The Greek Federation of Bank Employees Unions (OTOE) yesterday claimed success on the first day of its 48-hour strike, saying that the participation rate among banks came to around 70 percent. OTOE President Dimitris Kouselas told Kathimerini English Edition that the 70-percent participation rate applied to the sector in general, with state-controlled banks reporting widespread participation. Private sector banks, however, were less involved. «The participation rate among private banks ranged from 30 percent to 90 percent, with the higher percentage reported by smaller banks,» he said. He said the government had played an informal mediating role yesterday, to no avail. Unionists yesterday prevented the Bank of Greece from executing interbank and cross-border transactions. OTOE called the strike after failing to reach agreement with bank representatives on this year’s pay raise and the length of a working week. Unionists are seeking a 6-percent pay hike as part of a move to bring wages in line with European Union levels. Faced with declining profits and rising operating expenses, banks have instead offered to increase wages by 3.5 percent this year and by 3 percent in 2003. The offer is substantially lower than the 5.4-percent pay raise negotiated by umbrella trade union body GSEE for private sector workers this year, which includes a 1.1-percent inflation clause from last year. Banking employees received a 4.2-percent wage increase last year. Unionists’ demands for a substantial pay hike come as the Bank of Greece in its annual report released last month warned of the sharp upsurge in the sector’s operating expenses, which rose by 7 percent last year, with personnel costs alone increasing by 4.7 percent. National Bank Chairman Theodoros Karatzas told shareholders at this year’s annual meeting that the bank plans to cut back on spending with a series of soon-to-be-announced measures. However, with the majority of banks focusing on retail banking to offset the decline in trading activity, cutting personnel costs could prove to be a difficult task. Pay raise apart, unionists and banks also continue to disagree on the length of a working week and extended business hours. Kouselas said the union is seeking to shorten the current 38-hour-and-20-minute week by two hours and to lengthen business hours by half an hour daily. Banks have proposed a working week of 37 hours and 20 minutes and extending business hours by an hour. Kouselas said there are no plans for another meeting with bank representatives after their last session on April 29. He said the representatives had aborted two subsequent meetings after saying that their 3.5-percent wage increase offer was final. OTOE plans to step up the pressure on banks with further strike action although it did not specify a time frame.