ATHENS, Mar 15 (Reuters) Greek private and public sector unions launched a 24-hour strike on Wednesday in protest against government economic reforms, shutting down most of the country and crippling transport.
Thousands of workers took to the streets as unions staged large rallies in several cities and accused the government, half-way through its four-year term, of penalising workers unfairly with a series of unpopular reforms.
The reforms aim to liberalise labour markets and cut Greece's budget deficit in an effort to ward off European Union sanctions.
''We can no longer endure the results of this neoliberal economic policy that constantly degrades the workers,'' private sector umbrella union president Christos Polyzogopoulos told a central Athens rally.
The union said about 30,000 people attended the rally, making it the largest in a decade. It also said participation in the strike reached almost 100 per cent.
Around Athens there were huge traffic jams through the day as the city centre was sealed off for the rallies and most public transport was on strike, forcing citizens to use their cars.
Trains and the subways were also out of action and state carrier Olympic Airlines scrapped dozens of flights, leaving only one flight per destination.
''I have been stuck in traffic for over one hour and a half and it seems it just gets worse every minute,'' driver Theodoris Papasotiriou said in the central Athens Pangrati district. ''I've never seen this before.'' FIREBOMBS The strike also hit government offices, public utilities, banks, hospitals, ports and schools. Many shops around the capital also appeared to be closed.
A small group of hooded protesters hurled firebombs at the entrance to the Labour Ministry, causing some damage while the Finance Ministry was pelted with nails and glass.
There were also scuffles between riot police and Olympic Airlines employees during the main march in central Athens.
The strike was organized by the private sector union GSEE and its public sector counterpart ADEDY.
The two umbrella unions boast 2.5 million members, or 60 per cent of Greece's workforce.
The reforms have hit the government's opinion poll ratings and led to rising discontent in the workforce. The number of general strikes in the past year was double that for 2003, the last full year that the opposition Socialists were in power.
''Everday we are faced with higher inflation and rising unemployment but the government is doing nothing,'' said Spyros Tsinakis, a 52 year-old carpenter, taking part in the rallies.
''These economic reforms are putting all the burden on workers.'' REUTERS SHR RN2057