Inflation strikes spur Greek clashes, disruptions in Belgium

Thousands of protesters marched through the streets of Athens and the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki on Wednesday as public and some private sector workers walked off the job for a 24-hour general strike against price hikes, one of the latest actions across Europe as rising inflation squeezes consumers.

The strike disrupted services around the country, with ferries tied up in port — severing connections to Greece’s islands — state-run schools shut, public hospitals running with reduced staff and most public transport grinding to a standstill.

Brief clashes broke out between small groups of protesters and riot police at the tail-end of marches in both Athens and Thessaloniki, Greece’s second-largest city. In both places, small groups of demonstrators threw Molotov cocktails and rocks at police, who responded with tear gas and stun grenades. There were no immediate reports of injuries.

Europe has faced a series of protests and strikes over the past few months over the soaring cost of living. As Russia’s war in Ukraine has driven up energy and food prices, workers from nurses to pilots to railway staff have walked off the job, seeking wages that keep pace with rising inflation. Others have joined in by taking to the streets to pressure governments to do more to ease rising bills even as European leaders have passed energy relief packages.

Workers in Belgium also were holding a nationwide strike Wednesday over cost-of-living increases, snarling traffic through much of the country and disrupting businesses as workers set up picket lines at supermarkets and shopping centers.

The main trade unions are calling for wage increases, and the action led most trains and public urban traffic to be reduced to a minimum and 60% of flights to be canceled at Brussels airport. Staff in about two-thirds of hospitals in the French-speaking Wallonia region and Brussels joined in, with non-urgent appointments and operations postponed, the CSC union said.

In Britain, the country’s largest nursing union, the Royal College of Nursing, is due to announce a strike ballot of its hundreds of thousands of members Wednesday. Nurses are expected to back the first nationwide strike in the union’s 106-year history.

The U.K. has not had a general strike for almost a century, but labor unrest has been spreading across both public and private sector workplaces as inflation has crept above 10%. Railway staff, postal workers, lawyers, British Telecom staff, dock workers and garbage collectors have all staged walkouts.

In Greece’s capital on Wednesday, no buses or trolleys were running, while only one of the three subway lines was operating, running a limited service only until the afternoon.

Flight traffic controllers had been due to participate in the strike with a six-hour work stoppage but had to reverse that decision late Tuesday after a court deemed their participation illegal. However, airlines had already canceled dozens of flights, which they could not all reschedule at the last minute.

Passengers arriving at Athens’ international airport had extremely limited options to get into town, with no bus, regular taxi, subway or suburban railway services available. Crowds gathered at car rental agencies, while others tried to leave on intercity buses, which were the only form of public transport still running.

“Workers along with unions are fighting against increased prices that are drowning Greek households,” said GSEE, a confederation of private sector trade unions, citing price hikes for energy and basic goods.

Unions called for an increase in salaries and in the minimum wage, which is just over 700 euros (dollars) per month for salaried workers, and bolder measures to tackle inflation.

Inflation in the 19 countries that use the euro currency, including Greece and Belgium, hit a record 10.7% last month, largely driven by higher energy prices. Inflation was a bit lower in Greece at 9.8% in October — a drop from 12.1% in September — and higher in Belgium at 13.1%, according to EU statistics agency Eurostat.

Belgian trade unions say gas prices have gone up by 130% in just one year, electricity by 85% and fuel by 57%. Food prices also have gone up.

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AP reporters Costas Kantouris in Thessaloniki, Greece; Samuel Petrequin and Raf Casert in Brussels; and Jill Lawless in London contributed to this report.

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