NEWS

Pension reforms go through, but under protest

Tempers were fraught inside and outside Parliament last night on the day that MPs voted through the government’s controversial pension reforms bill, which has also sparked lengthy and widespread strikes as well as a huge protest rally in central Athens on Wednesday. Some 100,000 people took part in Wednesday’s protest march, organized by Greece’s largest private and public sector unions, GSEE and ADEDY. They held another, much smaller, gathering in front of Parliament last night. However, the peaceful rally was marred by clashes between hooded protesters and riot police. A group of rioters smashed sidewalk slabs and threw the pieces at officers. Police responded by firing tear gas. The clash went on for some time before the assailants ran off into side streets. It was not known last night if any arrests had been made. The clashes outside did not halt the process inside Parliament, where the pension bill was voted through at the end of a tempestuous three days of debate. The opposition parties threw down the gauntlet to Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis by challenging him to call a referendum on the law, which merges more than 150 funds into just a handful. There were even suggestions that President Karolos Papoulias should intervene to repeal it. The government countered that this was totally out of line with parliamentary protocol and the country’s constitution. However, the government did have to make some last-minute compromises in order to ensure that all of its 151 MPs in the 300-seat house were on board. One of the adjustments saw the government back down on its decision to not allow anyone who had worked for 37 years to retire before they reached the age of 58. The amendment means that anyone completing 37 years of work can retire on a full pension. Employment Minister Fani Palli-Petralia, who had handled the packaging of the reforms since being appointed last December, said that she was proud to have been the minister responsible when the changes were voted into law. The government will now be hoping that it can put a turbulent few weeks behind it and move on to other issues. «We put through a balanced reform and we proved that our goal is to move forward decisively and to be useful for this country, regardless of the political cost,» said New Democracy secretary Lefteris Zagoritis. Government sources said that now the conservatives have got the major burden of social security reform out of the way, their attention can turn to other initiatives, such as the privatization of port services, the national zoning plan and the settling of Olympic Airlines’ future. With the bill being voted through Parliament, the strikes that have at times paralyzed much of the country over the last few weeks are set to wind down. Metro and Kifissia-Piraeus railway workers (ISAP) had one last attempt at making their opinions felt yesterday by staging an unscheduled strike until 5 p.m. that left stranded hundreds of thousands of commuters in Athens, who had no notification of the action. Municipal workers suspend 16-day strike; trash cleanup to take at least a week Municipal workers and street cleaners are today to begin gathering thousands of tons of rotting garbage after their union suspended a 16-day strike protesting pension reforms. The union of municipal workers (POE-OTA) said yesterday that it would halt its action as the controversial pensions bill was being voted through Parliament. But it promised to resume its protest action – without specifying when. It is believed that it will take at least a week before trash levels have been reduced to normal levels, particularly in Athens and other large municipalities. Officials at Athens City Hall’s sanitation unit said that the spots where large piles of trash have been festering over the past two weeks will be disinfected once the garbage has been removed. Public Power Corporation (PPC) officials did not call off their strike action yesterday, leaving open the possibility of more power cuts. Blackouts lasting between one hour and three hours hit many parts of the country yesterday. Meanwhile, Culture Ministry staff employed as guards at museums and archaeological sites were late yesterday deliberating about whether or not to go ahead with a 24-hour strike scheduled for tomorrow. The planned strike by members of the Panhellenic Union of Staff for the Guarding of Antiquities would close down museums and ancient sites. Union representatives are today due to meet with Culture Minister Michalis Liapis to discuss workers’ grievances over pensions and benefits.