ATHENS (Reuters) - Greece's government invoked emergency powers to order striking public transport workers back to work as Athens' subway system remained paralyzed for the eighth consecutive day on Thursday.
As public anger grew over the week-long strike, the government said strikers could be arrested if they do not return to work - the first time the coalition has used the emergency law since taking power in June.
The week-long walkout is the latest test for Greece's fragile coalition as it tries to take on powerful unions and implement a painful austerity program demanded by foreign lenders as the price for bailout funds.
"Neither the government nor society can be held hostage to union mentality," Development Minister Kostis Hatzidakis said after talks with Prime Minister Antonis Samaras.
"The government can't ignore this. There is nothing else we can do."
The initial reaction from the workers was defiant. "We will not back down, we will resist," one union leader, Antonis Stamatopoulos, told Reuters.
Metro workers, who have defied a court order to return to work, say they are willing to suspend the strike and negotiate if their collective wage agreement is maintained until it expires in April before a new one is negotiated.
They oppose being included in the government's plan for a unified wage scheme for public sector workers, which would slash their salaries.
"It's not that Metro workers went crazy over the last eight days. We exhausted every possibility before going on strike. We've reached our limits. We've run out of patience," said Manthos Tsakos, general secretary of the Metro workers' union.
Greeks - inured to daily strikes - were in sour mood, with some complaining that their daily commute time had tripled and that they were being forced to rely on pricier taxi rides.
"The workers are taking advantage of their union power while the ordinary commuter, who is unprotected, is being punished," said Antonis Demetriadis, 40, who works in a marketing company.
"Who is going to protect me? Would they care if my pay is cut?"
Greece, kept afloat solely by foreign aid, averted financial collapse in December when its euro zone partners agreed to keep funds flowing.
In return, Athens must implement unpopular reforms that have driven up unemployment to record levels and cut living standards.
A public fed up with waves of tax hikes and salary cuts has taken to the streets in often violent protests.
In a similar standoff in 2010, truck drivers obeyed government orders to go back to work after a week-long strike that had disrupted fuel supplies and emptied gas stations.
(Reporting by George Georgiopoulos; and Karolina Tagaris; Editing by Deepa Babington and Robin Pomeroy)