General strike mobilizes 40 million to oppose austerity in Brazil

An estimated 40 million people took part in a general strike in Brazil. The April 28 general strike was called to protest austerity measures proposed by Brazil’s President Michel Temer.

The austerity measures include changes to the country’s labor law that will result in Brazilians working longer hours for less money.

Temer also wants to reduce pension benefits and freeze spending on social programs.

Temer says that his austerity measures are needed to end recession that has lasted more than two years and increased the country’s unemployment rate to 13.7 percent.

But supporters of the general strike had a different take on Temer’s austerity proposals.

“We are demanding our rights, as workers, because the president of the country proposed a law for people to work more and live less, so you will only receive your pension when you die,” said Edgar Fernandes, a Rio de Janeiro dock worker as he explained to the Associated Press why he was on strike.

President Temer came to power one year ago after President Dilma Rousseff was impeached on dubious charges.

Her impeachment was engineered by the country’s financial, commercial, and media elites because Rousseff refused to enact the austerity measures that Temer is now trying to advance.

At the time of Rousseff’s impeachment, Temer was serving as vice-president.

The role of Brazil’s elites and the dubious charges that led to her impeachment caused some observers to call Rousseff’s ouster a coup.

When Temer came to office, he immediately laid out an austerity plan that had the enthusiastic backing of Brazil’s elites.

The plan, which Temer dubbed his Bridge to the Future, would raise the age when people can retire, freeze increases in public spending for 20 years (which would undo some of the social programs that lifted millions of Brazilians out of poverty), and allow employers to increase the number of hours their employees work and pay them less.

It would also remove restrictions that protect workers from having their jobs outsourced and make it easier for employers to hire temporary workers to replace full-time workers.

Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies recently passed Temer’s proposed labor law changes which led Brazil’s largest labor federation, the CUT, to call the April 28 one-day general strike.

CUT Secretary Sérgio Nobre said that the strike was the largest in the nation’s history and called it an unqualified success.

Automobile factories owned by GM, Ford, Toyota, Daimler were shut down because of the strike.

Public transportation throughout the country came to halt.

Schools were closed

Dock workers, miners, oil workers, agriculture workers, bank workers, and retail workers all stayed off the job.

The success for the strike was due in large part to the unpopularity of Temer and his austerity program.

According to one poll,  Temer’s disapproval rate is 87 percent.

In addition to his unpopular austerity plan, Temer’s  astoundingly high disapproval rate is stoked by high levels of corruption in his government.

Eduardo Cuhna, a Temer ally and former speaker of Brazil’s House of Deputies, was recently sentenced to prison for 15 years after being convicted of bribery.

Eight of Temer’s cabinet ministers (that’s one-third of his cabinet) are being investigated for bribery, embezzlement, or money laundering.

In November, Temer himself was accused by one of his cabinet members of pressuring the minister to reverse a decision that hurt one Temer’s lieutenants.

Marcelo Calero, the former Culture Minister, publicly accused Temer and his legislative liaison Geddel Vieira Lima of pressuring Calero to reverse his decision to disallow the construction of a luxury apartment project on the site of a historic district.

As it turns out, Lima was an investor in the project that Calero turned down. He resigned after his role in the project came to light.

Despite his lack of popularity and the corruption charges hanging over his head, Temer was able to get the Chamber of Deputies to pass his changes to the labor law.

The bill now goes to the Senate.

CUT leaders say that the success of the general strike should give pause to lawmakers before they proceed with supporting Temer’s austerity measures.

“Deputies and senators must listen to the voice of the people,” said Nobre. “The strength of the strike is a sign of popular support for the unions and discontent with (Temer’s) labor and welfare changes.”

Vagner Freitas, president of CUT, said that more actions are possible if the government refuses to listen to the people.

If (the strike on the 28th) is not enough, we can repeat another general strike, bigger, maybe 48 hours,” said Freitas. “We can occupy Brasília, go to the National Congress. . . if they if they do not stop voting against labor and social security.”

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Europe inches toward implementing a Financial Transaction Tax

The finance ministers of ten European countries reached a tentative agreement in December on a plan for implementing a financial transaction tax (FTT), a small tax on trades of stocks, bonds, derivatives, and other financial instruments.

