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ATHENS, Greece – Striking subway workers in Athens returned to the job Friday, hours after the Greek government used riot police to evacuate holdouts from a train depot, ending a bitter standoff over new austerity measures.
The nine-day strike — which knocked out a system serving more than a million people a day — was the biggest labor unrest Greece's uneasy, conservative-led governing coalition faced since taking over last June.
It was only overcome after authorities resorted to issuing a rare civil mobilization order to workers who had defied a court ruling that their strike was illegal. Thursday's mobilization order meant that staff refusing to return to work risked dismissal, arrest and jail time.
Though the subway trains started running again, the city of some four million still lacked bus and trolley bus services, as unions launched rolling strikes in sympathy with their colleagues.
"I am pleased that the urban rail workers restarted the network, and passengers are even more pleased," Transport Minister Costis Hadzidakis said.
Metro staff have been outraged by plans to scrap their existing contracts as part of a broader public sector pay reform, with their union saying workers faced a roughly 25 percent salary loss.
Hammered by a financial crisis since late 2009, Greece has imposed repeated rounds of public sector salary and pension cuts in return for billions of euros in international rescue loans. The measures have led to a deep recession, now in its sixth year, and record-high unemployment of more than 26 percent.
In Friday's pre-dawn raid at the western Athens depot, police broke through the gates and removed dozens of strikers, while rows of riot police blocked off surrounding roads to keep away hundreds of strike supporters.
No violence was reported, with the workers not putting up resistance. In the afternoon, dozens of strikers burned their mobilization papers outside a metro station.
The government's order led to a swift backlash, with all other public transport workers declaring immediate strikes that forced Athenians to walk or take taxis through thunderstorms Thursday and Friday. Traffic slowed to a crawl, and commutes took up to three times as long as normal.
Defending the government's, government spokesman Simos Kedikoglou insisted the new austerity measures must be implemented.
"We are a society, an economy, at a very difficult time," he said. "People can't ask for exceptions."
The civil mobilization law, amended in 2007 to deal with "peacetime emergencies," has now been used nine times since the 1974 collapse of a military dictatorship in Greece - three of those in anti-austerity strikes over the past two years. Defying the order to return to work can lead to arrest and jail terms of between three months and five years.
Unions and the radical left main opposition Syriza party accused the government of dictatorial tactics.
"It's a new coup against this country's constitution to mobilize working people on strike on the subway with military-style methods," Syriza lawmaker Dimitris Stratoulis said late Thursday.
Considered an extreme measure, use of the law usually sparks an outcry but does tend to end a strike. It has been used in the past to end a protracted strike by garbage collectors, with the government at the time citing public health concerns, and to end a fuel truck strike that had caused major gasoline shortages.
The strike has been met with a mixture of understanding and exasperation from commuters, many of whom have also suffered deep income cuts.
Data released by Greece's statistical authority Friday showed that households' disposable income dropped 10.6 percent in the third quarter of 2012, compared with a year before. The authority said salaries fell 11.3 percentand social benefits received by households decreased 10.2 percent — while taxes on household income and wealth increased 17.7 percent.
Since Greece's finances started to implode in late 2009, incomes have dropped on average by about 30 percent.
Strikes in general are so widespread and frequent in Greece that they have become part of everyday life.
"I agree with the strikers," said Christos Bousios as he walked through central Athens. "They have their demands. People will be inconvenienced. With all strikes, it's people who end up paying. ... Those who complain about the strikes today are the ones who strike the next day and make other people's lives hard."
The Greek capital's metro, which opened in 2000, serves more than 700,000 passengers daily. It operates alongside an older network, bringing the capital's combined daily subway traffic to 1.1 million passengers, according to the operators.