ATHENS (Reuters) - Greeks went on a 48-hour nationwide strike on Friday to protest against tax and pension reforms, as Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras appealed to fractious lawmakers to approve the overhaul as part of a multi-billion euro bailout.
Lowering its annual pension bill, one of the most expensive in the euro zone, is a condition for Athens to qualify for a fresh installment of the latest international bailout, worth up to 86 billion euros ($98.3 billion), which it agreed a year ago with its EU partners.
The strike left ships docked at port, disrupted public transport and kept civil servants and journalists off the job. Thousands of protesters with the Communist-affiliated group PAME marched before parliament holding banners that read: “Rise up now!” and “Resist”.
Saturday’s Greek Cup final between league champions Olympiakos Piraeus and AEK Athens was postponed at the request of police, who did not have resources to oversee the game. No new date was announced..
Major labor unions plan protests outside parliament on Sunday, when the reforms are due to be put to the vote.
Tsipras, who is clinging to a slim majority of three seats in the 300-member assembly, appealed to members of his Syriza party to approve the package. Whether Greece signed up to a bailout or not, he said, reform of the pension system was still needed.
“It was a necessity born from the need to make it viable. Without this intervention, the pensions system would collapse,” he said.
In the meantime, the head of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, urged euro zone finance ministers to start talks on Greek debt relief together with discussions on reforms, according to a letter published by the Financial Times.
Tsipras has called for debt relief of some form to help Greece as it introduces the reforms.
Athens hopes the measures will help persuade creditors to approve the release of bailout cash. A tranche of more than 5 billion euros is overdue, after talks faltered over the pace of reforms.
The Eurogroup of finance ministers is due to meet on Monday to discuss the stalemate and the Greek debt relief call.
Greece’s largest labor union, the private sector GSEE, said the reforms going before parliament were the “last nail in the coffin” for workers and pensioners who had sacrificed enough after six years of austerity.
“They are trying to prove to the Eurogroup that they are good students but they are destroying Greece’s social security system,” a GSEE official said.
Greece needs the bailout funds to pay IMF loans, ECB bonds maturing in July and growing state arrears, subject to lenders signing off on a review of its reform progress that includes changes to its tax and pension laws.
The proposed legislation would raise social security contributions, increase income tax for high earners and introduce a new national pension. It would also gradually phase out a top-up pension for low earners.
Worn out by years of austerity, some Greeks fear that the new reforms will push the country further toward the brink.
“We don’t have food to eat and nobody asks us how we are,” said shopkeeper Anna Papadopoulou, 74, who wept as she spoke.
Asked what she wanted to tell the Greek government, she said: “Wake up. We are dying.”
Writing by Michele Kambas; Editing by Mark Trevelyan