Supporters of the tax say that even a tax as small as 0.01 percent on the trillions of euros worth of trades that take place in the 10 countries could generate billions of euros in public revenue that could be used to offset the austerity cuts to public services and public infrastructure.

A financial transaction tax would have the extra benefit of reducing the kind of market volatility and risk taking that led to the 2008 financial crisis.

The tentative agreement does not, however, mean that implementation of the financial transaction tax is a done deal. There are a number of details that need to be worked out and how these details are finally resolved will determine how much revenue the tax generates.

The finance ministers agreed to set a six-month deadline for working out the details of the final agreement.

Some supporters of the tax cheered the agreement.

Simon Chouffot, spokesperson for the Robin Hood Tax Campaign, which has been advocating for the tax, told Equal Times that the tentative agreement “is good news.”

“It was never an easy task to implement a new tax on the financial sector, but we are getting there,” said Chouffot to Equal Times. “And importantly, there seems to be an appetite for making the tax as broad as possible, so that it includes derivatives.”

Others were less sanguine.

The European Public Service Union (EPSU), a confederation of public sector unions whose member unions represent 8 million employees, expressed concern that as the ministers work out the details of the tax, they would grant exceptions that weaken it.

“The FTT is an opportunity to make the financial sector give something back to the societies from which it has taken so much over recent years,” said Jan Willem Goudriaan, general secretary of the EPSU. “The countries involved need to agree (to) a strong FTT, without loopholes. European governments have no problem coming to a decision on budget cuts, so they should be able to reach an agreement on the FTT.”

Discussions among European Union (EU) members about implementing a financial transaction tax began after the European Commission, the executive body of the European Union, proposed that EU members coordinate their implementation of an FTT.

Progress toward implementation has come in fits and starts.

After failing to achieve a consensus of all 28 EU members, 11 nations–Austria, Belgium, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Spain–decided forge ahead with implementation.

Estonia didn’t agree with the terms of the tentative agreement and dropped out.

One of the details that needs to be worked out before a final agreement can be reached is who and what financial instruments will be subject to the tax.

Reuters reports that the tentative agreement stipulates that all share transactions would be taxed including derivatives.

France, however, has proposed exempting market makers, super large brokerage firms that keep markets liquid by buying and selling stocks that they own.

There also appears to be no agreement on the tax rate, and some worry that banks, which have opposed the FTT, will continue to lobby for more exemptions that would weaken the tax.

During the interim period, the finance ministers will also consider how the tax will affect large pension funds and sovereign debt markets.

Public support for a financial transaction tax is widespread in Europe. One poll found that 64 percent of the population in the countries considering implementation favor the tax.

Many of those who support the tax do so because their governments spent billions of euros bailing out banks that engaged in the risky financial speculation that caused the 2008 financial crisis.

The expense of saving the banks played a role in government decisions across Europe to implement austerity programs that resulted in reduced public investment in public infrastructure such as education, health care, transportation, and human services.

The FTT would allow governments to recoup some the bailout money and use it to invest in the public good.

The FTT would be “a much-needed boost for investment to tackle unemployment, generate growth, make Europe more competitive and deal with the refugee crisis,” said Julian Scola, head of communications at the European Trade Union Confederation to Equal Times.

It would also enable Europe “to invest in education and training, in infrastructure, in the shift to a low-carbon economy, in research and development, and in health, housing and social care,” added Scola.

Greeks vote No to austerity; Creditors threaten to pull the plug

After Greek voters on July 5 overwhelmingly voted No to harsher austerity measures demanded by their foreign creditors, European trade unions urged European leaders to reach a “sensible compromise” with the Greek government in order to end the current crisis in Greece.

The No vote came after Greek creditors on June 25 issued an ultimatum that Greece accept more austerity measures or be denied new loans needed to deal with the country’s current crisis.

After the No vote, Greece submitted a new loan request that Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras told the European Parliament addresses some of the objections raised by Greece’s creditors and provides a path toward reaching a “viable agreement.”

Whether European leaders and Greece’s creditors are willing to reach a compromise agreement remains highly problematic.

