Protesters march through Athens protesting austerity measures.

Story highlights

Thursday's protests were generally calm

Critics say the austerity measures and spending cuts will only help the banks

Papademos assures European leaders he will push ahead with the austerity plan

CNN  — 

The streets of the Greek capital were jammed with tens of thousands of protesters Thursday as unions held a general strike in response to austerity policies and government spending cuts aimed at securing bailout funding for the debt-shackled Greek economy.

The march went off with none of the violence that has marked previous street demonstrations. Security forces stood aside but were in place near the Greek Parliament building.

Police estimated that 18,000 protesters were out on the streets, while union organizers gave higher numbers, claiming it was their largest march since the economic crisis hit last spring.

The 24-hour strike played havoc with transportation, although essential services remained open, as well as the country’s airports and the Athens stock exchange.

In Athens, the atmosphere was calm. While many shops remained open, there was a sentiment of sympathy with the marchers.

“We have nothing left to lose,” said Margarita Argyriadou, an unemployed business school graduate. “All aspects of our lives have been depreciated. We will have no life.”

“The new government is doing nothing to help us,” added Ilias Papadopoulos, an economist taking part in the march. “It helps only to fix the banks… And that works against us because if the work is all to help the banks to survive, then we are going to die.”

The protests were aimed at reversing the austerity measures being pushed by the new Greek prime minister, Lucas Papademos, who took office on November 11 after political infighting forced Socialist leader George Papandreou from power.

In a letter to European leaders Tuesday, Papademos promised his government was “strongly committed” to implementing the economic policies agreed to at the Euro Summit in October.

“The government is determined to continue the process of fiscal consolidation and structural reform in order to secure sound public finances and improve the country’s international competitiveness,” said the letter, which was posted on the prime minister’s website.

Papandreou quit in mid-November, forced out by public anger at the budget cuts he was pushing through to get international funds to pay his country’s debts.

Fears that Greece might default caused shock waves through the European and American banking systems and sent stock markets on a wild ride that at times wiped billions of dollars of value out of existence.

Papademos previously has stressed Greece’s commitment to the euro, saying its membership in the eurozone is a guarantee of financial stability.

The drama in Greece has shaken international markets because investors were afraid the new bailout deal – which has stringent austerity measures attached – might not be implemented.

Papademos said the October 26 bailout, worth 130 billion euros ($177 billion), calls for austerity measures but “will ensure the financing of Greece over the following years and the completion of the effort of the economic recovery.”

In addition to the new austerity measures, his government must also implement promises made by the previous administration in relation to the 2010 bailout, including privatizations of state-run firms and cuts to the public sector.

Public anger over the cuts led Papandreou to propose a referendum on the new bailout plan, triggering anger among Greece’s European partners and political turmoil at home.

Journalist Elinda Labropoulou in Athens, Greece, contributed to this report.