Greek flights halted by civil servant protest

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Associated Press

Posted on July 15, 2010 at 2:35 PM

Updated Thursday, Jul 15 at 2:35 PM

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Flights in Greece were grounded for at least four hours Thursday by a strike and tax collectors, customs officials and government workers also walked out in the latest protest against the government's austerity measures and pension reforms.

The action by air traffic controllers halted flights to all Greek airports until the early afternoon — and when it stopped, outgoing flights were extremely backed up, creating more headaches for tourists.

Several hundred protesting civil servants gathered outside parliament as lawmakers prepared to vote on pension reforms for public servants. Greece's Socialist government is facing strong opposition from unions over plans to overhaul the country's welfare system and labor rules.

"After the government slashed our income and increased our tax burden ... it broke its pre-election promised not to raise pension contributions or the retirement age," the civil servants union ADEDY said. "It is using the financial crisis as an excuse to wipe out our working rights."

But that promise was made before the true extent of Greece's debt woes were known, and before those problems triggered a widespread debt crisis across Europe.

Greece narrowly avoided defaulting on its loans in May, when it received the first installment of a €110 billion ($139 billion) rescue package from the International Monetary Fund and other European countries who also use the euro currency. To secure the loans, the government took painful austerity measures, angering labor unions and triggering a series of strikes and protests.

On Wednesday, hundreds of Greek police, firefighters and harbor police in Athens protested the pension reforms, which they say will increase their minimum retirement age to 60 from around 53 — still among the lowest in Europe.

Staff at public hospitals are planning a five-day walkout next week.

Greek hotel owners and tourism industry leaders have already warned that the constant strikes are disrupting international bookings to Greek resorts.

Greece's statistical authority said Thursday that unemployment in April reached 11.9 percent, rising again after hitting a 10-year high of 12.1 percent in February.

Also Thursday, unions narrowly avoided the collapse of wage negotiations with employers' groups, announcing a collective deal that will peg the minimum wage to eurozone inflation over the next three years.

"These were very turbulent negotiations," said Yiannis Panagopoulos, leader of Greece's largest union, the GSEE. "This year, the atmosphere was even worse."

Under the deal, private-sector employers will retain so-called holiday bonuses — under a payment system in which salaries are divided into 14 installments, with workers receiving higher pay at Christmas, Easter and the summer holidays.

Civil servants have already had their bonuses reduced.

Greece on Tuesday held its first debt auction since getting the May loans — a key market test. It raised €1.625 billion ($2.04 billion) selling 26-week treasury bills at an interest yield of 4.65 percent — before increasing the total amount to €2.06 billion ($2.62 billion) by accepting additional bids Thursday.

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Associated Press Writer Nicholas Paphitis and AP Television Producer Nathalie Rendevski Savaricas in Athens contributed to this report.

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