Ruining the lives of Greek workers

Panos Petrou, a member of the socialist group Internationalist Workers Left (DEA), describes how the crisis is playing out in Greece and the next stage of the struggle.

Greek workers march in Athens during the one-day strike on October 5 (Athens Indymedia)Greek workers march in Athens during the one-day strike on October 5 (Athens Indymedia)

ONLY A few months ago, European leaders were celebrating the agreement from a July 21 economic summit that was supposed to control the Greek debt crisis and protect the eurozone--the 17 countries of Europe that share a common currency--from a "domino effect" and the possibility of a collapse.

Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou claimed that the July 21 deal was a great success that would protect the Greek economy from collapse.

After the announcement, anyone who said that it was impossible for Greece to repay the public debt and that all the sacrifices working people are being forced to make were dumping money down the drain came in for criticism, including from government officials who denounced "irresponsible statements that harm the national effort to overcome the crisis."

The possibility of a default was a "taboo" subject. Everyone was expected to believe that there was light at the end of the tunnel, and that all these sacrifices would "save the country" in the end.

Two months later, all this talk and all the "wise" plans of Europe's "brightest minds" lie in ruins.

The July 21 agreement didn't even make it to all the European parliaments, which had to approve it. It was already dead beforehand. Germany's Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, one of the architects of the agreement, recently admitted that "it has to be revised."

The "haircut" that banks were supposed to pay on their holdings of Greek bonds--that is, they would receive less than 80 percent of the bonds' value if they sold them to the European Financial Stability Fund--proved to be just an aspirin for a very serious disease, even though this was seen as a bold move a few months ago.

Greek public debt is spiraling out of control--it is already larger than the annual gross domestic product of the country, by the end of 2012, it will climb to 180 percent of GDP, according to estimates.

The effects of harsh austerity measures and a wave of new taxes that were part of the July 21 deal are already felt by working people. But for the ruling classes, it wasn't the same. For banks that want to minimize the risk of losing all their money, it was a pretty good arrangement to take a "haircut" on Greek bonds in exchange for being able to get rid of them and transfer a part of their losses to state budgets.

In the meantime, the government didn't collect a single cent from increased taxes on the rich. This crucial factor, along with the deep recession, ruined any chance the government had to accomplish its target of reducing the deficit to zero.

This shows that the crisis of Greek capitalism is far deeper than what most analysts predicted. Of course, the Greece isn't an isolated incident. World capitalism if facing a new stage of the global crisis, one that could cause a recession even deeper and more prolonged than the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, explained that the world economy was "entering a dangerous new phase."

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THE GREEK case is at the center of the crisis right now for two reasons. First, French, German and British banks--and, in the end, American banks, too--are exposed to the Greek debt, and its crucial to their survival for it to be dealt with in some way. But more importantly, there is the threat of a Greek default spreading to Spain, Italy and even France. These economies are far larger than Greece, and if they experience a debt crisis, it would be impossible to handle--their collapse threatens the collapse of the eurozone.

Everyone--governments, bankers, the EU--is now in a panic. The new solution Schäuble proposes was called by one newspaper "controlled bankruptcy with the eurozone." Greece's debt would be reduced by 50 percent, together with new a bailout package to support the banking system. This would involve expanding the resources of the European Financial Stabilization Facility, including allowing it to issue its own bonds.

Even so, all these proposals are still in their blueprint stages--at a time when capitalism is already in the vortex of the global crisis.

Two things are certain. One is that bankruptcy--whether "controlled" or out-of-control--is coming. Evangelos Venizelos, the government's finance minister a powerful figure in the governing PASOK party, warned that the scenario of "Argentina 2001"--where the country's economy crashed, leading to mass protests and the ouster of successive presidents--is possible. An article in a high-profile, government-friendly newspaper noted: "The transition to a situation similar to the one the Eastern Europe countries faced after the collapse of their regimes [in 1989] must be considered inevitable."

The second certainty, and the more important one, is whatever the scenario, the ruling class is determined to make the workers pay.

The government has claimed again and again that each round of austerity would be the last, and that no further measures would be needed--only to announce some time later that the previous measures had "not been effective enough" and new ones were needed. This would be a joke by now, if the consequences of austerity weren't deadly serious.

The only thing that has changed is the pace--it now only takes a week's time for Venizelos to announce that new measures are needed. Even PASOK MPs are complaining that they are sick of being told regularly that they must vote "one last time" for a new round of austerity, "in order to save the country."

