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By Renee Maltezou and Lefteris Papadimas | February 19, 2013 11:21 PM PST

Greek workers walked off the job on Wednesday in a nationwide protest against wage cuts and high taxes, keeping ferries docked in ports, shutting state schools and leaving hospitals working with emergency staff.

Greece's two biggest labour unions brought much of the near-bankrupt country to a standstill during a 24-hour strike over the cuts, which they say only deepen the plight of a people struggling to get through the country's worst peacetime downturn.

Representing about 2.5 million workers, the unions have gone on strike repeatedly since Europe's debt crisis erupted in late 2009, testing the government's will to implement necessary reforms in the face of growing public anger.

"The (strike) is our answer to the dead-end policies that have squeezed the life out of workers, impoverished society and plunged the economy into recession and crisis," said the private sector union GSEE, which is organising the walkout with its public sector sister union ADEDY.

"Our struggle will continue for as long as these policies are implemented," it said.

Prime Minister Antonis Samaras's eight-month-old coalition government has been eager to show it will implement reforms it promised the European Union and International Monetary Fund, which have bailed Athens out twice with over 200 billion euros.

It has taken a tough line on striking workers, invoking emergency laws twice this year to order seamen and subway workers back to their jobs after week-long walkouts that paralysed public transport in Athens and led to food shortages on islands.

But in a sign it is buckling under pressure, it announced on Monday it would not fire almost 1,900 civil servants earmarked for possible dismissal, despite promising foreign lenders it would seek to cut the public payroll.

STRIKES PICKING UP

Strikes have picked up in recent weeks, underscoring Greeks' anger at record high unemployment and poverty levels. A one-day visit by French President Francois Hollande in Athens on Tuesday went largely uncovered as Greek journalists were on strike.

In northern and central Greece, farmers have been protesting at high production costs and fuel prices for nearly a month, occasionally blocking the country's main north-south highway.

Most business and public sector activity came to a halt during Wednesday's strike, with school teachers, train and bus employees and bankers among various groups joining the walkout.

"We are on our knees. The country has been destroyed, the young people have been destroyed," said Nikos Papageorgiou, 56, a civil servant.

"I'm outraged with the Europeans and our politicians as well. They should all go to jail."

Hospitals ran on emergency staff and ships were docked in ports as seaworkers defied government orders to return to work.

Several marches are expected to culminate in demonstrations at around noon outside parliament at Syntagma square in central Athens, where protests have often ended in violent clashes between police and activists in the past.

Analysts said Greece securing bailout funds in December, which averted bankruptcy and ended months of uncertainty over the country's future in the euro zone, created expectations among Greeks that things would improve for them on a personal level as well.

"If these expectations are not satisfied by the summer, then whatever is left of the working class will respond with more protests," said Costas Panagopoulos, head of Alco pollsters.

(Writing by Karolina Tagaris; Editing by Pravin Char)

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