The struggle intensifies in Greece

March 31, 2010

George Yorgos looks at the situation in Greece following a second general strike against severe austerity measures.

GREEK POLITICIANS are negotiating with European leaders and bankers to get relief on the government's massive debts--and they've launched a huge attack on Greek workers to show that they're serious about pushing through major austerity measures under a so-called Stabilization Program.

But workers are just as serious about blocking those measures--and they showed it March 11 in Greece's second general strike so far this year. About 70,000 workers took part in the main demonstrations amid a very successful strike, which had high participation in both the public and the private sectors.

The protest in Athens was one of the largest in recent years, strongly reminiscent of the successful 2001 strikes against the attempts of the then-government of the social democratic party PASOK to reform pension plans. Now, PASOK is the target of protests again as Prime Minister George Papandreou is pushing budget cuts, layoffs and tax increases.

PASOK was elected last year as workers were fed up with the policies of the right-wing New Democracy government. Now, angry workers are putting enormous pressure on the leaders of the GSEE labor federation. Despite their close ties to PASOK, the GSEE officials felt compelled to back the general strike and call a labor demonstration on March 11. And despite the fact that the Communist Party (CP) once again called a separate rally, the two demonstrations practically merged, marching one after the other to the parliament building and shutting down the center of Athens until late into the night.

Thousands of workers fill the streets for a demonstration during Greece's one-day general strike
Thousands of workers fill the streets for a demonstration during Greece's one-day general strike (DEA)

The scene was similar in many other cities, where striking workers took to the streets. In Thessaloniki, some 10,000 marched in heavy rain. Among them was a very militant group of teachers and students and a very animated block of the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) with its drum band.

THE MARCH 11 strikes and protests revealed an obvious shift in the public mood from the initial shock caused by the brutality of the measures. In the period since the first general strike on February 24, there have been strikes every day by a number of unions. This led to a large rally in Athens March 4 and, the following day, a strike by the public sector and a militant rally that surrounded the parliament on the day that special austerity measures were voted upon.

Day by day, protest by protest, more and more people are getting into the streets to demonstrate, strike and show their solidarity to the occupations of public buildings. They have one demand: "Take back the measures." It was this clearly expressed anger from below that forced the social democratic leadership of GSEE to make the decision to join the public-sector strike planned for March 11, turning it into a general strike.

Throughout the March 11 rally and the march that followed, a fighting mood was clearly evident among the protesters. Unions, students and youth organizations had large and visible blocs on the march. Present with their bright banners were electric company workers (who also went on two-day strike on March 15-16), public hospital workers, including nurses and doctors (who were also on a rotating strike).

Also in the thick of the action were workers from the banks, the postal and courier services, the shipyards, the water company and mass transit. Teachers and municipal workers turned out, as did rail workers, employees in mass media and members of many other unions in the public and private sectors.

The protest wasn't simply a celebration of workers' power, however. Riot police attacked the march, making excessive use of tear gas. They failed to disperse the protesters, however. Instead, workers angered by the unprovoked attack took up chants against police brutality and the government that employs them.

The mood of the people everywhere was very militant. For hours, the center of Athens echoed with angry chants underlining the determination of the striking workers to take the struggle to the end--the withdrawal of all the austerity measures.

The new militant, angry mood is also evident in the growing number of occupations of public buildings. In the most publicized case, fired workers of the privatized Olympic Airlines (OA) surrounded the building of the State Accounting Office where the union leadership was meeting with the finance minister. The action forced the union bureaucrats to start an occupation that lasted for 10 days and closed down one of the main boulevards in central Athens.

In the OA occupation, the government didn't dare to use the riot police for fear of inflaming the public sentiment in support of the fired workers and the spread of occupations. But the occupation spread anyway.

During a four-day strike of municipal workers, union activists occupied garbage collection centers all around the country and joined the OA workers in their occupation in the center of Athens. Their message to the government was clear: "This was only our first organized, dynamic action in a longer term struggle that has just began."

The two-day strike of electrical workers was also combined with the occupation of buildings in Athens and other major production facilities all around Greece. In the northern part of the country, where many textile factories have been shut down, textile workers have occupied local government offices and bank branches to demand employment and compensation.

For their part, temporary workers in the public sector took over the Ministry of Employment in Athens to demand permanent government jobs. At the same time, student occupations with labor demands are reviving on college campuses. Even workers at a cheese making farming cooperative in northern Greece occupied their offices to demand back wages.

IN THIS climate, it's become clear to the government that the execution of the austerity measures isn't going to be easy. Public-sector workers, who are most directly targeted in the budget cuts, pushed their union, ADEDY, into calling an all-out strike March 11. But intense mobilization from below was taking place also in the unions of the private sector, and the leaders of GSEE felt they had no choice but to support the call for a general strike.

Sooner or later, however, the PASOK government will be forced to put greater pressure on its allies in the union leadership to stop the labor mobilizations. Already, in many places, union leaders are trying to dampen the struggle by taking advantage of workers' financial straits due to lost wages through strikes.

That's why the left, which up to now has played an important role in building the fightbacks, has to support the workers in their determination to continue and show the way to further escalate their struggle. Central to this effort will be the creation of struggle committees everywhere--in unions, in neighborhoods, in campuses and more.

These local struggle committees can contribute substantially in the organization and participation of the people from below and further safeguard the struggle from the government pressure and possible backtracking by the bureaucratic leadership of the unions. After a proposal by Internationalist Workers Left (DEA), SYRIZA has decided to launch a broad campaign for the creation of these committees. It's appealing to all working people, the unemployed, youth and the rest of the left to organize democratically and locally and take control of their struggle.

The first results of this effort are exciting: Committees have sprung up in dozen neighborhoods in Athens and many major cities. The experience in the seventh district of Athens is a clear example of what the committees could look like. At the initiative of a teacher's union local, a meeting was called to create a struggle committee that now includes the local high school teacher's union, workers at the neighborhood's Red Cross Hospital, the local chapter of the Campaign to Deport Racism and many residents of the district.

The abovementioned forces had earlier gotten together in the neighborhood after the initial call by the CDR to fight back against the racist attacks of a local neo-Nazi group. The bonds of solidarity that were forged through that fight laid the basis for the new struggle committee.

While the strikes, mobilization and local organizing have been crucial steps forward, the struggle to overturn PASOK's Stabilization Program is still ahead of us. And private sector workers are under no illusion: they understand that the same attacks leveled against public workers are coming at them as well. Because what the employers want is not only a reversal of workers' financial gains over the past few decades, but a decisive blow against the very right of workers to collective bargaining.

Stopping these attacks will require the organized participation of the broadest possible section of workers. The continuing strikes have clearly shown that such a mobilization is possible. That's why it's important to turn the slogan, "Struggle Committees Everywhere," into a reality.

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