Greek Workers Strike Over Austerity Plans
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
We're going to hear more now about something Europe is deeply worried about: Greece's imploding economy.
Greeks are so unhappy about the austerity measures their government has taken, that hundreds of thousands of union members went on strike today, and thousands more took to the streets.
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The protest and the nationwide strike closed schools, grounded planes, and left hospitals staffed for emergencies only.
The government austerity plan has divided Greeks, generally. The latest polls find that a little more than half the population is against the plan.
From Athens, NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.
ERIC WESTERVELT: The Greek government says it needs to cut the equivalent of $6.5 billion from the budget in order to rein in an out-of-control deficit that has not only wrecked the Greek economy, but also shaken confidence in the European currency, the euro.
The union members say that tax increases and deep cuts in public sector wages unfairly penalize middle- and working-class Greeks for the previous government's overspending.
Spyros Papaspyros is a senior official with Greece's largest civil servants union.
Mr. SPYROS PAPASPYROS (President, ADEDY Civil Servants Union): (Through Translator) Over the next few months, as these latest cuts from the government are implemented, there will be widespread effects - both in this economy and society, and a drop in the standard of living here.
In my opinion, there's a danger it's going to lead us into recession, rather than leading us out of recession.
WESTERVELT: But others see the very workers taking to the streets today as the main problem for Greece's economy. Athens University economist George Bitros says the public sector here is ineffectual and bloated with political patronage jobs for whichever party is in power. The government, Bitros says, has to aggressively cut the public sector despite tenure rules that make it very hard to fire public workers.
Professor GEORGE BITROS (Economic and Business Department, Athens University): The situation is unsustainable. If you have a company and you cannot pay your workers, what do you do? You let them go, right?
If a state is bankrupt, what do you do? They should find a way to fire people. I don't care. The state is a big enterprise. It's a corporation. The corporation cannot employ workers while it cannot pay them.
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WESTERVELT: In Koloniakiou Square, a posh section of the city, well-heeled Athenians dine in fine restaurants as taxi driver Panos Kanaloupitis waits for a fair. He says the austerity measures are hypocritical; tax evasion and petty bribery in his country are widespread. Why doesn't the government go after the rich, he asks, for not paying their fair share of taxes? They don't prosecute anyone, he says. But then he concedes it's not just the rich who cheat the Greek taxman.
Mr. PANOS KANALOUPITIS (Taxi Driver): Yeah, I'm going to be honest: If I could do it, I would try to hide something, because I have to make a living. You know, the salaries here in Greece are in one-third of the average European.
WESTERVELT: Kanaloupitis says Greeks might go along with these latest austerity measures if they had any faith in the state to use their money wisely.
Mr. KANALOUPITIS: I think this is the primary reason. We're not born cheaters, you know. I mean I'm 42 right now. We have a very poor health care system. We have a very poor education system. In fact, they're getting worse and worse, year by year. So where are all the taxes going?
WESTERVELT: Officials of the Greek Ministry of Finance are vowing to finally get tough on tax evasion, which they estimate costs the country billions of euros a year.
But they're putting their faith in new technology, not face-to-face auditors. One official said too many Greek tax collectors today are open to an envelope under the table.
The Greek branch of the anti-corruption group Transparency International, says Greece has one of the largest underground economies in the 16-member euro zone. The government estimates that the untaxed shadow economy here is at least 30 percent of the declared economy.
Costas Bakouris with Transparency International hopes this crisis finally makes Greeks realize that corruption is a threat to the country's future, its competitiveness and stability.
Mr. COSTAS BAKOURIS (Transparency International, Greece): When you have corruption, what happens? You have markets which are crooked. You don't have free competition. They're not all having the same opportunities to compete. The nation becomes less competitive. And when it becomes less competitive it becomes poorer.
It is corruption that makes countries poor, not the other way around.
WESTERVELT: But Greeks are not falling in line behind the unprecedented austerity measures. And many say the outlook here is bleak. As one worker told me, I love my country but my government is crooked. I tell my son to leave. The future is elsewhere.
Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Athens.
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