By Tatiana Fragou and Karolina Tagaris
ATHENS (Reuters) - Greek schools shut, hospitals worked with minimal staff and train and bus service ground to a halt on Thursday as unions held their first major strike since a new national unity government took power last month.
Unions representing over half of Greece's 4 million-strong workforce called the general strike to protest new austerity measures that are expected to heap more misery on Greeks already reeling from waves of salary cuts, layoffs and tax hikes.
The measures, part of Greece's 2012 budget due to be approved by parliament this month, come against a backdrop of growing anger and frustration over the austerity medicine prescribed by foreign lenders in exchange for bailout loans.
"Workers have taken to the streets to give a dynamic response to the government, which wants new cuts, new wages, has annulled collective labor agreements and wants to close down our homes," Christos Kiosis, a union chief at Athens water utility EYDAP told NET TV.
"Enough is enough. We have taken to the streets to say that this budget is an austerity budget -- a hunger budget -- which must not be passed."
Thursday's 24-hour strike -- backed by two umbrella private and public sector unions -- is the latest in a long line of stoppages this year that have added to the debt-choked country's troubles.
Ships docked at Piraeus port, the country's largest, in preparation for the strike while trains, buses and trams halted morning service.
Garbage collectors, doctors, journalists and bank employees were among others that walked off the job. Many schools are expected to remain closed as elementary and high school teachers took part in the strike. Rallies and marches are also due to be held during the day.
The strike is the first such test for new technocrat Prime Minister Lucas Papademos, who has had little time to celebrate after European leaders this week agreed to approve an 8 billion euro tranche of aid to prevent Greece from going bankrupt.
The country was due to have run out of funds by mid-December without the financial aid.
Papademos, a former European Central Bank vice president, was sworn in last month after his predecessor, Socialist premier George Papandreou, was ousted over his call for a referendum on Greece's 130-billion euro bailout deal agreed in October.
Papademos' coalition, which is backed by both Papandreou's party and the conservative New Democracy, now faces the task of pushing through parliamentary approval of the budget, which includes tax hikes and spending cuts to push the budget deficit down to at least 6.7 percent of GDP next year from 9 percent this year.
Greece is struggling through its fourth year of recession, with unemployment at record highs of over 18 percent and as high as 43 percent among youth.
The country's central bank has warned of more pain ahead before any glimmer of improvement arrives and has bluntly said the alternative to austerity measures is life outside the euro zone -- which would push the country back several decades.
European leaders exasperated with its squabbling political class have also warned it is up to Greece to decide whether it is willing to make the sacrifices needed to stay in the common currency union.
(Writing by Deepa Babington; Editing by Rosalind Russell)