Government offices stayed shut and public transport closed down on Thursday as Greece’s resurgent trade unions staged the first 24-hour general strike since the leftwing Syriza party came to power in January.
Thousands of public sector employees, pensioners and jobless workers shouted anti-austerity slogans as they marched to the Greek parliament in Athens, giving voice to a growing mood of despondency over looming foreclosures on family homes and further pension cuts agreed with creditors under Greece’s €86bn third bailout.
Riot police clashed briefly with a group of protesters throwing petrol bombs and stones in the square outside the parliament building. Three people were detained, according to police.
Some protesters held pink balloons labelled “Alexis’ promises” — harking back to the bold threats made while he was in opposition by Alexis Tsipras, prime minister, to roll back bailout reforms and default on repaying Greece’s public debt.
“We are resuming the struggle to reverse the bailout measures and win debt writedowns,” declared a large banner held up by members of Adedy, the civil servants union, the country’s largest labour organisation.
An Adedy official said “disappointment could soon become despair” over the decision in July by Alexis Tsipras, prime minister, to accept the bailout.
The deal with international creditors kept Greece in the eurozone in return for concessions on another package of economic reforms. Syriza was elected on a platform of opposition to austerity measures.
“The prime minister accepted not just cuts in pensions but the unpicking of the whole system of social insurance rights,” the official said. “We have to put up a fight.”
The four-hour protest ended quietly but riot police units remained outside parliament and the central bank. Shops remained closed and traffic in the city centre was light even after restrictions were lifted.
The general strike came as bailout monitors from the European Commission, International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank resumed discussions in Athens on structural reforms to be adopted before the release of a delayed €2bn aid payment.
Syriza urged Greeks to take part in Thursday’s strike to protest against pressure from creditors “who continue the dynamics of extreme unpopular neoliberal policies”.
A government spokesperson supported Syriza’s move, saying the bailout deal included measures that were “unfair.”
But others criticised the government for appearing to encourage a return to the anti-austerity protests of 2011 and 2012 that disrupted negotiations with bailout monitors and drove tourists away from Greece. “Syriza wants to take ownership of the protests but not the reforms,” said Alecos Yannopoulos, a retired teacher participating in the protest.
He was referring to criticism voiced by bailout monitors over successive governments’ reluctance to accept responsibility for implementing measures they had signed up to earlier.
In a sign of widening discontent, many retailers that normally leave strike action to the public sector closed their shops to join the protests.
“We have entered a new downturn . . . People have stopped spending again because they do not know what lies ahead,” said Marietta Antonakopoulos, an Athens clothing store owner.
Kostis Michalos, chairman of Athens Chamber of Commerce, warned of a new wave of closures among small businesses that had survived the crisis.
“Last year’s positive improvement [in the economy] wasn’t enough to offset years of losses . . . We are likely to see thousands more small companies suspending operations and going under during the next six months,” he said.