They said that they will make a decision on the Greek proposal on Sunday (July 11) night.

Since January when Greek voters voted in a new government led by Syriza, or the Coalition of the Radical Left, Greeks have been trying to renegotiate the terms of loans made to the country in 2010 after a financial crisis caused their economy to implode.

In return for the loans, the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund demanded that the country impose austerity measures that reduced social spending on health and human services, cut pensions, privatized government resources, and forced the government to reduce other services.

The result has been a disaster. Five years after the austerity measures were implemented the unemployment rate remains above 25 percent, 40 percent of Greece’s children live in poverty, people’s access to health care has been curtailed, spending on education has been reduced, and the promises of the renewal that austerity was supposed to bring have proved to be empty.

To make matters worse, much of the money from the loans has been used to service debt from previous loans.

“The money that was given to Greece never went to the people,” said Tsipras in his speech to the European Parliament. “The money was given to save Greek and European banks.”

European leaders and Greek creditors, however, have insisted that in return for any new loans, Greeks must double down on the failed austerity measures.

When creditors issued their June 25 ultimatum, The Greek government called for a referendum on whether to accept the creditors’ demands.

Greek voters voted No by a margin of 61 percent to 39 percent.

The No vote, said former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, restored dignity to the people of Greece.

The No vote was also “a loud yes to the vision of a Eurozone offering the prospect of social justice and shared prosperity for all Europeans,” writes Varoufakis on his blog.

The European Trade Union Confederation, whose members represent 60 million European workers, urged European leaders to respect the No vote.

“Greek people have voted against austerity, unemployment, and poverty that made Greek debt unsustainable.  They have not voted against the EU or against the Euro,” reads a letter from the confederation addressed to European leaders.

“EU leaders have now an unavoidable responsibility to find a sensible compromise,” continues the letter.

But so far the EU leaders including the bankers who lead the European Central Bank have shown no inclination to compromise.

Among the creditors, Germany has been the most intransigent about insisting on more austerity measures as a condition of debt relief.

Germany’s intransigence is ironic. In 1953, Germany was suffering from an unsustainable national debt resulting from its aggression that started World War II.

Its debt burden impoverished ordinary Germans trying to recover from the aftermath of the war and made an economic recovery unattainable.

Germany’s creditors recognized the problems created by unsustainable debt and agreed to forgive 50 percent of the German’s debt obligation.

The debt relief allowed Germany the breathing space needed to rebuild its economy, which became the largest in Europe.

One of the features that made the German economic recovery possible was the fact that the government created a strong system of social welfare and insurance and implemented labor laws that protected worker rights.

Today Germany is demanding that Greece slash its social spending and jettison laws that protect worker rights.

The Greeks on the other hand are asking for relief not dissimilar to the relief that creditors offered Germany in 1953.

“The splendid No vote (must be) invested immediately into a Yes (for) a proper resolution,” writes Varoufakis. “To an agreement that involves debt restructuring, less austerity, redistribution in favor of the needy, and real reforms.”

Union leaders urge support for democracy in Greece and an end to austerity measures

European labor leaders are urging European leaders to recognize that the election of the new Greek government in January was a popular rejection of the austerity measures imposed on Greece by its lenders and to give Greece some breathing space as the country’s newly elected government led by Syriza, the Coalition of the Radical Left, tries to carry out its popular mandate to end the austerity measures that have shattered the Greek economy and caused widespread misery.

“The people of Greece have taken a democratic decision that five years of austerity, of hardship and of pain have failed, and they have chosen a new path,” said Oliver Roethig, a regional secretary for UNI Global Union, an international federation of 900 unions representing 20 million workers in the skills and services industries. . . . “Greece must be given time and space to obtain the financial means to fairly negotiate its debt. A program bridge until June this year is the best pathway to achieving this.”

“The new Greek Government must be given time to put in place new policies,” said Bernadette Ségol, general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation. “It is vital for Europe’s democracy that the Greek people’s clearly expressed wish for an end to austerity is respected.”

Greece in 2010 was forced to implement austerity measures in return for €240 billion in loans to deal with a financial crisis that began when foreign lenders started calling in loans owed by Greek investors.

