Protesting Austerity Moves, Unions Shut Down Greece

A two-day national strike of both private and public workers has begun in Greece. The strike, in protest of the government's austerity measures, is expected to practically close down the country — with no flights, ferries, buses or rail service.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli is in Athens and she joins us on the line for a look at what the strike is looking like there. Good morning, Sylvia.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: What's the scene there? Pretty quiet, I imagine.

POGGIOLI: It's very quiet. There are no buses, taxis. All flights have been cancelled. State offices, shops, even bakeries are shut down. This mother of all strikes is the first 48-hour general strike in, I think, two decades, and it follows weeks of walkouts in many sectors, from judges to journalists, school teachers to garbage collectors. There are piles of garbage everywhere in Athens. The walkout started about two weeks ago. And to give you a sense of the anger and how fed up Greeks are with the austerity measures, a garbage strike of this scope some years ago would have triggered fury at the strikers. Today, even though the health ministry have warned of the dangers for public health, there is a very strong sense of solidarity with the garbage collectors.

MONTAGNE: But as we just heard, Sylvia, tomorrow the Greek parliament will vote on this new austerity package. It includes more wage and job cuts, higher taxes and a watering down of national collective bargaining in the private sector. Is there any chance that this new austerity package will not pass?

POGGIOLI: Well, some lawmakers of the ruling socialists are reportedly wavering. Last night, Prime Minister George Papandreou made a final appeal to them. He also met with the leader of the conservative opposition. But Antonis Samaras said no way, we're not going to vote for these measures because they are undermining economic growth. The ruling socialists are way down in the polls. Government officials are increasingly isolated from society. Civil servants have taken over several government buildings. Even the finance minister, Evangelos Venizelos, has been unable to get into his office for the last two weeks. And leaflets pasted to the wall of the building say: The massacre of our wages will be the nightmare of bankers. And yet most analysts believe the measures will pass. The problem will be implementing them.

MONTAGNE: And all of this, of course, is about Greece not defaulting on its massive debt. European leaders will be meeting next weekend, again, to try and resolve the crisis. Can they really solve it?

POGGIOLI: Well, that's the big question being asked in financial markets. This will be the EU leaders' sixth attempt this year to come up with what they keep calling a comprehensive solution. They're expected to announce whether Greece will get the next installment of the $150 billion bailout that was agreed to last year. They're supposed to talk about recapitalization of some major European banks and whether the new rescue fund that they have finally cobbled together will be increased to as much as $2 trillion. But all the leaders do up to now is send mixed signals. At one moment it appears France and Germany are on the verge of agreement, then German Chancellor Angela Merkel says do not expect a miracle cure. Then we hear French President Nicolas Sarkozy warning ominously: Those who destroy Europe and the euro will bear responsibility for a resurgence of conflict and divisions on our continent. That's pretty heavy stuff, and yet nothing concrete is coming out.

MONTAGNE: And in the middle of all of that back and forth, the Greek crisis is becoming contagious.

POGGIOLI: That's the nightmare in European capitals. Yesterday, the rating agency Moody's warned of a possible downgrade of France's credit rating. And after that, Moody cut Spain's credit rating by two notches. The other big rating agency, Standard and Poor's, cut the ratings of 24 Italian banks and financial institutions, citing weaker growth prospects and tighter credit conditions. Moody's assessment was very gloomy. It said no credible solution of the sovereign debt crisis has emerged and it will take time to fully restore confidence in the eurozone's political cohesion and growth prospects. With rumors flying and credit ratings downgraded, the atmosphere is feverish, the debt crisis seems to be spreading, there's a sense of greater urgency, and yet European leaders continue to dither.

MONTAGNE: Sylvia, thanks very much.

POGGIOLI: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Sylvia Poggioli speaking to us from Athens.

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