Tens of thousands of Greeks took to the streets of Athens on Wednesday during a nationwide strike against wage cuts and high taxes that kept ferries stuck in ports, schools shut and hospitals with only emergency staff. Minor scuffles broke with police firing tear gas to disperse hooded youths throwing rocks and firebombs in the central neighborhood of Exarchia. In the city of Iraklio on the island of Crete, demonstrators overturned a squad car.
Beating drums and chanting "Robbers, robbers!" more than 60,000 people marched to Parliament in the Greek capital in the biggest anti-austerity protest so far this year.
The two biggest labor unions brought much of crisis-hit Greece to a standstill during the 24-hour protest against policies which they say deepen the hardship of people struggling through the country's worst peacetime downturn.
Representing 2.5 million workers, the unions have gone on strike repeatedly since a debt crisis erupted in late 2009, testing the government's will to impose the painful conditions of an international bailout in the face of growing public anger.
"Today's strike is a new effort to get rid of the bailout deal and those who take advantage of the people and bring only misery," said Ilias Iliopoulos, secretary general of the ADEDY public sector union which organized the walkout with private sector union GSEE.
"A social explosion is very near," he told Reuters from a rally in a central Athens square, as police helicopters clattered overhead.
Prime Minister Antonis Samaras's eight-month-old coalition government has been eager to show it will implement reforms it promised the European Union and International Monetary Fund, which have bailed Athens out twice with over 200 billion euros.
It has taken a tough line on striking workers, invoking emergency laws twice this year to order seamen and subway workers back to their jobs after week-long walkouts that paralysed public transport in Athens and led to food shortages on islands.
Labour unrest has picked up in recent weeks. A visit by French President Francois Hollande in Athens on Tuesday went largely unreported as Greek journalists were on strike.
"Greece is making a huge effort to return to growth, to see better days, and when we're doing everything we can to attract investment, this image does nothing to help this effort," government spokesman Simos Kedikoglou told Greek radio.
In a sign it may be buckling under pressure, the government announced on Monday it would not fire almost 1,900 civil servants earmarked for possible dismissal, despite promising foreign lenders it would seek to cut the public payroll.
"The strike highlights the growing gap between the plight of ordinary Greeks and the demands of Greece's international creditors," said Martin Koehring, analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, forecasting more social unrest this year.
Greece secured bailout funds in December, ending months of uncertainty over the country's future in the euro zone, and analysts said this had created expectations among Greeks that things would improve for them personally.
"If these expectations are not satisfied by the summer, then whatever is left of the working class will respond with more protests," said Costas Panagopoulos, head of Alco pollsters.
Six years of recession and three of austerity have tripled the rate of unemployment to 27 percent. More than 60 percent of young workers are jobless.
Most business and public sector activity came to a halt with schoolteachers, train drivers and doctors among those joining the strike. Banks pulled down their shutters and ships stayed docked as seamen defied government orders to return to work.
"I'm on the brink of going hungry. My life is misery," said Eleni Nikolaou, 60, a civil servant who supports her unemployed brother on her reduced wage. "If this government had any dignity it would resign. I want them to leave, leave, leave." [Reuters]