The austerity measures included a reduction of public spending, lower pensions, cutbacks in public health and health care, and new labor laws that weakened unions and collective bargaining.

These measures were supposed to improve the Greek economy, but since 2010 the Greek gross domestic product has shrunk by 25 percent, the unemployment rate increased to 25 percent (50 percent among the youth), national income is down 21 percent, health and human services have been drastically reduced, and one-third of the population lives in poverty.

Hundreds of thousands of Greek workers have lost their jobs, homes, and access to health care.

Much of the€240 billion that was lent to Greece has been used to pay foreign lenders.

The Syriza-led Greek government wants to restructure the loans so that it can use some of the money being siphoned off to foreign banks to restore basic health and human services and make public investments that can revive the Greek economy.

Greece’s lenders appear to be willing to offer some debt relief, but they are demanding that Greece adhere to the austerity measures imposed by the European Union, the European Central Bank, and the World Bank, or the troika as they have come to be known, as a condition for receiving the loans.

On February 16, European finance ministers demanded that Greece submit by February 20 a proposal for extending the loans that come due on February 28 and that the proposal must pledge that the Greek government will continue to enforce the troika’s austerity measures.

Greece’s Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis said that Greece would not accept such an ultimatum. The new Greek government, said Varoufakis, has drawn a red line that will not be crossed. That red line prevents Greece from returning to the austerity policies of the troika and the old government.

On February 18, Greek Prime Minister Alex Tsipras in a speech to Parliament said that Greece would submit a proposal for extending the loans but do so on its own terms.

Tsipras in the same speech pledged to “end the medieval regulation of the labor market created by the troika to serve the interests of the oligarchs.”

Those regulations have crippled unions and eliminated collective bargaining.

Tsipras has said that strong unions and real collective bargaining are essential to building a prosperous and sustainable economy that can reverse the effects of austerity.

While European leaders continue to pressure Greece to maintain the troika-imposed austerity measures, unions throughout Europe have been expressing support for the Greek government’s stance against austerity.

At a February 15 Solidarity with Greece rally attended by more than 3,000 people in London, Billy Hayes speaking for the British Trades Union Council (TUC) said that, “The TUC both in this country and internationally, has said this: the international financial institutions and European authorities need to respect the voice of the Greek people.”

In Germany where national leaders have taken the hardest line against Greece, union leaders and others have signed a declaration of solidarity with the new Greek government authored by Riner Hoffmann, president of the German Trade Union Federation (DBG, its German acronym).

“Serious negotiations with the new Greek government must get under way, without any attempts at blackmail, in order to open up economic and social prospects for the country beyond the failed austerity policy,” reads Hoffmann’s declaration.

“Anyone who now demands that the country simply continue along the previous, so-called ‘path to reform’ is in fact denying the Greek people the right to a democratically legitimized change of policy in their country,” continues Hoffmann.

In his statement, Hoffmann called for an end to all European austerity policies that have led to anemic economic growth since the Great Recession of 2008.

“The European project will not be furthered by austerity dictates but only by a bottom-up democratic initiative in favor of economic regeneration and greater social justice,” said Hoffmann. “This initiative must be supported now in the interests of the Greek people. At the same time, it will help to kick-start the process of policy change across Europe as a whole. The political upheaval in Greece must be turned into an opportunity to establish a democratic and social Europe!”

One million take part in UK’s public service workers’ strike

In what was described as the largest industrial action in the United Kingdom in years, a million public service workers walked off the job on July 10 and went on strike for one day.

The massive action was coordinated by the UK ‘s Trade Union Congress (TUC) and the country’s public service unions including  Unite, Unison, the Public and Commercial Service Union (PCS), the Fire Brigades UnionGMB, the National Union of Teachers, Northern Ireland Public Service Association (NIPSA) and the National Union of Rail, Maritime, and Transport (RMT).

The strikers were demanding an end to the national cap on wage increases for public service workers and a fair pay increase.

“Across the public sector, workers are on strike today to say enough is enough,” said Frances O’Grady, TUC’s general secretary. “Year after year, pay has failed to keep up with the cost of living. Public sector workers are on average more than £2,000 worse off under this government.”

