Greece orders striking ferry crews back to work

AP News
Posted: Feb 05, 2013 11:01 AM
Greece orders striking ferry crews back to work

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — For the second time in less than two weeks, the Greek government invoked emergency laws to order strikers back to work Tuesday — in an attempt to end a seamen's walkout that has left islands without ferry services for six days.

The decision by conservative Prime Minister Antonis Samaras to order ferry crews' civil mobilization came after their unions voted to extend the strike until early Friday. Seamen who refuse to return to work risk arrest and jail time of up to five years.

Samaras' three-party coalition government is facing a strong backlash from unions over new austerity policies forced upon it by international creditors, whose bailout loans are shielding debt-heavy Greece from bankruptcy.

Unions have called a general strike for Feb. 20.

Merchant Marine Minister Costas Mousouroulis said the government did what it could to address seamen's demands for payment of salaries more than six months in arrears and the signing of collective work contracts with ferry companies.

"Unfortunately, arteriosclerotic and petty political views prevailed, not allowing (the end of the strike) so that our islands could regain their only means of communication with each other and the mainland," Mousouroulis said in a statement.

Samaras' government had previously hinted heavily that it would mobilize the seamen unless they stopped the strike. The rarely-invoked order was also issued last month to end a protracted walkout by Athens underground rail workers.

The ferry strike has already had an impact on islanders, many of whom rely on the mainland for basic everyday supplies. An island trade and commerce association warned that the seamen's walkout poses a substantial threat to small businesses in the archipelago, which already face severe pressure due to Greece's three-year financial crisis.

The Cyclades chamber of commerce said Tuesday that the strike had led to shortages in goods, prevented treatment of serious health cases and even stopped the transportation of dead bodies for burial.

"We demand that you understand, and this is no overstatement, that the limits of what we can bear and tolerate have been exceeded," the statement said.

In a separate statement, the country's national trade federation warned that the strike had left large numbers of trucks loaded with goods trapped in the country's main ports.

The civil mobilization law, amended in 2007 to deal with "peacetime emergencies," has now been used ten times since the 1974 collapse of a military dictatorship in Greece — three of those in anti-austerity strikes over the past two years.

Greek unions have held a wave of protests to protest the harsh austerity measures taken since 2010 to secure vital international rescue loans. The repeated income cuts and tax hikes deepened a recession already in its sixth year, amid soaring unemployment that has left more than 26 percent of the workforce without a job.

Farmers are threatening to block highways across the country to protest new tax laws, while state media have been on strike for the past two days.

Meanwhile, Greece on Tuesday saw its borrowing costs dip slightly in an auction of 26-week Treasury bills. The public debt management agency said it raised €812 million ($1.1 billion) at an interest rate of 4.27 percent — compared to 4.3 percent in last month's auction.

Although unable to raise money by selling long-term debt, Greece maintains a market presence through regular short-term Treasury bill auctions.