metro workers in Athens returned to work yesterday after the Greek government used riot police to clear strikers from a train depot, ending a bitter stand-off over new austerity measures.
The nine-day strike – which halted a system serving more than a million people a day – was the biggest labour unrest Greece’s conservative-led governing coalition has faced since taking over last June.
It was overcome after authorities resorted to issuing a rare civil mobilisation order to workers who had defied a court ruling that their strike was illegal. The order meant that staff refusing to return to work risked dismissal, arrest and jail.
Though the metro trains started running again, the city of some four million still lacked bus and trolley bus services yesterday, as unions launched rolling strikes in sympathy with their colleagues.
Transport minister Costis Hadzidakis said: “I am pleased that the urban rail workers restarted the network, and passengers are even more pleased.”
Metro staff have been outraged by plans to scrap their existing contracts as part of a broader public sector pay reform, with their union saying workers faced a roughly 25 per cent salary loss.
Hammered by a financial crisis since late 2009, Greece has imposed repeated rounds of public sector pay and pension cuts in return for billions of euros in international rescue loans. The measures have led to a deep recession, now in its sixth year, and unemployment of more than 26 per cent.
In yesterday’s pre-dawn raid at the western Athens depot, police broke through the gates and removed dozens of strikers. Riot police blocked off surrounding roads to keep away hundreds of strike supporters. No violence was reported and the workers did not put up any resistance. In the afternoon, dozens of strikers burned their mobilisation papers outside a metro station.
The government’s order led to a swift backlash, with all other public transport workers declaring immediate strikes that forced Athenians to walk or take taxis through thunderstorms yesterday and today. Traffic slowed to a crawl, and commutes took up to three times as long as normal.
Government spokesman Simos Kedikoglou insisted the new austerity measures must be implemented.
He said: “We are a society, an economy, at a very difficult time. People can’t ask for exceptions.”
The civil mobilisation law, amended in 2007 to deal with “peacetime emergencies,” has now been used nine times since the 1974 collapse of a military dictatorship in Greece – three of those in anti-austerity strikes over the past two years. Defying the order to return to work can lead to arrest and jail terms of between three months and five years.
Unions and the radical left main opposition Syriza party accused the government of dictatorial tactics.
Syriza MP Dimitris Stratoulis said: “It’s a new coup against this country’s constitution to mobilise working people on strike on the subway with military-style methods.”
The strike has been met with a mixture of understanding and exasperation from commuters, many of whom have also suffered deep income cuts.
Data released by Greece’s statistical authority showed that households’ disposable income dropped 10.6 per cent in the third quarter of 2012, compared with a year before.