Reforms debate begins amidst labor upheaval

A debate on pension reforms began in parliament yesterday, with the proposed changes already having triggered widespread strikes and the government hoping that the passage of the bill this week will mitigate protest action. »We are moving ahead with a major reform and footing the political cost,» Labour Minister Fani Palli-Petralia told parliament late yesterday. Workers from different occupational groups, both in the private and public sector, have been walking off the job in strike action in protest against reforms the government says are needed to help ensure the long-term viability of the system. Unions have opposed the bill, saying it threatens their pension rights. Protest action picks up today and will continue tomorrow in a general strike that is expected to bring the country to a halt. A number of senior government sources hope the passage of the bill, scheduled for Thursday, will lead to an easing of protest action. However, opposition parties Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) and Communist Party of Greece (KKE) called on the government yesterday to withdraw the bill and told workers they should continue their fight even after Thursday’s vote on the draft law. «If the bill is not withdrawn, then we will fight for the withdrawl of (Prime Minister Costas) Karamanlis and the New Democracy government,» said former SYRIZA leader Alekos Alavanos after meeting with union leaders. The strongly opposed reforms include the merging of funds and increasing the pension age for certain groups of workers. The bill also introduces incentives to discourage employees from opting for early retirement. The changes will gradually be implemented as of 2009 and in the case of private sector workers will be applicable only to those who began their insured working life after 1992. The government, however, has not made public any details on the size of savings that will accrue from the reforms. Meanwhile, some streets in the center of the capital were cleared of massive piles of rubbish yesterday as some municipal workers continued to collect trash after ending their strike action on Friday. Authorities estimate it will take between seven to ten days to clean up the garbage which had been gathering on Athens streets for more than a week, posing a serious threat to public health. Members of the municipal workers’ union that have refused to go back to work stormed the offices of the Athens city council yesterday and staged a sit-in protest, resulting in the cancellation of the council board meeting. «Whoever wants to strike should strike, however, no one should block the path to lawful labor,» said Athens Mayor Nikitas Kaklamanis, referring to attempts by municipal employees to prevent garbage collectors from returning to work. Strike agenda today and tomorrow Protest action by workers opposing pension reforms will start today ahead of tomorrow’s general strike. Around one million commuters will be forced to seek an alternative means of transport today as the metro and Athens-Piraeus electric railway (ISAP) will not be operating for 24 hours. Other forms of public transport will operate as normal, with the exception of the Proastiakos suburban railway, whose employees will hold rolling two-hour work stoppages until Thursday. Tomorrow, however, is the main strike which is expected to bring the country to a halt. Apart from workers of public and private sector union groups GSEE and ADEDY walking off the job for 24 hours, almost all forms of public transport will shut down. Bus and tram employees will be on strike while the metro and ISAP will only operate between 10 a.m and 3 p.m to help demonstrators get to central Athens. Power cuts are expected to continue as Public Power Corporation employees strike, and rubbish collection services will continue to be disrupted. Planes are expected to be grounded with Olympic Airlines operating only one flight per destination. Aegean Airlines will cancel 23 flights and change the time for another 28. Other groups striking include journalists, doctors, pharmacists, lawyers, teachers and bank employees. Gasoline stations will also be closed for the day.

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