The vast sums of money that will be needed to repay the debt will come from slashing wages and pensions--the overall reduction is estimated to be between 40 to 50 percent--from raising taxes and from cutting even more from social spending.

The Greek government and the "troika" of the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund have used each dose of bailout money to blackmail the Greek people to accept harsher policies. The same scheme is underway now, but the plans for a "controlled bankruptcy" will make the terms of the blackmail even harsher. The implementation of austerity will be overseen by creditors, and mechanisms will forbid any loosening of the policy of cuts.

In a recent speech in the parliament, Venizelos warned that "sweat, tears and blood" will be required from the people. It is a warning we must take very seriously. A blitzkrieg assault on the working class is already under way, with the public sector on the eye of the storm.

Public employees' wages are being slashed yet again, along with pensions, pushing them down even lower. A wave of mass layoffs is underway. The government claims it will use surplus staff to fill other positions, but behind this gentle terminology is the reality: public employees will be used wherever the government requires them to work for 60 percent of their wage for a year, and then they will face unemployment.

At the same time, there is an ongoing discussion about the need for mass layoffs of public employees. Plus, under a rule imposed by the "troika," only one worker will be hired in the public sector for every 10 who retire.

These policies are already ruining ordinary people's lives. Greece's unemployment rate has already skyrocketed, and will soon hit 22 or 23 percent, according to the unions. Hospitals, schools and other public services, already suffering from staff shortages, will be stripped of their remaining personnel. The drastic reduction of public-sector wages, which traditionally set a high standard for all workers, will push wages down for the private sector, too.

Public institutions that provide important social services are about to shut down or "merge," and see their funding reduced dramatically. Among the chief targets are public services that support mentally ill people, those addicted to drugs, the disabled and more. Another victim of the cuts is the publisher of books for Greek schools--as a result, while the schools are open this year, there are no books in the classroom.

At the same time, the private-sector "job market" is a jungle. The recession has led to a massive wave of layoffs. The right to collective bargaining is under attack--a law implemented last year gives employers the opportunity to sign company-wide contracts, with far worse terms than the usual contracts signed for whole sectors, even individual contracts with each employee.

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THE SCALE of the attack has provoked mixed--and contradictory--reactions until now. On the one hand, many people feel numbed by the pace of the new austerity measures being announced, the fear for their future and the specter of bankruptcy. The fact that the previous round of confrontations with the government, which included one- and two-day general strikes and the popular "movement of the squares," didn't win is another factor in the demoralization.

But on the other hand, the same factors have made clear to a significant number of people that struggle is the only real option to protect our lives.

The new round of resistance has already started. Public transport workers are organizing a series of 24-hour and 48-hour strikes. Doctors are also taking strike action. Public organizations that are about to close or be merged, or that have been ordered to reduce staff, are organizing coordinated actions, including work stoppages, demonstrations, etc. Workers employed by municipalities are also participating.

Another front in the struggle is education. A law imposing new measures and cutbacks at public universities was passed during the summer, so students have organized occupations from the first day of the academic season. In the last month, some 300 universities were occupied.

This movement has declined recently under pressure from a media propaganda campaign; claims from the Ministry of Education that the whole semester will be lost; the inactivity of leaders of the university teachers union, despite the will of the rank and file to join students in struggle; and the failure of the youth wing of the Communist Party to support the occupations. But with the support of other forces of the radical left, the struggle, is continuing in universities.

And at the same time, a wave of high-school occupations has started all over the country. Hundreds of high schools are occupied right now, with students demanding their most basic rights: Books and teachers.

A new battle is opening up right now around the issue of new tax hikes, which have provoked widespread anger. Most people can't afford to pay any more taxes, and a "can't pay-won't pay" movement of civil disobedience is emerging.

All the parties and organizations of the left support this new movement, although there is a lack of common action, which is a serious obstacle. Neighborhood assemblies and local committees of struggle that were formed during the rise of the squares movement are now reactivating around the issue of taxes to organize the refusal to pay in a collective way. Several unions are organizing members to refuse to pay, which is very important at a time when there is a lack of trust toward trade unionism among many ordinary workers.

All of these organizations are gathering the papers sent to individuals by the Tax Office and returning them together. Demonstrations where people burn tax papers and rally outside tax offices are organized. The battle is reminiscent of the anti-Poll Tax movement in Britain in the early 1990s--and it is important to remember that this movement not only got rid of the tax, but drove Margaret Thatcher out of power.

