Headlines of strikes and demonstrations in the capital typically evoke images of heavy police presence and agitation, but Thursday’s crowd outside the finance ministry was friendly and orderly.
A police officer munched on a halloumi pie as he chatted cheerily with one of the striking employees.
After months of negotiations and back-and-forth on the cost-of-living (CoLA) allowance, the impasse between the government – including employers – and unions finally led to the three-hour island wide strike.
Passionate speeches drew cheers in which references to the government drew jeers, with one speaker shouting through the microphone that “it’s a matter of dignity, no one can trample on our dignity”.
The hundreds strong crowd represented all walks of life: from cleaners and hospital staff in their scrubs to well-heeled office workers in designer gear.
Most wore sunglasses in the unseasonably warm late January protest, and chatted in small groups of fellow workers.
“I’ve been to protests before, but I don’t always, however it was important to come today as this is a major issue and we have to show that we’re serious about it,” Philipos, an international trade expert working for the government, told me.
That sentiment was echoed by one of the demonstration’s speakers, who shouted out that: “It’s important to stay united as the government is watching and so will the upcoming one, our dignity is not to be sacrificed.”
Another said: “We’re being told that CoLA is difficult because of the economic challenges, they speak of having to wait for the economy to improve but on the backs of whom will the efforts to improve the economy be placed? On us – the workers.”
But of the workers who downed tools, almost all were over 30 – although one mother brought her young child, taking a nap in his stroller.
“I think the young are disillusioned and apathetic, there’s a distance between them and those in power – I’ve got two kids myself and that’s what I’m picking up on, there’s a sense that whether they come here or not, vote or not, nothing will really change,” Philipos offered.
Asked how he thinks the CoLA issue will develop, Philipos said that the current government is just passing the hot potato onto the upcoming one.
Indeed, Labour Minister Kyriacos Koushos has said that the CoLA issue would be a problem for the next government.
There was some half hearted talk of the elections amongst the crowd, with the mood summed up by Philipos: “There’s no real choices there, all three main candidates are linked to Anastasiades – it’s hard to make a decision, I’ll probably do so once I’ve closed the curtain in the voting booth.”
The sunny weather was clouded by the gloomy resignation, but Philipos said that through working within the public sector he knows first hand why nothing ever gets done.
“Once you’ve seen and experienced it then everything makes sense,” he told me, speaking a bit louder amid chants of “hands off of CoLA!”
He explained that in the past he voted along party lines but those in power have proven themselves to be incapable of making change or solving issues.
The speaker praised the crowd’s turnout and said that it shows “the clear unity of workers on their demands for the full restoration of CoLA,” she said, as food delivery drivers whizzed past.
In the small group on the edge of the crowd, Andreas chimed in and said: “This has to succeed, many rights are continuously being stripped away.”