Transport disruptions hit Greece as union protests cutbacks

Train and island ferry services in Greece were suspended Wednesday and most Athens public transport was idle as the country's biggest labor union held a strike against persisting austerity measures.

The transport shutdown prompted Athenians to drive to work, causing major traffic jams in the capital whose center was shut down by two separate strike-related protest marches.

Police said that about 7,000 people in total took part in the peaceful demonstrations to parliament.

The strike organized by the GSEE umbrella private sector union, which also includes many categories of civil servants, did not affect schools, hospitals or other core public services.

The unions want the left-led government to scrap key income and pension cuts imposed at the demand of international creditors during Greece's eight-year bailout program.

The program formally ended in August but the measures are expected to remain in place for years to ensure Greece can keep its budgets balanced and pay off its bailout debts.

Greece was forced to request the rescue loans in 2010 when it lost access to bond markets after the revelation that it had been under-reporting key financial data for years and was running a much bigger-than-expected budget deficit.

Union demands include restoring the minimum monthly salary to the pre-bailout level of 751 euros ($853), from the current 580 euros ($659).

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras' government has said it will boost welfare spending this year and next, using part of the budget surplus it expects as a result of heavy taxation and low public spending.

Tsipras was initially elected on pledges to scrap all creditor-mandated austerity measures, but was soon forced into a U-turn after talks with creditors tanked and Greece faced the specter of bankruptcy and exit from Europe's common euro currency.

Speaking in parliament Wednesday, Tsipras pledged to reduce a highly resented real estate tax for low- and middle-end property owners in 2019. He said this would benefit nine out of 10 property owners, who would see reductions in the tax — levied as a bailout-linked measure — of 10-30 percent.

Tsipras added that he would postpone similar legislation for 2020 until after parliamentary elections when his mandate runs out next year.

His Syriza party is steadily trailing the main opposition New Democracy conservative party in opinion polls.