PIRAEUS, Greece — Ferry services to Greek islands and nearby Italy were halted Tuesday by a 48-hour strike that is expected to hit the start of the country's tourism season and celebrations for Orthodox Easter this Sunday.
Services were interrupted after The Panhellenic Seamen's Federation, PNO, failed to reach an agreement over benefit cuts with the government. The PNO also claims that many of its members have been left unpaid for months.
Tourism industry representatives had urged the union to cancel the strike 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.
The two parties have been battered in opinion polls as the country suffers through its fifth year of recession, with politicians opposed to the austerity conditions the coalition government agreed to secure international rescue loan agreements are gaining 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-munis 1.5 percentage points.
AP Photographer Petros Giannakouris reported from Piraeus.