Strike action puts damper on Olympic flame

Greece is racing against the clock to finish a string of problematic projects in preparation for this year's Games. Daniel Howden reports from Athens on the effects of the latest setback: industrial strife
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The Independent Online

The Athens Olympics, its preparations already troubled, faced a new threat yesterday as a 24-hour strike by Greek workers raised the prospect of a potentially disastrous summer of discontent.

The Athens Olympics, its preparations already troubled, faced a new threat yesterday as a 24-hour strike by Greek workers raised the prospect of a potentially disastrous summer of discontent.

The nationwide stoppage disrupted flights at Athens international airport, halted public transport in the capital - with thousands of commuters enduring epic traffic jams - and hit ferry services; cutting off hundreds of islands.

On the day the Olympic flame arrived in Athens, where it takes a rest ahead of its global odyssey, the protest halted work on Olympic projects.

The strike, led by the GSEE, the country's largest union, was called to push home demands for an 8 per cent rise and comes three weeks after the conservative government swept to power in the general election.

Wave after wave of industrial action sunk the last conservative administration to lead Greece between 1990 and 1993. Constantine Mitsotakis, the then prime minister, was forced to call elections that he lost to the socialists, after union leaders paralysed public services with continual stoppages.

Organised labour held an uneasy Olympic truce with the ruling socialists during past preparations but yesterday's gridlock raised the spectre of a damaging pre-Olympic showdown with Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis's New Democracy government. Denis Oswald, the International Olympic Committee's (IOC) chief overseer, has repeatedly warned Greek organisers that they cannot afford to lose a single day as they battle to make up for past delays.

With Athens racing against the clock to finish a string of problematic projects, the IOC warned that any repeat of strike action could have severe consequences. Mr Oswald said: "As long as they can still compensate with work on Saturdays and Sundays, I think it won't be a problem. But, of course, if this strike will be repeated many times, it would have an effect."

Christos Polyzogopoulos, the GSEE chief, warned that further strike action would be considered if their demands were not met. The union said in a statement: "If these provocative positions are maintained, a conflict will be inevitable, with all its consequences for the country's priorities ahead of the Olympic Games." The GSEE has rejected a pay offer of 3.2 per cent by employers.

Building contractors and Greek Olympic organisers (Athoc) said they were not concerned by the industrial action and that time would be easily made up. Dimitris Koutras of Aktor, the construction firm, said: "One day will not affect our work. Any delay can be covered with overtime and working on Sundays and holidays."

But previous strike action has crippled at least one Olympic contractor. After more than a year of denials, the previous government was forced to sack European Technical SA, the construction firm refurbishing the Olympic marathon route, when workers caused massive traffic jams in a series of stoppages. The firm had to file for bankruptcy after admitting they had been unable to pay employees for months at a time.

Mr Oswald warned unions that strikes would not do much good to Greece's international image as it seeks a boost from hosting the Olympics. He said: "More striking would be counterproductive."

The unions can count on a degree of public sympathy for their action, as opinion polls show the homecoming Games are fast falling from favour with ordinary Greeks. In a recent poll conducted by Alco, the researchers, two-thirds of respondents said their main concern was the spiralling cost of the Olympic preparations. More than 65 per cent of those polled were scared they would be paying for the event long into their retirement.

Elias Tsaoussakis, from Ventris, the Greek pollsters, said: "The fear has been growing for the past two years as the reality and the scale of the project has become clear. It's souring people's view of the Games, which they already saw as a venture imposed from above; organised by a select few, for the profit of the select few."

Greece's new government has scrapped several Olympic projects that were running late, scaled back others and called on builders to work round the clock. After years of fiery criticism from the opposition benches, Fani Palli Petralia, the New Democracy deputy, has found herself in charge of speeding Olympic preparations down the final straight. She began her term as alternate culture minister - the cabinet post overseeing the Games - by warning that the cost of Olympic works is far higher than the previous administration had admitted. She told parliament: "All the projects' budgets were revised upwards. We have launched a detailed inventory so that citizens have a real view of the situation. We owe them the truth."

The €4.6bn (£3bn) figure, set by the previous government, will be surpassed by more than the 10 per cent margin allowed for increased security, with some sources expecting it to triple.

Gilbert Felli, the IOC's executive director, said: "The Greeks didn't understand how big the Olympics were and the amount of work needed to be done. In the future, we will be stricter toward cities bidding to host the Games."