Discontent returns to the streets in Greece

February 19, 2016

Colleen Bolger talks to Greek socialists about renewed protests against the SYRIZA government's acceptance of austerity, in an article for the Australian paper Red Flag.

"A NEW phase of the SYRIZA era" is how one activist characterized the political situation in Greece since the re-election of the post-bailout SYRIZA government in September.

In the last months of 2015, teachers, students, seamen, metro workers, municipal workers and pensioners protested or struck against the government's austerity measures. On November 12, the first general strike under the SYRIZA government took place against pension cuts.

The struggle then exploded in January. Lawyers launched an indefinite strike. Seamen have held two 48-hour strikes, and a third is planned in the coming weeks. On January 21, doctors, engineers, lawyers and seamen all struck and came together for a rally of more than 15,000. As the strikes broke out around the cities, farmers blockaded major highways with tractors.

All this set the stage for a strike on February 4, called by both the public-sector and private-sector unions. This action was solidly observed across the country, from small towns to the giant march in Syntagma Square in Athens.

Farmers protesting austerity policies blockade the highway between Athens and Thessaloniki
Farmers protesting austerity policies blockade the highway between Athens and Thessaloniki

Panos Petrou of the Internationalist Workers Left (DEA by its Greek initials) told Red Flag:

What was most impressive in this general strike was its national character. There were big demonstrations not just in big cities, but also in small towns and even villages. Some of these demonstrations in the rest of Greece were actually bigger than the mobilizations in 2010-12.

Until now, the struggle of the professionals (lawyers, engineers) and the farmers were setting the tone. Blocs of these sectors were present in the general strike, but the importance of the general strike was the reappearance of wage earners and workers' unions on the scene. This was a very significant aspect of the general strike.

We stand firmly against a sectarian/purist attitude that dismisses all professionals and farmers as "middle-class reactionaries defending their privileges" (this is coming from small parts of the left, but it is also the government's propaganda), and we support their struggle. But we are aware of the class distinctions inside these sectors, the efforts of the upper layers to hegemonize these movements, the connections of the leaderships of some of the unions and associations of these sectors with the bourgeois parties.

Since the general strike, the seamen called another 48-hour strike and the lawyers extended their indefinite strike to February 15 under the leadership of their strike committee. The farmers have escalated their blockades and converged on Syntagma on February 11. They joined municipal workers who set up camp outside the Ministry of Labor, protesting against five-month contracts. A government official warned that farming vehicles will not be permitted to enter, creating the potential for a standoff.

THIS IS the confrontation that Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras feared when he persuaded the country's creditors to let him postpone pension cuts and increase taxes on farmers so that the third Memorandum would pass the parliament with minimum protest back in July.

These attacks bite hard into living standards. The tax hike affecting farmers has provoked a normally quiescent social layer into protest. The pension cuts are twofold--lowering the rate new pensioners will receive and increasing contributions from most workers.

Tsipras has offered concessions to lower-paid workers, lowering the contributions from them. However, where people are so badly paid that they cannot afford any contribution, it matters little whether the contribution is 1,000 euros or 10,000--their contribution will still be nothing. Tsipras has also said that the reduction will not be imposed on existing pensioners, but the creditors have not yet agreed to this proposal. The governor of the Bank of Greece, Yannis Stournaras, is still demanding pensions be slashed further.

Tsipras has no strategy to deal with the unrest. According to Panos, the government "is moving constantly from denouncing the protesters as 'privileged layers' or 'reactionaries' to trying to appease them and claim that 'at heart,' the government is on their side and is trying to do its best in the negotiations with the creditors."

On the eve of the general strikes in November and February, Tsipras came out in support of strikers, claiming they were acting against the creditors. Nonetheless, no minister was game to attend the strike rallies.

SYRIZA still enjoys passive support while people are skeptical that the left can deliver anything better. Polls indicate support for Popular Unity, a left split from SYRIZA, is about the same as at the elections, when it polled 2.9 percent. In this sense this period is a continuation rather than a break with the SYRIZA experiment. Yet people are prepared to take a stand against drastic cuts to their living standards. Panos said, "We have been witnessing the growing dissatisfaction of the electoral base of support of SYRIZA towards the Tsipras government, but in terms of disappointment or silent rage."

Since the pension cuts were tabled, one SYRIZA parliamentarian has resigned, reducing the SYRIZA-ANEL parliamentary coalition to 154. This has pushed SYRIZA to attempt to ally with PASOK, Potami or lunatic TV personality Vasilis Leventis in order to broaden its parliamentary support.

The government continues to defer the vote on the pensions. The peak public sector union ADEDY is expected to call another general strike the day the vote is taken. The national strikes are exacerbating the instability in the government. Panos reports, "There is an open discussion in the media and widespread rumors about all possible scenarios: from a 'national unity' government to early elections (again!). It seems very likely that sooner or later the Tsipras government will pay the same price that all governments that pushed through austerity have paid in the past five years."

First published at Red Flag.

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