Athens: Thousands of Greek public sector workers marched in Athens on Tuesday to protest new austerity measures in the first big test of government resolve in pushing through deep budget cuts in exchange for a record EU/IMF rescue.
Prime Minister George Papandreou`s government submitted its three-year austerity bill to parliament, where it enjoys a comfortable majority. The plans call for spending cutbacks and tax rises totaling 30 billion euros and are expected to be approved on Thursday.
Around 4,000 protesters, including teachers, garbage collectors, pensioners, construction workers and civil servants, demonstrated in front of parliament, chanting, "Never! We will never pay for the EU and IMF." Police fired teargas at a small group that pelted them with rocks and bottles.
The turnout was well below the tens of thousands that joined protests earlier this year against austerity plans and lacked the fervor of riots that paralyzed Athens in December 2008 following the killing of a teenager by police.
But unions promised bigger crowds on Wednesday, when private sector workers will join the 48-hour public sector walkout.
"The demonstration today didn`t seem very big or feisty," said Theodore Couloumbis, deputy head of Athens-based think tank ELIAMEP. "We should wait till tomorrow to see whether these protests are symbolic or a sign that reaction will escalate."
Government ministries, tax offices, schools and hospitals shut for the rally and 118 domestic flights were canceled. All flights will be grounded on Wednesday and the country could grind to a virtual halt in the third joint public-private sector walkout since the start of the year.
"Once we heard about the measures we shivered with fear for our future," said Yannis Mavrelis, a 53-year-old teacher who was among the protesters.
Chryssa Hardella, 56, another teacher, said she had spent 30 years building up her income only to see it disappear overnight. "I`m begging them not to take my earnings," she said.
Ilias Iliopoulos, general secretary of the main public sector union ADEDY, told Reuters that more strikes were planned for later in the month.