ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Unions are shutting down Greece today in what a prominent Greek newspaper calls the mother of all strikes. Flights are grounded, state offices are shuttered and shops are closed in the biggest organized protest against austerity measures since the debt crisis began almost two years ago. This week, parliament is expected to pass the latest package of cuts. But the protests show that the country's big unions will continue to resist. Joanna Kakississ has this story from Athens.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
JOANNA KAKISSISS, BYLINE: Even before the call for today's big strikes, demonstrations had already begun. Since last week, these protestors have occupied the finance ministry, waving Greek flags from office balconies and blasting songs of resistance. On the street below, dozens of public sector workers marched to parliament. Don't bow your head, they chanted. The only road is resistance. Many Greeks oppose the latest austerity measures, which include more job and wage cuts in the public sector as well as a controversial new property tax. But unions have been especially incensed by a provision curtailing collective bargaining rights in the private sector. And they have found a supporter in former Labour Minister Louka Katseli. She said the provision could threaten the national minimum wage and the working class.
LOUKA KATSELI: (Greek spoken)
KAKISSISS: If the economy falls into a deeper recession, state revenues will fall dramatically, she told Mega, a Greek TV station. It's our responsibility to point this out to international lenders. The government is trying to negotiate with unions and Katseli, who's still in parliament. She's threatened to veto the provision. Platon Tinios, an economics professor at the University of Piraeus, says unions have long held sway over political parties. He says restricting the influence of unions will help open up the economy at this crucial time.
PLATON TINIOS: They certainly haven't done very much to promote economic growth or competitiveness. They haven't done very much to get us out of the problem, and you can point to quite a lot of things they've done to get us into the problem.
KAKISSISS: Tinios says unions long prevented reforms now seen as inevitable. Changes to the bloated pension system, for example, or privatization of state assets. Now Greece is bankrupt and has no choice but to change, he says.
TINIOS: Power is a function of how much leeway you have to influence masses. And Greece at the moment, we have very little leeway to influence anything at all. So one wonders what the objective of the unions are.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Greek spoken)
KAKISSISS: A small group of elderly protestors belonging to a communist party union are walking along a busy street in suburban Athens. A man is speaking into a megaphone. The powers that be are trying to make us into 21st century slaves, he says. Vassilis Langadas, who's 30, watches the group march by. He's not a fan of unions, which he says are corrupt, but he supports collective bargaining because he believes it protects workers. He works at an international mobile phone company and has seen many of his colleagues laid off.
VASSILIS LANGADAS: Tomorrow, maybe I don't have a job. I don't know if I'm going to lose my inner self or something, I'm going to get crazy and jump from the window. No, of course not. But things are difficult, things are difficult.
KAKISSISS: He says the protests this week are not just about the power of unions. Austerity is killing the future, he says, and someone has to speak up. For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakississ in Athens.
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