No surrender in Greece

Antonis Davanellos, a member of Internationalist Workers Left (DEA), reports from Athens on the May 20 general strike and workers’ growing radicalization.

Tens of thousands of people march through the streets of Athens during a general strike (George Laoutaris)Tens of thousands of people march through the streets of Athens during a general strike (George Laoutaris)

WITH A mass general strike on May 20 in the private and the public sector and a large demonstration in Athens and other cities, the workers of Greece continued the struggle to overturn an austerity program imposed by the Greek government, European Union (EU) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Participation in the strike was equally big in the private sector as in the public sector, which is the target of most of the austerity measures.

The strike rally in Athens was somewhat smaller compared to one held during the May 5 general strike, but far larger than union mobilizations of just a month ago. Plus, on May 5, the subway and bus drivers union decided to work between 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. to facilitate attendance at the rally. That wasn’t the case this time.

In fact, the continued mass participation of workers on May 20 put an end to attempts by the government to create a climate of fear and panic. Politicians and the media had attempted to exploit the tragic death of three bank workers, who lost their lives when a bank was set on fire during the May 5 demonstration. As many union leaders emphasized from the stage of the rally, the May 20 protest proved false all the predictions of a climate of violence.

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An atmosphere of self-confidence among striking workers dominated throughout the rally, despite provocations by police. In Athens, for the first time in many years, police carried out “pre-emptive arrests,” mostly of young demonstrators as they were approaching the rally site. Among those arrested were four members of the delegation of the youth section of the French Communist Party, who were here in solidarity with the Greek workers, as well as five members of DEA.

But the campaign to intimidate workers failed miserably. More than 50,000 workers took part in the demonstration.

There were many well-organized contingents: teachers, hospital workers, mass transit workers, municipal workers, and water, electrical and bank workers, along with many union locals from the private sector, marching under their own banners. Also marching were many young workers from sectors most affected by “flexible” work conditions—such as courier services, restaurants, etc.

The chants taken up on the march once again showed the anger and growing politicization of the people: “They talk of profits and losses, we talk of human lives”; “This is not people’s Europe, it is Europe of capital and the bosses”; “From Athens to Brussels, listen to us well, the popular rebellion is already here.”

Again, as during the May 5 demonstration, thousands of angry protesters gathered in front of the parliament, this time behind the banner of the bus drivers union, angrily shouting “thieves, thieves” and other insulting epithets.

This climate continues to put pressure on the union leadership. At the rally, the chairman of the public-sector union federation ADEDY, Spiros Papaspiros, demanded an immediate end to the policy of “supervision” of the Greek economy—and he called for the “troika” (the EU, European Central Bank and the IMF) to be kicked out.

The unions called for another rally May 29, at which workers which will surround the parliament building to demand that their representatives vote down the proposed counter-reform of the new pension plan.

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THIS WIDESPREAD popular anger is being fed by successive austerity measures by the government, but also by the sense that the policies are absolutely ineffective.

The cuts will plunge the economy into a deep recession—the shrinkage is estimated to be between 4 to 5 percent this year--resulting in waves of layoffs and widespread misery. But even these drastic cuts in wages and social spending haven’t made a dent in the public debt, which continues to grow. It has already shot up to 130 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), or 310 billion euros.

This is the direct result of fierce, unbridled neoliberal policies followed blindly by previous governments of the right wing, as well as the social democratic governments of PASOK, which was voted into office late last year.

One sign of the scale of the crisis was the move by Germany to ban “naked short selling,” the practice among financial capitalists of selling shares or bonds not yet in the seller’s possession in the hope of buying them back later at a lower price, finishing the deal and making a profit. The German government wants to prevent speculators from “shorting” EU government bonds, which have dropped in value as the Greek crisis has driven the euro lower on world markets.

Yet the Bank of Greece allowed naked short selling for an extended period of 10 days, feeding the ruthless clique of speculators. This move led to protests even by members of parliament of the ruling PASOK party.

News like this is sharpening people’s anger against private banks, hedge funds, the stock market and other institutions of neoliberalism that previously had been allowed to carry on with their speculating, away from public attention.

The subject of public debt has emerged at the center of debate. In both the demonstrations of May 5 and May 20, the workers made their views loud and clear: We didn’t benefit from all this debt, we don’t owe a single euro to anybody, and we aren’t going to accept any sacrifice for the well-being of euro.

For some time now, among broad sections of the population, there has been a growing demand for debt cancellation--for not a euro to be paid to rentiers and usurers--and to instead use our resources for the needs of the people. These demands go hand in hand with widespread slogans to nationalize the banks, tax capital heavily and finally end the madness of military spending (Greece is fifth in the world in military spending in conventional weapons!).

Workers, in the course of the struggle to defend wages, pensions, public health and education, are discovering more general “transitional” demands at each successive demonstration. In other words, they are searching for answers and moving in the direction of more general anti-capitalist politics.

Along the same lines, news of large mobilizations in other EU countries like Romania (where 50,000 public workers demonstrated against new wage cuts), Portugal and France--with workers taking up slogans of solidarity with Greek workers in each case--has spread enthusiasm and joy.

The coming months will be of crucial importance for the movement and the left in this small country. The fight here can be a spark for the great struggles needed by the working class of all Europe.