ATHENS, Greece (AP) -- Greece's government announced emergency powers to force striking subway workers back to work Thursday, with those defying it risking arrest. The standoff is the latest stage of a bitter eight-day dispute over austerity measures.
After unions protesting pay cuts had refused to return to work despite a Wednesday night court order demanding they do so, Transport Minister Kostis Hadzidakis announced the government was imposing the civil mobilization measure, under which workers who continue to strike risk a jail term of up to five years.
The metro strike and other public transport stoppages this week have caused rush-hour chaos across Athens and forced many commuters to take taxis or walk to work.
"The unionists have decided to follow a course of blind confrontation as well as adopting unreasonable strike methods," Hatzidakis said in announcing the measure after a meeting with Prime Minister Antonis Samaras.
"As a result of their actions, they are causing difficulties for Athens and Athens' society and they are creating a serious financial problem for the city. ... We can take no other action than to proceed with the measure of (civil) mobilization."
Under a 2007 law to deal with "peacetime emergencies," defying a civil mobilization order carries a minimum sentence of three months in prison and a maximum of five years.
The continuing strike — in defiance of the court order and government threats — is seen as direct challenge to Athens' latest austerity measures. The strikers had got around the court order banning their action by changing the union demands to avoid potential prosecution.
Metro workers have rejected plans to scrap their existing contracts as part of a broader reform to public sector pay, with their union saying the measure would subject them to an average 25 percent loss of their salaries.
The spending cuts have been imposed in order to meet fiscal requirements by international creditors in return for much-needed bailout loans. The loans' conditions have deepened economic hardship — Greece is in a sixth year of recession, with unemployment spiraling above 26 percent.
Public transport unions have threatened to escalate their protests if a civil mobilization order was issued.
Yannis Panagopoulos, head of one of Greece's two largest umbrella unions, the GSEE, called on the government to "immediately repeal" the civil mobilization order, and accused it of violating workers' constitutional rights.
"The problems that public transport workers face, and for which they are in no way responsible, cannot be solved with civil mobilizations and the criminalization of labor action," he said in a statement.
Seperately, a seamen's union announced a 48-hour ferry strike starting next Thursday to protest recent changes in labor laws that will allow more employees to be hired on short-term contracts.