Greece in strike standstill

BBC News Online, Thursday 17 May 2001, 11:30 GMT 12:30 UK

Greece has come to a standstill as the second general strike in under a month has taken hold across the country.

Protests at government proposals to overhaul the pensions system have paralysed public transport, business and the civil service.

Athens' usually jammed streets emptied as buses, taxis, trolley buses and the metro shut down.

The national airline, Olympic Airways, planned only one flight per destination and ferries to the islands remained in port.

Schools, hospitals and other government agencies were shut or running on skeleton staff. Bank staff said they planned to extend their walkout to Friday.

State television was off air, while radio played only music and taped messages from journalists explaining their strike.

Even tourist attractions were closed as guards at the Acropolis joined the strike.

Around 10,000 people were reported to have gathered in central Athens to march on the parliament. That is well down on the 26 April strike when several tens of thousands of people marched through the capital.

Government backtrack

The last strike forced the government to freeze its proposals aimed at preventing pension funds from going bankrupt and to reopen negotiations.

The plans included cuts in pensions and raising the retirement age to 65. At the moment, some women can retire and receive state benefit as early as 55.

The issue has raised unprecedented anger against the socialist government, which traditionally has dolled out generous benefits.

The government's popularity has sunk to record lows, and for the first time one poll showed the opposition leader Costas Karmanlis on a par with Prime Minister Costas Simitis.

Now the government must decide whether to face a standoff with the powerful trade unions or stick with a pensions system, which some experts say will be bankrupt within a decade.