General strike shuts down services across Greece; flights grounded, ferries tied up in ports

ATHENS, Greece – A 24-hour general strike in Greece shut down services across the country, forcing flight cancellations and school closures and leaving state hospitals functioning with emergency staff, while thousands of protesters marched in central Athens.

Labour unions called the strike to protest continued austerity measures as Greece struggles to emerge from a financial crisis that wiped out a quarter of the country’s economy and sent unemployment soaring to 26 per cent. Youth unemployment reached nearly 60 per cent during the crisis, which began in late 2009 after years of profligate government spending and lax fiscal management.

To tackle the crisis, Greece has been dependent on billions of euros in rescue loans from the eurozone and the International Monetary Fund since 2010. In return, Greece has had to push through painful austerity measures, including pension and salary cuts, and to overhaul its economy. The main bulk of the bailout — the eurozone loans — is due to end this year. The IMF portion continues until 2016.

The country’s progress in reforms has been closely monitored by international debt inspectors from the IMF, European Commission and European Central Bank. The conclusion of the latest round of talks has been delayed amid disagreements over several issues, including whether Greece faces a fiscal gap next year. Two days of talks in Paris between the government and the debt inspectors ended inconclusively Wednesday.

Thursday’s strike forced airlines to cancel all international and domestic flights after air traffic controllers joined the labour action. Public transportation in Athens was also severely disrupted as bus, trolley and subway workers took part in the strike for several hours, snarling traffic in the capital. Ferries were also tied up in ports.

Thousands of people began marching through central Athens in two separate demonstrations.

Frequent and often violent demonstrations greeted the start of the crisis and imposition of austerity measures, but their frequency has dropped off over the past two years. Some Athenians said they saw little hope in yet another strike bringing any change.

“The strike is a minor thing. Something very significant must happen because we’ve reached the point of being on the verge of jumping out of windows,” businessman Stamatis Fassoulis said.