Greece's workers revolt

Antonis Davanellos, a member of Internationalist Workers Left, reports from Athens on the brewing protests as the government imposes harsh austerity measures.

May Day protests against austerity measures in Athens, Greece (Panagiotis Tzamaros)May Day protests against austerity measures in Athens, Greece (Panagiotis Tzamaros)

WITH AN enormous general strike and massive rallies May 5--including a mobilization of more than 200,000 workers in the capital of Athens alone--the working class of Greece gave its answer to austerity measures imposed by the social democratic government of PASOK, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Union (EU).

The strike paralyzed everything: public and private sector enterprises, small shops, the media. Even taxi drivers were on strike. The following day, several union federations remained on strike, and tens of thousands of demonstrators surrounded the Greek parliament building as representatives voted to approve the measures, which will slash wages and benefits, raise taxes and dramatically lower the working-class standard of living. And the resistance continues: Another general strike has been set for May 10.

The May 5 strike rally and the march that followed were representative of the mobilization from below. The unions were present not only through the large federations, but union locals in workplaces, which took part under their own banners. This activism set the tone for the day.

Also characteristic of the day was anger. Tens of thousands workers thundered, "Today and tomorrow, and for as long its needed, we are all strikers." This fury explains the incredible resilience of the demonstrators, who flooded the center of Athens despite the unprecedented rain of tear gas fired against them by the police.

The demonstration was also exceptionally political. The chants of the revolutionary left were taken up by the overwhelming majority of the demonstrators--for example, "Robbers, robbers, capitalists: Your profits cost human lives."

Moreover, the social base of social democracy itself--the thousands and thousands of workers who had voted for PASOK--was there, joining with supporters of the left in angrily attacking a government in which they had illusions only a few months before. Now they chanted. "Take 'em back [the austerity measures] and get out of here" and "Self-illusions are over--either with the capitalists or with the workers."

This feeling was also openly directed against the trade union leadership. The chairman of the General Confederation of Greek Workers (GSEE, according to its initials in Greece), who is also a leading member of PASOK, was jeered by the people of his own party and forced to cut his speech short.

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UP UNTIL this weeks strikes and protests in Greece, it was only the government and the "markets" speaking about the crisis.

Under the pretext of reducing Greece's government debt, PASOK has passed one of the harshest programs of austerity that has ever been imposed in a country "under supervision"--in this case, by both the IMF and EU.

Initially, the reaction of working people to the violent economic and social changes was shock and confusion. This created the basis for the theorizing that in a such deep crisis, people are becoming more conservative, lending further support to opinions--ones very popular in the corporate media--that any resistance is in vain.

The response of the working class in the magnificent strike of May 5 put an end to all this speculation.

Not by accident, the eyes of all Europe were turned to Athens. The German, French and Spanish unions sent delegations to Athens in order to express their solidarity. In many European countries (among them Hungary, which is well acquainted with the IMF), labor unions and activists organized solidarity events in front Greek embassies.

All the major European media were in Athens to cover the strike. The ruling classes, as well as the working people of Europe, are closely following developments in Greece in order to assess the possibilities of resistance against similar programs being prepared for all EU member countries. The idea of an all-European resistance front is maturing.

The May 5 strike was tarnished by the death of three non-striking workers employed in a branch of the private bank Marfin, which was set on fire during the demonstration.

The branch of Marfin in question is situated in one of the most central streets of Athens and along the route of the demonstration. It has been verified that workers in the branch had asked to be allowed off work since their federation was striking. Instead, under the threat of layoffs, management forced them to stay--a fact that in itself became a provocation, since it is well-known that banks become frequent targets during demonstrations.

Demonstrators did attack the Marfin building. But it has still not been verified whether the fire began from Molotov cocktails thrown by demonstrators or tear gas bombs launched by police.

What is clear is that in order to strengthen its fortifications, the bank management had locked down the building. As a result, when the fire began, workers couldn't escape--with the tragic result of the death of three of them.

Such behavior by Marfin managers shouldn't be surprising. Marfin is a fiercely neoliberal bank that has played a leading role in privatizations of government enterprises--including the selloff of Olympic Airlines.

The bank's owner--a frequent guest in corporate media panel discussions--promotes the view that Greece needs a government of "independent personalities" of capital--an attempt to fashion a current in Greek politics styled after Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, the right-wing corporate media baron.

For its part, the PASOK government is attempting to use the tragic death of the three Marfin workers to confront the enormous working-class resistance of May 5 with a hard policy of "law and order."

It is no accident that the government has the full support of the extreme right crypto-fascist party of LAOS in imposing the IMF-EU austerity program. LAOS is even calling on PASOK to enforce this policy with an "iron fist"--including, if needed, revoking the left's legal right to exist.

The target of the far right's attacks is not only the left-wing coalition SYRIZA and organizations of the revolutionary left (as it was during the militant youth demonstrations of December 2008), but also the more moderate Greek Communist Party.

In any case, the big news of the days has been the huge explosion of workers' resistance. The major newspapers of Athens today are asking: "If on May 5 we had such a strike, what will we experience in the months to follow when the austerity measures actually start taking effect in people's lives?"

The working class has given its first response to the attack. Already, the struggle is forcing everybody--in Greece and the rest of Europe--to consider in their plans the factor of working-class resistance. And this is already taking their breath away.

Translation by George Yorgos