As part of his austerity program, Prime Minister David Cameron in 2010, froze the pay of  public service workers. In 2013, the freeze was lifted, but a 1 percent cap on wage increases was put in place. The Cameron government wants to keep the cap in place until 2018.

O’Grady said that half a million public service workers in the UK currently make less than a livable wage.

“They want us to work longer, pay more in (to our pensions) and get less out … we have tried to have negotiations with the government, but they are not listening, so we have no option but to strike,” said Charles Brown, a 52-year-old firefighter from London to the Guardian.

Brown was joined on strike by other fire fighters, teachers, local government workers, school support staff, home care workers, social service workers, court workers, civil servants, garbage collectors, and others.

The strikers were also protesting the austerity policies of the Cameron government.

In addition to freezing and capping the pay of public service workers, the austerity program cut public services, especially for those in need.

But while the government was freezing wages and reducing government services, it was also cutting taxes for corporations and the rich.

Not surprisingly, income inequality accelerated.

“Today, the five richest families in the UK are wealthier than the bottom 20 per cent of the entire population,” says a report by Oxfam, an international anti-poverty and anti-hunger organization. “That’s just five households with more money than 12.6 million people.”

Prime Minister Cameron and his supporters argue that the UK’s economy is growing again thanks to its austerity program, but the TUC says that benefits from growth have not trickled down to the working class.

“The economy might be growing again, but across the UK real wages are still falling,” said a media release issued by TUC a few days before the strike.

And while the nation’s unemployment rate has dropped to 6.6 percent, it still remains more than 2.5 percentage points above pre-recession levels.

A report commissioned by Unison, the UK’s largest public service union, says that a fair pay raise for public service workers would help the economy grow in a way that would benefit more people.

The report, entitled Lifting the Cap: The Economic Impact of Increasing Public Sector Wages, finds that increased government expenses resulting from a public service pay increase would be partially offset by higher tax revenue and lower government benefit costs resulting from the raise.

Furthermore, as a result of the multiplier affect, every 1 percent increase in public service pay adds £470 million in value to the economy and creates 10,000 to 18,000 new full-time jobs.

The Unison report was part of a broader effort to build public support for the strike and a fair public service wage increase. That effort appears to be working.

Unite, whose members also took part in the strike, recently released the results of a poll conducted by a market research firm showing that 61 percent of the public back the workers’ right to strike. The survey also found that 48 percent of the public supported a £1 per hour wage increase for local government workers while 35 percent did not.

The success of the strike apparently shook the Cameron government, which announced that it will ask Parliament to make it harder for public service workers to strike.

The Prime Minister wants to require a majority of union members to authorize a strike before it would be considered legal. Currently, the law requires that a majority of voting members authorize a strike.

Len McCluskey, Unite’s general secretary, called the Prime Minister’s reaction hypocritical.  “The whiff of hypocrisy coming from Cameron as he harps on about voting thresholds is overwhelming,” said McCluskey to the Guardian. “Not a single member of his Cabinet won over 50 percent of the vote in the 2010 election, with Cameron himself getting just 43 percent of the potential vote.” (Guardian 7/9/14).

The July 10 strike is the latest in a series of actions undertaken by TUC and the public service unions to win a fair pay increase, and the unions plan to keep applying more pressure.

“It is important that we maintain the pressure for meaningful negotiations on pay and our campaign issues,” said PCS in a message to members. “So we have now called a ban on all voluntary overtime between 11 and 31 July.”

The National Union of Teachers is recruiting members to lobby Members of Parliament and to distribute leaflets to parents explaining the reasons for the strike and the union’s vision for improving education.

Unison said that it would soon present its a manifesto for public services to the Labor Party’s national policy forum. The manifesto challenges the country’s mainstream parties, including Labor, for their lack of support for public services.

At a rally of strikers in Bristol, John McInally, PCS vice president, told the audience what it would take to win a fair pay increase and protect public services.

“No more excuses, no more unions taking action on their own,” said McInally. “Everyone knows how we can defeat the pay freeze and austerity too – by joint coordinated action across the public sector.”

