ATHENS, Mar 15 (Reuters) Greek private and public sector unions launched a 24-hour strike today 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 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.
The Greek capital saw huge traffic jams during morning rush hour as most of Athens' public transport was on strike, forcing citizens to take their cars.
Trains and the subway were also out of service and state carrier Olympic Airlines scrapped dozens of flights, leaving only one flight per destination for the day.
''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.'' The strike also hit government offices, public utilities, banks, hospitals, ports and schools.
''There are no passenger ferries leaving until this afternoon,'' a merchant marine ministry official told Reuters. ''There is currently no connection with the islands.'' A big rally in Athens staged by private sector umbrella union GSEE and its public sector counterpart ADEDY is scheduled for later today. Combined, the two umbrella unions boast 2.5 million members, or 60 percent 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.
Opinion polls from early March show public support for the socialists is now level with that for the ruling conservatives, who only a few months ago held a three percentage point lead.
Reuters HS BD1651