The stand-off between striking truck drivers and authorities in Greece intensified today hours after the government issued an emergency order to force protesters back to work.
With fuel shortages stranding thousands of tourists and disrupting supplies of food and medicines nationwide, prime minister George Papandreou resorted to emergency legislation, more usually used at times of war or great natural disaster, to end the walk-out.
But hopes of a return to normal were quickly dashed when riot police fired tear gas at thousands of truckers gathered outside the transport ministry this morning.
“The order is coming through to [drivers] but I have no idea how they are going to react to it,” said Giorgos Stamos, a member of the truck drivers’ union. “It is highly unusual that after just three days of going on strike we should be mobilised in this way.”
The ruling socialists called for the mobilisation – the fourth time since the collapse of military rule in 1974 that such an order has been issued – as it became clear that Greece was facing a public health crisis because of the strike.
On islands, where fuel supplies have totally run out, tourists could be seen abandoning rented cars by the side of the road while yachts remained docked in harbours or drifted out at sea.
Under the order – which followed a plea by the Greek Tourist Association to stop the strike – authorities were given the go-ahead to requisition vehicles and services, with the owners and drivers of trucks being told they had to resume work or face stiff fines.
“To allow the strike to continue would threaten the normal functioning of health and welfare services and public order,” the government announced.
The mayhem began on Monday when some 33,000 licensed truck drivers walked off the job in protest at government plans to open up the freight industry, one of many ‘closed–shop’ professions blamed for keeping the Greek economy isolated and uncompetitive.
The debt-stricken country is under intense pressure from the EU and IMF to make the changes – a condition of the €110bn (£92bn) of emergency loans it received from eurozone nations and the Washington-based body in May.
With officials from both organisations visiting Athens to prepare a first assessment of the progress made under the €30bn austerity program that the government has also been forced to implement, the Greek finance minister insisted that “every closed profession” would soon be opened up.
In the case of truckers, the first group to be tackled, it will mean that new licences will be issued at lower costs and in greater number. The sector wants the government to delay the introduction of a bill to allow for more talks with the industry.
The truckers have shown this week that such reforms will not be easy.
In a culture where workers’ rights are seen as sacred, militant unionists have reacted furiously to the mobilisation.
“The government is aiming to smash every striker’s right,” Rizospastis, the newspaper of the KKE communist party proclaimed on its front page. “There is nothing but to gather forces and fight.”
The strike has further dented tourism – widely seen as the linchpin of the country’s economic recovery this summer. With one in five Greeks working in the sector, tourism accounts for almost 20% of GDP.
The trucker’s strike “is a huge problem for bookings that our country needs, to cover part of the losses that have occurred in recent months,” said Andreas Andreadis who heads the Greek Hotel Federation.