The government's fear of such action can be seen in its threat to cut electricity to anyone who refuses to pay the new hike. In another important example of how useful workers organization can be, the union for electricity workers has responded by saying it will fight alongside non-payers and do what it can to defend them.

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FACED WITH this pressure, the leaders of the major union confederations, which are aligned politically with the ruling PASOK party, have been forced to move. There will be a 24-hour joint strike of state workers and workers at public enterprises on October 5 and a general strike on October 19.

These strikes are important as a first step in escalating the struggle. But they are far less than what is needed to fight this assault.

The mood of resistance is present, and all these struggles are ongoing. But the fluid situation underlines the need for the organized, conscious intervention of the radical left.

Many people have learned the hard way that sporadic 24-hour general strikes won't stop the attack. Greece has seen many of them in the past year and a half, but they didn't win. And faced with the real pressure of job insecurity and drastically reduced wages, many workers are asking whether it's worth it to sacrifice their wage.

Organized activists must intervene on this question with the demand for escalating and ongoing strikes that really are "worth it."

There is also a growing understanding that strikes by specific sectors can't win by themselves. Whether this conclusion will be interpreted as the idea that strikes can't win ot will underline the need for coordinated walkouts and solidarity actions is also an open debate the left must speak two.

The last round of protest ended with the PASOK government on the brink of collapse. But in the end, it survived and voted through a new austerity package. This opens up another crucial debate. The question of "what else can we do?" is widespread--one of the reasons that the squares movement has ebbed is because people can't see an answer.

It is up to activists of the left to explain that "spontaneous actions" are not enough--that actions like the occupation of Syntagma Square are very useful, but if they don't lead to a wave of struggle in workplaces and in neighborhoods, where bitter and far more important battles are waged, they won't succeed. Likewise, strike actions like the 48-hour general strike last June can't be left in the hands of union leaders if we want them to be successful and effective.

The good news is that the previous struggles have left important legacies behind. Militant methods like occupations are now part of the working class "arsenal." The brutal repression we faced at Syntagma may have scared some people, but it also turned many people who demonstrated there for the first time in their lives into militant activists.

Student occupations may be fewer than at the beginning of the term, but we are clearly witnessing a revival of militancy after a few years of relative passivity. Thousands of students are willing to attend general assemblies, discuss politics and tactics, and organize their struggle.

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A CORE of committed activists is being forged through serious battles. They will carry with them the experience of bitter strikes, confrontations with the police, militant actions and so on. As they fight these battles, people's consciousness is changed. Illusions that held on for decades are dissolving.

For example, one rapidly vanishing illusion is that voting for social-democratic parties and governments is an effective way to at least to protect our living standards under capitalism. Another myth that is disappearing is the idea that the European Union will protect us from economic crisis, social misery and wars.

The tasks for the left, including members of DEA, involve both the "social" and "political" field.

To build a militant mass movement than can overthrow the policies dictated by the government and the troika, we will need to unify the different neighborhood assemblies, committees of struggles, social movements, workers' actions and student occupations into a powerful social united front. We will also need self-activity from the rank and file, with mass assemblies, occupations and picket lines at workplace that can overcome the passivity of the trade union leadership.

While building such a vibrant movement, we need to remember that the struggle ahead is also political. The overthrow of the government must be the number one goal, but it doesn't end there. The battle against the troika and its demands must also challenge any anti-worker successor to the PASOK government--whether this comes in the form of a government of national unity or a comeback of the Right, which has turned to fake populist politics not unlike the Tea Party in the U.S. to build support. Also important is the struggle against the far right, which is trying to gain a hearing.

Along with the economic crisis, we are in the midst of a political crisis. According to opinion polls, PASOK's popularity has fallen to historic lows--yet the mainstream conservatives don't seem to be able to claim a majority. Some polls indicate that a combined vote among all the political forces to the left of social democracy could reach 30 percent.

This left-wing turn among the mass of the population must be met with appropriate answers from the Left. Facing with the specter of Greece's bankruptcy, we need to demand that the government suspend payments to its creditors, not to the people. The question "Who will pay for the crisis?" is becoming in the most direct way for millions of workers.

In the end, people breaking with the illusions of the past will have to deal with one final but very strong illusion: That capitalism is the only possible way to organize society. For people to overcome this illusion, we need an anti-capitalist political force that will prove there is another way: Socialism.