By Karolina Tagaris and Harry Papachristou
ATHENS (Reuters) - Greek workers walked off the job for the second time in three weeks on Thursday, hoping to show EU leaders meeting in Brussels that a new wave of wage and pension cuts will only worsen their plight after five years of recession.
Streets emptied in central Athens as most business and public sector activity ground to a halt at the start of the 24-hour strike called by the country's two biggest labour unions, ADEDY and GSEE.
Greece is stuck in its worst downturn since World War Two and must make at least 11.5 billion euros of cuts to satisfy the "troika" of the European Commission, European Central Bank and IMF, and secure the next tranche of a 130-billion-euro bailout.
"Just once, the government ought to reject the troika's absurd demands," said Yannis Panagopoulos, head of the GSEE private sector union, one of two major unions that represent about 2 million people, or half of Greece's workforce.
"Agreeing to catastrophic measures means driving society to despair and the consequences as well as the protests will then be indefinite," he said.
European Union leaders will try to bridge their differences over plans for a banking union at their two-day summit which starts on Thursday but no substantial decisions are expected, reviving concerns about complacency in tackling the debt crisis which exploded three years ago in Greece.
The strike brought much of the country to a standstill. Ships stayed in port, Athens public transport was disrupted and hospitals were working on emergency staff, while public offices, ministries and many shops including bakeries were shut.
Five separate marches later on Thursday are expected to culminate in demonstrations outside parliament, which in the past have ended in clashes between police and protesters. Metal fences were put up outside parliament on the central Syntagma square and about 4,000 policemen were being deployed.
Newspaper kiosk owners, lawyers, taxi drivers and air traffic controllers were among various groups joining the protest over the cuts, which also include a further drastic reduction in welfare and health spending.
Opinion polls show rising anger with the bailout which is keeping the economy afloat as Greeks become increasingly pessimistic about their country's future.
"The new, painful package should not be passed," the ADEDY public sector union said in a statement. "The new demands will only finish off what's left of our labour, pension and social rights."
But with Greece due to run out of money next month, Athens has little choice but to push through the austerity package being discussed with lenders despite the public opposition.
Greece and inspectors from the troika both say they have agreed on most issues, and Athens is expected to secure aid needed to avoid bankruptcy given EU determination to avoid fresh market turmoil that is threatening to drag down bigger economies such as Spain and Italy.
(Editing by Anna Willard)
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