Published on 24 Jan 2013 Sections

Strike deadlock puts Athens at public transport standstill

The decision of Greece’s government to invoke emergency powers to order public transport workers back to work is met by a “transportation blackout” from the unions.

With public anger growing over an eight-day strike that has shut down the Athens metro system, the government said strikers could be arrested if they do not return to work.

“Neither the government nor society can be held hostage to union mentality,” Development Minister Kostis Hatzidakis said after talks with Prime Minister Antonis Samaras.

“The government can’t ignore this. There is nothing else we can do.”

This is the first time the coalition has used the emergency law since taking power in June, but it was met with defiant backlash from unions.

Following the government’s announcement, striking metro workers who have been blockading the subway train depot in western Athens parked two fork-lift trucks behind the entrance gates, preventing anyone from entering.

The head of the metro workers’ union, Antonis Stamatopoulos, said:”We are protesting and if they fire people, let them come, they will take us dead from here,” adding “We expect everything now, we have nothing left to lose .. let Mr. Hatzidakis come here driving a tank.”

By Thursday afternon the city had entered what the unions called a transport blackout: buses and trolley unions have decided to pull all vehicles off the streets in solidarity with their metro colleagues, while railway workers in Athens continue their limited strike action, between 12pm and 4pm daily, and will decide on their next move later.

The week-long walkout is the latest test for Greece’s fragile coalition as it tries to take on powerful unions and implement a painful austerity programme demanded by foreign lenders as the price for bailout funds.

Defiant workers

Metro workers, who have defied a court order to return to work, say they are willing to suspend the strike and negotiate if their collective wage agreement is maintained until it expires in April before a new one is negotiated.

We will not back down, we will resist union leader, Antonis Stamatopoulos

They oppose being included in the government’s plan for a unified wage scheme for public sector workers, which would slash their salaries.

“It’s not that Metro workers went crazy over the last eight days. We exhausted every possibility before going on strike. We’ve reached our limits. We’ve run out of patience,” said Manthos Tsakos, general secretary of the Metro workers’ union.

While Greece, experiences daily strikes more regularly, the latest industrial action was too much for many. Some complained that their daily commute time had tripled and that they were being forced to rely on pricier taxi rides.

Athenian Janine Louloudi told Channel 4 News that as well as the Metro not running, buses and trains were taking part in coordinated action in solidarity with the Metro workers.

“It’s been crazy here for the last week,” she said. “Everyone has to take the car – it’s a real mess. When buses arrive at the bus stop, they are already full.”

Ms Louloudi said that the mood in the city was “grumpy” with people frustrated at not being able to get to work.

But she added that the mood “is not one of despair just yet”.

Foreign aid

Antonis Demetriadis, 40, who works in a marketing company, said:”The workers are taking advantage of their union power while the ordinary commuter, who is unprotected, is being punished.

“Who is going to protect me? Would they care if my pay is cut?”

Greece, kept afloat solely by foreign aid, averted financial collapse in December when its eurozone partners agreed to keep funds flowing.

In return, Athens must implement unpopular reforms that have driven up unemployment to record levels and cut living standards.

A public fed up with waves of tax hikes and salary cuts has taken to the streets in often violent protests.

In a similar standoff in 2010, truck drivers obeyed government orders to go back to work after a week-long strike that had disrupted fuel supplies and emptied gas stations.