IG Metall: Europe needs solidarity, not austerity

Early in December, IG Metall, Germany’s and the world’s largest trade union, hosted a conference in Berlin where trade unionists, academics, and politicians from 60 countries gathered to lay out alternatives to European austerity measures that have created such misery throughout the continent.

The main message of the conference was that solidarity rather than austerity should be the guiding principle for overcoming the effects of the continent’s current economic crisis and for building a new Europe.

“We want a Europe based on solidarity, whose citizens stand by one another during crises in particular,” reads a declaration by the conference. “We call for a Marshall Plan for the countries affected by the crisis. We want a world economic order that is rooted in solidarity, provides everyone with fair opportunities, and gives them equal life opportunities.”

Speaking at the conference, James Galbraith, an economics professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said that the austerity measures imposed on countries like Greece, Spain, and Portugal are exacerbating the crisis and fueling desperation which could lead to a downward spiral of violence and chaos.

Galbraith praised a document published last October by IG Metall’s executive board as a viable alternative to austerity and the chaos that may result from it.

The document entitled “Change of Course for European Solidarity” proposes a new vision of Europe based on solidarity, joint liability, an enhanced social pact that improves wages and security and ends social divisions, more regulation of financial markets, and more worker participation in the economic and political decisions that affect their lives.

The document lays out an alternative economic course for a more unified, democratic, and prosperous Europe. It calls for a continent-wide industrial and economic policy that converts the European economy from one that is at the mercy of financial markets to one that is socially and ecologically sustainable. Among other things, such an economy would distribute wealth fairly, make industry more energy efficient, transition to renewable energy, and embrace demographic change. Workers and their trade unions would have prominent voices in shaping policies that bring about this change.

“Only the prospect of an economically strong, environmentally and socially sustainable and democratic Europe can help overcome the deep identity crisis among citizens in the process of integration,” reads the document.

According to “Change the Course,” the public sector needs to play an enhanced role in the new economy by making substantial investments in education, training, research and development, and infrastructure.

Economic policy that sets social and environmental targets must be made at the level of the European Union, which will soon include 28 nations, rather than national governments. The working class should directly participate in how these targets are set. At the company level, co-determination, the active participation by workers in setting company goals and priorities, must be strengthened and expanded.

A more sustainable economy would also limit precarious work, low-paid temporary employment that provides little if any social benefits. “A new order in the European labor market is called for,” reads “Change the Course. “This must not only protect and promote secure jobs covered by wage agreements, but also help to discourage (jobs) of the precarious nature.”

Another important piece of IG Metall’s new vision is joint liability for the debts that poorer European countries incurred as a result to the economic crisis.

The document’s joint liability proposal calls for richer European countries to guarantee poorer countries’ public debt that exceeds 60 percent of Gross National Product. Such a guarantee would reduce the cost of borrowing and relieve some of the financial pressure on these countries.

Since risky financial speculation brought on the financial crisis that led to Europe’s economic crisis, financial markets should be more tightly regulated. Commercial and investment banks should be separated and governments should insure only the deposits of commercial banks. Short-selling should be banned, speculative activity regulated, and high-frequency trades restricted. There should also be a financial transaction tax among eurozone members to discourage speculative trading.

In order to integrate Europe, make its economy more sustainable, help poorer countries exit their economic malaise, and control financial speculation, Europe needs to expand democracy and increase worker participation at all levels. “IG Metall calls on Europe to turn to its workers again,” reads “Change of Course. “Too many people think that politics at the European Union level serves only corporations and the lobbyists. As a result, many workers see a united Europe as a threat to their well being.”

To combat this idea, worker participation in European Union policy development should be expanded, and the EU should include a social progress clause in its charter. Such a clause would include language that safeguards wages and social benefits in the richer countries, establishes a continent-wide set of minimum social standards, ends discrimination against women and migrants, and ends the expansion of low-pay sectors and wage disparity. “The same pay and same rights for the same work in the same place must be firmly established,” reads the document.

The Berlin conference in December gave IG Metall a chance to present the vision in “Change the Course” to a wider audience and to hear other alternatives to austerity policies. A declaration issued by the conference sums up the problems caused by the old order and envisions a new way to structure economies based on solidarity and social justice.

