Greek unions launch nationwide strikes to protest austerity. Now that nation has EC loan, workers want end to wage freeze

Greece's communist-led trade unions are girding themselves for a 24-hour nationwide general strike today, which could be the most serious workers' protest since Socialist Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou was voted into power more than five years ago. On Wednesday, some 30,000 electrical workers walked off the job a day early. The general strike, which is intended to halt state-run buses, trains, and airlines and close banks, post offices, and government ministries is being held to protest a government wage freeze.

The protest is the latest in a string of work stoppages held since last October's municipal elections. Then, left-wing voters registered their displeasure with the government's economic austerity program by abandoning candidates backed by Pasok (the ruling Panhellenic Socialist Movement), most notably in the country's three major cities - Athens, Salonika, and Pireavs.

In the meantime, the state power company has had a number of strikes that have turned elevator travel into a game of chance, and garbage collectors left two weeks of trash on Athens' streets at Christmastime.

The complaint throughout has been the wage freeze - the so-called ``incomes policy'' - that was instituted in late 1985 to help meet economic targets set by the European Community (EC) and thereby secure further EC loan money. Since then, rents have been partially decontrolled, utility rates raised, and import duties jacked up - all to curb consumerism and inflation.

Economists also say the bullet-biting was necessary to rein in an economy strapped by deficits that were at least in part created by Pasok's nationalization policy during the early 1980s - a policy about-face similar to that of the Socialist government of France four years ago.

The clampdown paid off for the Papandreou government last month when the EC granted Greece a $910 million loan.

The prime minister and his economics minister, Kostas Simitis, have since indicated that the Greek people should be prepared for further economic belt-tightening.

``The more efforts we make in 1987, the easier it will be in 1988,'' Mr. Simitis said recently.

This straightforward pronouncement by the government marks a tactical turnaround from the first few post-election weeks of autumn, when Mr. Papandreou reshuffled his Cabinet and instituted a price freeze (the latter effective until the end of January and possibly longer).

On both counts critics claimed the government's aim was to quell post-election rumblings and, in the case of the price freeze, to help the economy meet the EC inflation targets. The government maintains the price freeze is designed to head off profiteering from the Jan. 1 implementation of the value-added tax (VAT).

With the price freeze now in place, the true impact of the imposition of the VAT remains to be seen. The government asserts that the 6 to 36 percent tax (depending on the item) will be offset by reductions in other taxes.

But opposition leaders claim the VAT - imposed as part of Greece's EC membership - will boost inflation by another 8 percent.

If the conservatives are correct, a VAT-induced price rise could increase EC pressure on Papandreou to further tighten the economic screws.

Regardless, the government will surely be pushed by an increasingly militant trade union movement. The civil servants have already called for another strike - this time for 48 hours - in early February. The country is in store for a boisterous 24 months before the next election.

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