ATHENS, Greece — Labor unions in recession-hobbled Greece are holding another general strike against a new harsh austerity program, as European leaders beset by a deep debt crisis and economic stagnation gather for a summit meeting in Brussels.
Thursday's strike is set to close down public services and severely hamper most forms of transport — with even taxi drivers joining in for nine hours — while shopkeepers in Athens and other cities are planning to shut down for the day. It is the second general strike in less than a month.
Unions are organizing two separate marches in central Athens. Demonstrators' ire will focus on the new belt-tightening for 2013-14, demanded by bailout creditors to release a desperately needed new rescue loan payment.
The city has seen hundreds of anti-austerity protests — many violent — over the past three years, since Greece revealed it had been misreporting key deficit figures and sank into an economic gloom so deep it has been likened to the Great Depression of the 1930s.
The country is clinging to solvency with the help of two massive international bailouts worth a total €240 billion ($315 billion). To secure them, it committed to drastic spending cuts, tax hikes and reforms, aimed to cure years of profligate government spending.
But while significantly reducing budget deficits, the measures accelerated a recession that after five years is closer to a depression. By the end of next year, the economy is expected to have shrunk by about a quarter from 2008 levels. And with one in four workers out of a job, Greece has the worst unemployment rate in the 27-nation European Union.
"In general, we're going from bad to worse," said 85-year-old pensioner Giorgos Ierodimos. "Salaries are being reduced, pensions are being reduced, everything is getting more expensive, from food to health care to hospitals, medicines, everything. So how will people live? How will we live?"
The country's four-month-old coalition government is negotiating a new austerity package with debt inspectors from the EU, International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank. The idea is to save €11 billion ($14.4 billion) in spending — largely on pensions and health care — and raise an extra €2.5 billion ($3.3 billion) through taxes.
After more than a month and a half of arguing, a deal seems close. On Wednesday, the EU, IMF and ECB troika said there was agreement on "most of the core measures needed to restore the momentum of reform" and that the rest of the issues should be resolved in coming days.
Athens hopes to get the next loan installment around mid-November, shortly after which it will run out of cash. That would probably force Greece to default on its mountain of debt and potentially abandon the 17-strong eurozone.
Unions say the cost of securing the money is too high.
"What people can shoulder new measures, when approximately 70 percent of it is caught between poverty and destitution?" said Ilias Iliopoulos, secretary-general of the ADEDY civil servant union. "It is absolutely impossible."
"On the noteworthy day of the summit in Brussels, we want to tell the leaders of the European Union 'that's enough. We can't take any more,'" he said. "This is not worthy of Europe. It is a policy of exploitation, of profiteers and loan sharks."
The 24-hour strike will stop all rail and ferry services, while a walkout by air traffic controllers will ground flights for three hours. Schools and tax offices will be closed all day, state hospitals will function on emergency staffing and bank services will be disrupted.
Athens police will be on alert for potential rioting, as most recent major protests have turned violent with masked anarchists fighting police. Municipal officials in traditional riot hotspots on Wednesday removed rubbish bins from the streets, as rioters usually set them on fire.
But the violence does nothing to improve the lot of low-income Greeks, like Ierodimos.
"We've cut everything," he said. "Now it's only the necessities that we buy. We bought a bread ring with my wife to eat for lunch. A bread ring of 40 cents. And a cauliflower to eat as a salad. I'm not ashamed to say it. Why should I be?"
APTV's Theodora Tongas contributed.