A seemingly unbridgeable gap separated labor unions and employers yesterday as representatives met to kick off negotiations for a collective labor agreement for 2004, and possibly 2005. The meeting between the two sides lasted only about 45 minutes, and General Confederation of Greek Labor (GSEE) President Christos Polyzogopoulos said the board would meet on Monday to discuss calling a 24-hour nationwide general strike in support of demands. After meetings lasting many hours on Wednesday, the Federation of Greek Industries (SEV) brought two categorical refusals to labor demands yesterday. First, it rejected the call for a reduction in weekly work hours from 40 to 39. The two other main employers’ organizations, the General Confederation of Greek Small Businesses and Traders (GSEVEE) and the Traders Association, appeared to be even more hostile to the idea, claiming that implementation of this demand would cause a severe crisis among small and medium-sized enterprises, which are already in difficulties, and increase unemployment. Second, it took a diametrically opposed stand to the demand for an 8 percent pay raise for lowest wages and salaries, counterproposing 3.2 percent – in view of a projected 3 percent inflation rate for 2004. Polyzogopoulos immediately dismissed the counterproposal, describing it as «provocative» and a «mockery.» «Workers are not beggars, they are seeking a share of the wealth to which they contribute. We shall reply with a strike,» he said. Questioned as to whether it was wise to escalate tension only a short time before national elections and in an Olympic year, Polyzogopoulos said such considerations were for everyone to take into account and that speeding up the process required the submission of serious proposals. «The specific (SEV) proposal is insulting, as it does not take into account the real economy of the country,» he said. «We have had the 40-hour week for the last 20 years when in the rest of Europe, they have effectively reduced it by up to five hours.» GSEE takes the view that a reduction to 35 hours would boost employment. SEV President Odysseas Kyriakopoulos said the collective labor agreements determine minimum rather than average pay. «These are realistic proposals that exceed inflation and help convergence with the rest of Europe to a small degree. The other side has come with excessive expectations which the Greek economy cannot assimilate. If they are accepted, they will create a competitiveness problem for firms and cause unemployment to rise,» he said. GSEE Deputy President Alekos Kalyvis blamed both the government and main opposition for employers’ demands, adding that the huge profits and the «crumbs» that employers proposed illustrated the avarice of capital. Competitiveness During a meeting with Prime Ministers Costas Simitis on Wednesday, SEV officials claimed that the competitiveness of the Greek economy today is about 10 percent lower than that of other competitors, such as Spain, Ireland or Portugal. This, they argued, is due to comparatively unfavorable indicators, such as the value of capital and the cost of money, depreciation rates, red tape, the cost of technological innovation and the total (rather than unit) cost of labor. They said «the absolute key» to competitiveness was investment, particularly from abroad, for which resources are lacking.