Marchers shut down central Athens in financial protest

Story highlights

  • March accompanies one-day strike that shuts down Athens International Airport, schools
  • Public workers say they've lost 40% of take-home pay
  • Greece's finance minister says country will miss deficit target by $2 billion this year
  • The school year began without textbooks

At least 10,000 marchers shut down the center of the Greek capital Wednesday to protest the latest waves of austerity measures announced by the government.

The march accompanied a one-day strike in the public sector that shut down Athens International Airport, government ministries and schools. Hospitals operated on skeleton staffs, and some commuter rail services were closed.

The marchers shouted slogans against the government and the threesome overseeing Greece's $146 billion bailout: the European Central Bank, European Commission and International Monetary Fund.

The protesters were unionized public sector workers, angry at the pay cuts they have suffered which, they say, amount to as much as 40% of take-home pay. The best paid 100,000 public sector workers will lose another 20% of their pay, the finance ministry recently announced.

State workers are also worried about impending layoffs. Earlier this week the government announced it would retire 30,000 people in a bid to cut 300 million euros in operating costs next year.

The 2012 budget, which was handed to parliament on Monday, contains a further $6.7 billion dollars' worth of spending cuts. Public sector unions fear that many of those savings will come from layoffs.

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The latest cuts are a bid by the Greek government to qualify for the sixth installment of its bailout plan, worth some $10.6 billion. Without the money, the government can only pay salaries and pensions until mid-November.

Greece's finance minister on Sunday told the cabinet that the country would fall short of its deficit target this year by $2 billion. The reason, he said, is that the economy has shrunk by 5.5%, far more than the 3.8% originally forecast. "We are forced to take decisions much faster than we would wish," Prime Minister George Papandreou told the cabinet.

Greece's deficit this year will be 18.69 billion euros ($24.9 billion), or 8.5% of GDP, as opposed to the originally forecast 17.1 billion euros ($22.77 billion) or 7.8%.

The government will aim to achieve a 2012 deficit of 14.65 billion euro ($19.51 billion) or 6.8% of GDP, by combining 2011 and 2012 goals. Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos believes this will give Greece a primary surplus next year of 3.2 billion euros ($4.2 billion).

The government's cashflow problems are disrupting education. The school year began on September 12, but the education ministry was embarrassed to admit that it still hadn't printed textbooks. Those are still being run off the presses and the ministry expects to have delivered all of them by the end of October. In the meantime, angry high school students staged sit-ins at their schools.

On Tuesday, 540 of the country's 11,000 high schools were shut down as a result. Wednesday's marchers included many of those students.