Protesters clashed with police in central Athens Wednesday as thousands of transport workers went on strike against severe austerity measures the government says are needed to tackle the country’s crippling budget deficit.
CNN’s Jim Boulden said bottles and flares were thrown and small fires started in the vicinity of Athens’ Constitutional Square outside the Greek parliament building. Police responded with tear gas and cordoned off roads around the parliament.
Earlier around 35,000 people were estimated to have taken part in a march, according to unions. Boulden said violence had been limited to a small faction separate from the main protest and lasted about an hour.
All flights to and from Greece have been cancelled and nationwide disruption is forecast on bus and rail networks with trade unions rallying widespread support for the 24-hour action by public and private sector workers.
Schools, hospitals, government offices, banks and media outlets were all expected to be affected with unions representing 2.5 million workers joining the action. Large protests were also scheduled to converge in Athens’ Constitutional Square outside the parliament building.
The Greek strikes are the latest in a series of industrial disputes to erupt across Europe as the continent’s business and public sectors struggle to balance economic reform with demands from their workforces.
They are also the latest to affect Greece, which has endured several stoppages since the government announced it was hiking taxes, tightening tax controls, raising the retirement age by two years and imposing public sector pay cuts.
Prime Minister George Papandreou’s government imposed the measures after the previously masked results of years of unrestrained spending, cheap lending and failure to implement financial reforms were exposed late last year.It is now struggling to bring debts of €300 billion ($413.6 billion) and a deficit of 12.7 percent of gross domestic product under control, restore investor confidence and comply to eurozone regulations.
Polls show that the majority of Greeks actually support the popular government plans to cut the safety net for public sector workers and attempts to get the rich to pay more taxes.
The government says Greece must modernize its tax structure as the country suffers from tax avoidance and other structural impediments to job growth. But younger workers say they already pay high taxes, have little job security and make less money than older generations.
Greece’s financial troubles have caused concerns across the EU. Analysts say there are fears the problems could spread to weaker members of the economic bloc such as Portugal, the Republic of Ireland and Spain.
The EU has pledged support for Greece, but offered no concrete assistance. It has given Athens until March 16 to show it is taking necessary measures.
Wednesday’s strikes come during a week of assessments by the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund.