Thousands marched through central Athens, beating drums and chanting slogans such as ˝The bill is a fraud˝, to protest against reforms.
Millions of Greeks joined a 24-hour nationwide strike against planned pension reforms on Wednesday, grounding flights and closing ancient monuments, schools and banks.
Police clashed with anarchists, who set fire to cars in central Athens, after thousands of protesters had marched to parliament, beating drums and chanting "the bill is a fraud".
The conservative government wants to overhaul the social security system which experts say is destined to collapse in 15 years if left unchanged. A final parliamentary vote on a pension reform bill takes place on Thursday.
"The participation in the strike is total. We are talking about millions. The government must not underestimate this public outrage."said Spyros Papaspyros, president of the civil servants' umbrella union ADEDY, one of the strike organisers. "
About 10,000 marched in the capital and 50-60 self-proclaimed anarchists hurled a petrol bomb at police, who replied with tear gas. The anarchists dispersed but not before smashing the windows of three banks and setting fire to garbage cans and cars in central Athens, police said.
At least 150 flights could be cancelled and many more delayed after air traffic controllers walked out. Monuments and the Athens Acropolis shut early and schools, ministries and banks were closed.
ADEDY and its private sector sister GSEE represent about 2.5 million members. A government official who requested anonymity said participation in the public sector was about 31 percent.
The government, re-elected in September on pledges not to curtail pension rights, needs the backing of all its 151 deputies in the 300-seat assembly to pass the bill.
"We will not weigh the political cost when called to come through with the pension reform we promised the Greek people," Labour Minister Fani Palli Petralia told parliament.
Unions say Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis has not kept his word and that the planned reforms limit benefits without improving the system.
"Today we dump the bill in the landfill," GSSE vice-president Alekos Kalyvis told a rally in central Athens. "Mr. Karamanlis's nose is growing like Pinocchio's. He has gone back on all that he pledged before the elections."
Unions got unexpected support from the European Central Bank (ECB), which urged the government to redraft the bill before it goes for the final vote because it may hurt the Greek central bank's independence and financial standing.
The ECB said the bill may force the Greek central bank to fund activities normally financed by the state, in breach of EU rules. There was no immediate reaction from the government.
Protests in recent weeks have caused blackouts, left mountains of rubbish in the street, disrupted transport and services, and halted trading on financial markets for days.
The reform bill affects mostly women, and especially working mothers. It merges scores of funds into just 13, cuts many special pensions and offers incentives to work more years.
Greece, one of several European Union countries facing a pension crisis due to an aging population, has been urged by Brussels to revamp a fragmented, wasteful and mismanaged social security system.
Experts say that if the Greek system is left unchanged, the pension funds actuarial deficits could reach 400 billion euros ($611.6 billion), almost twice the country's GDP.
March 19, 2010
Tens of thousands of demonstrators marched through Athens Wednesday to protest austerity measures aimed at pulling debt- plagued Greece out of its worst postwar financial crisis. The 24-hour nationwide strike crippled government ministries, municipal offices, hospitals, schools, universities, banks and courts as well as factories.
Rail, road, sea and air transport across the country were affected and public hospitals functioned with emergency staff. With journalists joining the strike, a virtual news blackout is in effect.
Archaeological sites, including the Acropolis, were closed to tourists and, in a comic turn of events, even Greece's tax inspectors also took industrial action against the governments attempts to fix its finances.
Holding banners reading "We refuse to go from working into the grave," more than 40,000 protesters marched through central Athens before police fired tear gas and clashed with 200 demonstrators who hurled rocks and bottles near parliament.
Dozens of shops were destroyed in the clashes and police detained at least five protesters. Wednesday's nationwide strike is the second major protest since Athens unveiled cutbacks to battle its budget deficit crisis.
European institutions in Brussels have called for drastic measures by Athens to reduce the national deficit and the government has proceeded with public sector wage freezes, tax hikes and the raising of the retirement age.
At the same time strikers marched to express their discontent, Greece's Socialist government responded to criticism of Greece's fiscal management, accusing European Union member states of poor leadership and double standards.
Deputy Prime Minister Theodoros Pangalos said France, Belgium and Italy had all used similar techniques as Athens to hide the state of their finances to secure entry into the euro zone. Speaking to BBC World Service radio, Pangalos criticized Germany's attitude towards the Greek fiscal crisis, given its behaviour during the Nazi occupation of Greece during World War Two.
Greece has been up in arms over coverage of the debt crisis in German media. The weekly Der Spiegel magazine's current issue title page is a picture of a Venus de Milo statue making an obscene finger gesture with the headline "Swindlers in the euro zone."
Pangalos said Greece had never received adequate compensation for the 1941 invasion, which included the looting by Nazi forces of Greece's bank gold reserves. "I do not say they have to give back the money but they have at least to say thanks," he was quoted as saying.
The strike coincided with a visit by officials from the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund assess the effectiveness of Greek budget cuts. Finance Minister George Papaconstantinou said the government might be forced to make further salary cuts and reforms to the pension system after talks with EU inspectors.
Protests so far have been largely symbolic and lacked widespread public support. Opinion polls show more than 55 per cent of Greeks consider the stricter measures fair. Many Greeks ~ including hotel employees and workers on trading vessels and in retail stores and supermarkets ~ opted to not take to the streets in Wednesday's demonstrations.
Greece has pledged to cut its deficit from 12.7 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2009 to the 3-per-cent limit prescribed by the European Union by 2012, with a 4-percentage-point reduction envisaged in 2010.
The state of Greece's troubled public finances nearly sparked a run on the euro, and hiked the country's borrowing costs.
Fitch, the international credit rating agency, on Tuesday said it was downgrading the ratings of Greece's four largest banks while it was keeping the outlook negative.
The EU has pledged political support for Greece and hinted at more concrete financial assistance in the future, but it has also imposed strict deadlines and monitoring. Athens will need to present further belt-tightening measures by March 16, when it is due to present its first monthly report to the European Commission on the state of its public finances.