ATHENS (Reuters) - Flights and trains were suspended, shops pulled down their shutters and tens of thousands took to the streets on Wednesday in Greece's first big anti-austerity strike since a coalition government took power in June.
In Athens, more than 50,000 people chanted: "We won't submit to the troika (of lenders)" and "EU, IMF Out!".
The rally marched past Athens' central Syntagma square to parliament to protest against a new round of belt-tightening demanded by EU and IMF lenders as the price for fresh aid.
"We can't take it anymore - we are bleeding. We can't raise our children like this," said Dina Kokou, a 54-year-old teacher and mother of four who lives on 1,000 euros a month.
"These tax hikes and wage cuts are killing us."
The strike, called by the country's two biggest unions representing half the four-million-strong work force, is shaping up to be the first test of whether Prime Minister Antonis Samaras can stand his ground in the face of popular protests.
The traditional summer break has allowed his fragile conservative-led coalition to enjoy relative calm on the streets since narrowly coming to power on a pro-euro, pro-bailout platform, but unions predict an abrupt end to the seasonal lull.
"Yesterday the Spaniards took to the streets, today it's us, tomorrow the Italians and the day after - all the people of Europe," Yiorgos Harisis, a unionist from the ADEDY public sector group told demonstrators.
"With this strike we are sending a strong message to the government and the troika that the measures will not pass even if voted in parliament, because the government's days are numbered."
About 3,000 police - twice the number usually deployed - stood guard in the centre of Athens as authorities braced for the kind of unrest that has marked past rallies. Athens last witnessed serious violence in February, when protesters set shops and banks ablaze as parliament approved an austerity bill.
Police formed a barricade outside parliament, and officers blocked a pensioner who tried to move towards Samaras's office holding a banner with pictures of Greek prime ministers under the title: "The biggest traitors in Greek history".
Ahead of marches scheduled later in the day, ships stayed docked, museums and monuments were shut to visitors and air traffic controllers walked off the job for a three-hour stoppage.
"DESTROYING OUR LIVES"
Much of the union anger is directed at spending cuts worth nearly 12 billion euros ($15.55 billion) over the next two years that Greece has promised the European Union and International Monetary Fund in an effort to secure its next tranche of aid.
The bulk of those cuts are expected from cutting wages, pensions and welfare benefits, heaping a new wave of misery on Greeks who say repeated rounds of austerity have pushed them to the brink and failed to transform the country for the better.
"We can't just sit by idly and do nothing while the troika and the government destroy our lives," said Dimitra Kontouli, a 49-year-old local government employee whose salary was cut to 1,100 euros a month from 1,600 euros previously.
"My husband has lost his job, we just can't make ends meet."
A survey by the MRB polling agency last week showed that more than 90 percent of Greeks believe the planned cuts are unfair and burden the poor, with the vast majority expecting more austerity in coming years.
Unions argue that Greece should remain in the euro but default on part of its debt and ditch the current recipe of austerity cuts in favour of higher taxes on the rich and efforts to nab wealthy tax evaders.
But with Greece facing certain bankruptcy and a potential euro zone exit without further aid, Samaras's government has little choice but to push through the unpopular measures, which have also exposed fissures in his fragile coalition.
With Greece in its fifth year of recession and no light at the end of the austerity tunnel, analysts say Greek patience is wearing thin and a strong public backlash could tear apart the weak conservative-led coalition.
"What people want to tell Samaras is that they are hurt and Samaras could use this to demand concessions from the troika," MRB polling director Dimitris Mavros said.
"The people are willing to give the government time, but on certain conditions like cracking down on tax evasion and securing a bailout extension. If the government succeeds in that, its life will also be extended." ($1 = 0.7715 euros)
(Additional reporting by Tatiana Fragou; Writing by Deepa Babington, editing by Peter Millership)
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