Strikes halt Greek ferries before Orthodox Easter

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By DEREK GATOPOULOS and PETROS GIANNAKOURIS, Associated Press

PIRAEUS, Greece (AP) — Ferry services to Greek islands and nearby Italy were halted Tuesday by a 48-hour strike that left thousands of islanders stranded and disrupted holidaymakers' plans at the start of the country's vital tourism season.

Organised to coincide with the Orthodox Easter this Sunday, the strike was called after The Panhellenic Seamen's Federation, PNO, failed to strike a deal with the government over cuts to its members' pension and healthcare schemes. The PNO also claims that many of its members have been left unpaid for months.

The ferry system connects the Greek mainland with its dozens of populated islands dotted around the Aegean and Ionian seas, where thousands of passengers were scheduled to travel on the two days of the strike.

While all the larger islands such as Crete and Santorini have regular airline connections, the ferry strike has had the same impact as a national rail or airline strike on many of the other islands, leaving them with no connection to the mainland at all.

Tourism industry representatives had urged the union to cancel the strike — the latest of a series of industrial actions by the PNO— or shift the dates, describing the potential consequences of the protest as "disastrous."

The government has imposed drastic pay and benefit cuts over the past two years, as the country struggles to contain its high budget deficit.

"Our strike is in progress with 100 percent participation. Services at all the nation's ports have been suspended," strike organizer Antonis Dalakogiorgos told the AP, speaking at the country's main port of Piraeus, near Athens.

"We will reconsider our position after Easter and take the necessary decisions. There will be new protests if our main demands are not met."

Ahead of the strike, the Greek Association of Travel and Tourist Agencies, had warned that tourists were now more likely to cancel island Easter bookings because of the travel uncertainty.

"The (strike) will cause a multitude of problems for islanders as well as Greek and foreign travelers," the association said in a statement.

"The timing of the protest will have disastrous consequences, at time when struggling businesses and the struggling domestic tourism industry were seeking some relief."

The country's coalition government — which is currently racing to push through more austerity legislation before a general election expected next month — backed down from a threat to force the strikers back to work by implementing a rarely used civil mobilization order.

The five-month-old coalition — backed by the majority Socialists and rival conservatives — is expected to announce the election date and dissolve parliament by the end of the week.

Parliament activities are scheduled to be suspended Wednesday for the Easter holiday.

The two parties have been battered in opinion polls as the country suffers through its fifth year of recession, with those politicians vocally opposed to the austerity conditions the coalition government agreed to secure international rescue loan agreements seeing an increase in popularity.

A survey for private Mega television released late Monday projected 14.2 percent support for the socialist PASOK party and 18.2 for the conservative New Democracy, while the extreme-right Golden Dawn, widely blamed for a spike in attacks against immigrants, received 3.1 percent projected support.

The results suggest the two largest parties — the only ones that back bailout deals that are keeping the country afloat — would struggle to form a coalition without the support of a third party.

The GPO survey of 1,200 people was conducted April 5-9, with a margin of error of plus-or-minus 1.5 percentage points.

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AP Photographer Petros Giannakouris reported from Piraeus.

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