Public transport ground to a halt in Athens Thursday as workers began a 48-hour strike against austerity measures, while protesters tried to prevent the collection of a new property tax by occupying the power company's billing offices.
Many Greeks have said they cannot pay the new property tax, which is to be paid through electricity bills to circumvent the country's dysfunctional tax system and make it easier for the state to collect. Those who do not pay risk having their power cut off.
But the power employees' union has reacted with outrage, saying the power company should not be used as a tax collection system. Workers have said they will refuse to switch consumers' electricity off.
"Electricity ... cannot be used as a means of blackmail against the unemployed, the poor, the wage-earner," the power company's union GENOP-DEH said. "(We) will not allow our poor fellow citizens to be left without power."
The unionists took over the company's billing facility in central Athens, blockading the entrance from Wednesday night. They ended their occupation Thursday afternoon but vowed to continue their protests, staging a sit-in of the company director's office to protest a decision to have private contractors print the electricity bills.
"We will not let this pass. This will be a hand-to-hand fight _ we mean it," power workers' union leader Nikos Fototopoulos said.
The government has imposed a series of austerity measures, including higher taxes, cuts to public sector salaries and pensions, and a plan to suspend 30,000 civil servants, in an effort to meet the reform targets of its euro110 billion ($150 billion) international bailout agreement.
The government announced the new property tax last month after international debt inspectors from the International Monetary Fund, European Central Bank and European Commission suspended their review of Greek reforms because of concerns over missed targets and delayed implementation.
The inspectors, collectively known as the troika, said this week that while Greece has missed targets for this year, the additional measures announced should put it back on track for 2012 and that it will likely receive the next euro8 billion batch of bailout loans by early next month.
The government has said it only has enough funds to pay salaries and pensions until mid-November without the loan.
The strikes and the takeover are the latest in a series of walkouts, sit-ins at government buildings and protests as unions lash out against the austerity measures the government is demanding.
State television and radio journalists, lawyers, hospital doctors, teachers, customs and tax officers, seamen and municipal workers have also either walked off the job or are planning strikes in the coming days. Taxi drivers are expected to stay off the streets Friday during the second day of the public transport strike, leaving private cars as the only transport in Athens. Mounds of garbage have piled up on Athens' streets this week as municipal workers blockade landfill sites.
A nationwide general strike is planned for Oct. 19.
Greece is becoming trapped in a vicious cycle. The government insists it has no choice but to impose the harsh austerity measures so it can to get bailout loans to pay its bills. But Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos says the repeated strikes are leading Greece's international creditors to doubt the government's ability to achieve its fiscal targets, which in turn raise the issue that more austerity measures must be imposed.
Matthias Mors, the European Commission troika member, said in a newspaper interview published Thursday that they were aware of the difficulties the government faced in imposing so many reforms in such a short space of time.
"But I would say that we are at a critical moment, where Greece has to convince the international community and the other euro area members that it is willing and able to reach the objectives it has committed itself to," the daily Kathimerini quoted him as saying.
Mors said Greece needed to overhaul its bloated public sector, but that it had agreed with the government that this should be done over the course of five years.
"We are not saying that there should be large-scale dismissals," he said.
European leaders are also to discuss Greece's situation during a summit Oct. 23. Prime Minister George Papandreou was in Brussels Thursday for meetings with Jean-Claude Juncker, who chairs the regular meetings of eurozone finance ministers, and European Council President Herman Van Rompuy.
Associated Press writer Derek Gatopoulos in Athens contributed to this report.