Greek state, requires surgery. And yet, the surgeons are only equipped with meat cleavers," says Varoutakis. "By which they're cutting, cutting, cutting. And yes, of course, if you need to amputate a limb, a meat cleaver is the way to do it. But if you want to do micro-surgery, that's not the way to do it. And this is, I'm afraid, how they're doing it".

So far, no civil servants have been laid off under the austerity measures. Back at the Interior Ministry, I ask labor leader Nikos Alexopolous about the government's current proposal to axe 50,000 public sector workers.

"We hope the government changes its policies OR that we vote in a new government," Alexopolous says. "I have no faith in the current one."

That seems to be the one thing that civil servants and critics of Greece's public sector can agree on.