By Michael Winfrey and Lefteris Papadimas
ATHENS (Reuters) - When Greece's government pushed through a law last week aimed at slashing public wages and raising taxes, its biggest threat was not the firebrand opposition or the 100,000 protesters thronged at the gates of parliament.
It was the assembly's workers themselves, a well-connected group that has long evoked disdain for enjoying the kind of lavish pay and benefits that have become emblematic of the public sector excess at the heart of Greece's debt crisis.
The staff dispute that image. But, having discovered that a 500-odd page draft law of cost cuts and tax hikes included a last minute amendment giving the finance ministry oversight over parliamentary pay, dozens of clerks walked off the job.
"Thieves!" they shouted at parliamentarians as they blocked the doors to the chamber, according to a witness, who saw some workers try to hit journalists who were filming them.
Police rushed to lock the door to the basement after a group threatened to shut off the power main.
The walk out briefly halted debate on the bill required for Greece to avoid bankruptcy and forced Finance Minister Yannis Stounaras to back down, a feat thousands of furious demonstrators in the rain outside had failed to achieve.
It triggered outrage among lawmakers and media, who ran headlines reading "Shame!" and complained most of the staff, unsackable under the constitution, were friends or family of politicians benefiting from an anachronistic patronage system.
Greek liberal daily Ta Nea dubbed them "The Princes of Parliament" and called for widespread dismissals among the almost 1,300 staffers.
"The party is over. The politicians have the responsibility to clean the Augean Stables they have created," the newspaper wrote in a front-page editorial, referring to the dirtiest of Hercules's 12 legendary labors in which he diverted a river to wash the manure from the stalls of 1,000 divine cattle.
In August, Conservative New Democracy MP Byron Polydoras struck a nerve when, appointed parliament speaker for just one day after an inconclusive May election, he made his daughter a permanent employee in his office, a position immune to firing.
The chamber's workers outnumber Greece's 300 deputies by more than four to one. By comparison, Britain's House of Commons has around 1,830 for its 646 lawmakers, a ratio of 2.8 to one.
Newspapers cataloged perks enjoyed by the clerks, lawyers, legal experts, messengers, and others in parliament's halls.
Besides public sector pensions, the lists included benefits such as 16-monthly salaries and huge one-off bonuses upon retirement.
The legislature's staff, however, tells a different story. According to Panagiotis Politis, president of the parliament workers' association, his salary has been cut by 50 percent, in line with cuts seen across Greece's public sector.
"We used to get the 16 monthly salaries, election bonuses and so on. But all this has been cut... I have 25 years experience and I get 1,040 euros a month, net," he said.
"What's happening with the media is absurd. By attacking us they are targeting the political system... We can't go out with our children and our spouses in society."
A finance ministry official said Stounaras would resubmit the amendment in an effort to eliminate all bonus schemes within the state system. Politis said the assembly's workers would it block again.
He fears it could threaten the last uncut benefits - overtime payments worth up to 500 euros a month and a 60-salary retirement bonus that could amount to 150,000 euros or more for workers with 30 years experience.
"Of course we don't agree with cutting our retirement bonuses. This is our money," he said, explaining they were partially funded by monthly contributions from workers.
"If they bring it back in the same way, we will stop it...Maybe more forcefully this time."
($1 = 0.7868 euros)
(Additional reporting by Karolina Tagaris and Renee Maltezou; editing by Anna Willard)