“The financial crisis that has plagued the global economy for the last four years shows us that financial market-driven capitalism is a mistake,” reads the declaration. . . . “Those in work must not become the plaything at the mercy of the economy. The economy is not an end in itself. It has to serve the needs of human beings and should be based on values such as solidarity, justice, dignity and respect.”

Troika wants more austerity; Greek workers honor general strike; two austerity measures ruled illegal

A committee of the European Council ruled that two Greek austerity measures aimed at curtailing labor rights are illegal. Meanwhile the European Union, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Central Bank, otherwise known as the troika, demanded that the Greek government take further steps to curtail labor rights.

The troika made its demands when its representatives met with the Greek finance minister in Brussels this week to discuss the terms of $17.7 billion loan that the Greek government is seeking to prevent default on loans that are coming due in November.

Among other things, the troika is demanding that the Greek government slash the severance pay that private sector workers receive when they are dismissed from a job, eliminate automatic cost of living raises that private sector workers receive once every three years, and fire 15,000 public sector workers.

The Greek government has already reduced pensions, frozen pay for public sector workers, substantially reduced social spending on services like education, health care, and social insurance. These and other austerity measures have caused misery throughout the country, whose unemployment rate is nearly 24 percent.

While the Greek finance minister was meeting with representatives of the troika, Greek workers on October 18 staged a general strike to protest the government’s willingness to sacrifice the short- and long-term interests of Greek working people to the desires of Europe’s financial elite, which sees the Greek economic crisis as an opportunity to eliminate rights and protections that Greek workers won through hard fought struggle over many years.

“Agreeing to catastrophic measures means driving society to despair and the consequences as well as the protests will then be indefinite,” said Yannis Panagopoulos, leader of GSEE to Reuters.

GSEE, a confederation of private sector unions, along with ADEDY, the confederation of public sector workers, organized  Thursday’s general strike.

The misery brought on by the austerity measures and the demands by the troika for more cuts has created a popular backlash against the government.

A recent poll shows that if an election were held today, the leftist Syriza party, the main opposition to the Greek government would win more than 30.5 percent of the vote, more than three percentage points higher than the 26.9 percent it won during elections last June.

New Democracy, the right wing party that leads the current coalition government had the support of only 27 percent of the people polled.

The fascist Golden Dawn, which opposes the austerity measures but also assaults immigrants and blames them for the economic crisis, increased its support to 14 percent among those polled.

Members of Syriza joined the general strike on Thursday. Speaking about the Greek government, Alex Tsipras, Syriza’s leader told  Reuters as he marched with general strikers in the streets of Athens, “Their time is running out. People are taking matters into their own hands.”

About 70,000 people marched through Athens, and commerce and transportation throughout Greece either ground to a halt or slowed noticeably. Flights were cancelled, public transportation was disrupted, and hospitals, schools and shops shut down.

The general strike and the possibility of more general strikes appears to be shaking the resolve of the government. Members of PASOK and Democratic Left, two minority parties that are part of the coalition government led by New Democracy, said that they wouldn’t accept the new changes to Greek labor laws sought by the troika.

“Further interventions on labor issues don’t help productivity, competitiveness or employment,” said Evangelo Venizelos, leader to PASOK on Greek television. “We must look elsewhere now and the (troika’s) insistence on this is wrong.”

While the troika seeks to curtail more labor rights, European Committee on Social Rights, a standing committee of the European Council, ruled that two austerity measures passed by the Greek government are illegal.

One of the austerity measures lengthens the probationary period when a worker can be fired without notice; the other reduces the minimum wage for workers 25 years old and younger to two-thirds of the minimum wage for those older than 25.

The Committee on Social Rights  serves only in an advisory role and has no power to enforce its decisions, but it is possible that the committee’s ruling could bolster legal action that Greek unions are taking to overturn some of anti-labor austerity measures that the government has implemented at the behest of the troika.

A statement issued by the committee about its ruling said that budgetary readjustments necessitated by the global economic crisis should not lead to an erosion of workers’ rights enshrined in the European Social Charter.