A show of workers’ power in Greece

October 20, 2011

Greece is being rocked by a two-day general strike called by the country's two main union federations for both private- and public-sector workers, while the Greek parliament, with the center-left PASOK party in the majority, votes on yet another round austerity measures that are savaging the living standards of working people.

As the New York Times reported on October 19, the first day of the strike, "everyone from trash collectors, teachers, retired army officers, lawyers and even judges walked off the job to protest...government-imposed wage cuts and tax increases."

As protesters clashed with riot police equipped with tear gas, stun grenades and more, members of Prime Minister George Papandreou's ruling party passed the latest austerity legislation in a first-round vote October 19--the second vote is set for October 20. The proposal is justified as a necessity for further aid to bailout the Greek economy from its debt crisis. It includes cuts in wages and pensions, plans for thousands of public-sector layoffs, and changes in collective bargaining rules that would make it easier to fire workers.

Panos Petrou, a member of the socialist group Internationalist Workers Left (DEA), explains the developments that led to this latest battle in Greece's class struggle.

AS THE economic crisis spirals out of control in Europe and Greece's default--either "controlled" or out of control--seems certain, the question of "who will pay?" is more central than ever before.

With all their previous calculations swept into the vortex of the global crisis, with the Greek default coming closer and closer and with the whole eurozone--and the world economy after that--under threat, Europe's elites are in panic.

The representatives of European capital are desperately searching for a new solution to the debt crisis. The "urgent" meetings between the continent's leaders aren't that urgent anymore--they have become the norm.

But as they search for the best deal, the different sections of the ruling class involved all agree on one thing--the only way they have come up with to confront the crisis: Make the workers pay for it.

The intensity of the crisis has put huge pressure on the European Union, International Monetary Fund and the Greek government to act, and they have--by dramatically escalating the attack on working people.

Greek workers on the march ahead of the October 19-20 general strike
Greek workers on the march ahead of the October 19-20 general strike

All the harsh measures have been merged in a single legislation that is going before parliament these days. In this single bill, there are--among other measures--new wage cuts in the public sector, bringing them down to levels as low as 660 euros a month (the equivalent of just over $900 a month) for a newly hired public school teacher; plans for massive layoffs in the public sector; new tax hikes that hit working people hardest and reduction of the threshold where no taxes are due to an annual income of 5,000 euros, even while corporations enjoy a new tax reduction; an attack on union contracts that undermines the right to collective bargaining.

But all the negotiations about austerity behind closed doors, all the policy-making in the corridors, failed to calculate in a crucial factor--the mass movement.

THE OLD slogan "We won't pay for your crisis" has become a war cry for most Greek workers. And most promising of all is that it is a real war-cry. The working class movement has been on the warpath for the past several weeks, and it is escalating the confrontation with the government into a 48-hour general strike this week.

The most striking example of workers' militancy is the widespread use of the occupation as a weapon, especially in administrative buildings. Workers in different government ministries have launched a series of takeovers in ministry buildings. Other important government facilities or public enterprises like the public water company have also been occupied at some point during the past weeks, and the "virus" is spreading: Two major hospitals in Athens are now occupied by their staffs.

This wave of occupations is so strong that right-wing commentators in the newspapers claim that "this is a revolution against the state." Of course, we are far from that, but it shows the panic of the ruling class if such forms of struggle are becoming the norm.

At the same time, a mood of resistance and a sense of solidarity are both growing. Hundreds of high schools are occupied. When the government threatened students that police would break any occupation and arrest them all, the Federation of Secondary Education Teachers decided to call a three-hour stoppage in whatever schools the police enter, and parents associations are starting a "Hands off our kids" campaign.

The government has implemented a new fee for anyone who wants to be examined in a public hospital--but doctors and nurses in the occupied hospitals refuse to collect this increase.

University teachers decided that they would refuse to implement a new law on public education that provoked a wave of student occupations last month.

On another front, the government threatened that it would cut electricity to anyone who refuses to pay a new tax on utilities. In response, the electricity workers' union occupied the facility where electric bills are printed--when police threatened to evict the workers, hundreds of people gathered on short notice to protect the occupation.

The occupation came to an end, but the electricity workers' union declared that it would challenge any attempt to cut electricity to any household. There is even a group of activists in a provincial town that is reconnecting electricity to poor households which couldn't pay the bills.

Along with the occupations, there have been many strikes in various sectors--like public transit workers, who on some days strike together with cab drivers, bringing Athens to a standstill; or the staff of hospitals, which have staged a series of work stoppages, rallies and more. In some cases, marches of different groups of strikers have joined together in the streets.

This wave of struggle culminated in a public-sector strike on October 5. Tens of thousands of government workers stayed away from work, amounting to 90 percent of workers in the sectors that went on strike.

The mass mobilization that day was the biggest public-sector demonstration in the last 20 years. What set the tone of the demonstration was the large number of various local union banners. On the day of the strike, there were picket lines at many workplaces that haven't seen such action in years.

And the demonstration, aside from being huge, was very militant. Even workers who are traditionally considered conservative, like government workers for the Finance Ministry, chanted radical slogans put forward mostly by anarchist groups. When police launched a vicious attack on protesters, the staff of the subway station at Syntagma Square in central Athens tried to form chains to protect anyone who ran into the station for shelter.

The success of this demonstration inspired many public-sector workers to keep on with occupations and demonstrations.

AT THE forefront of the current struggles are local government workers. They are participating in a continuous strike action in various forms. The most important action is by sanitation workers, which has left the streets full of uncollected trash--this "Battle of the Rubbish" is the bitterest struggle the government has faced until now.

The government is using private-sector contractors to organize a scabbing operation, and riot police broke the occupation of the central garbage dump of Athens. But the union responded by hardening its line: Workers occupied many town halls and have blocked all the garages where garbage trucks are parked with picket lines.

This has blocked the scabbing operation. While the private contractors are still on the streets, the piles of trash have become larger and larger. Union members who are not on the picket lines are organizing blockades on the streets where the contractors show up, and many scabs are forced to retreat.

The important thing is that so many people support these union actions, or even organize their own blockades against the scabs when they show up in their neighborhood. Despite the constant propaganda against the strike, for many people, scabbing is a much more serious threat than piles of trash in their neighborhoods.

Of course, these local actions would have been more difficult to organize if not for the neighborhood assemblies and the local committees of struggle that were set up during the "movement of the squares" earlier this year, when a wave of occupations of public plazas swept across the country.

The situation is so intense that private garbage trucks often have to move on the streets with police escort. Many of the private contractors have hired immigrant workers--most of them are extremely poor, don't have documentation or union rights, or aren't even aware that they are part of a scabbing machine.

But efforts to stir up racism against "immigrant scabs" are failing. Many immigrant communities in Greece issued a joint announcement declaring their support for the strike and calling on all immigrants to refuse to work for scab contractors and join the demonstrations for the 48-hour general strike.

In one very inspiring case, picket lines blocked a scab contractor and demanded the police to arrest him, since it's illegal for private companies to collect garbage--but at the same time, the strikers protected immigrant workers who had no papers and made sure the police didn't arrest them.

The government's attempt to declare the strike illegal in court--in violation of a number of constitutional articles in the process--was blocked because lawyers are also on strike, and their union refused to grant permission for the trial to take place.

So now, in an act that shows the true character of the "social democratic" PASOK government, the Defense Ministry is planning to use soldiers as scabs, and the Interior Minister is considering measures to force municipal workers back to work under martial law!

This tough line by the government is a sign of its fear: This is not about just the municipal workers' strike anymore.

The municipal workers' struggle is a clear example of how a strike must be organized: with occupations, picket lines, blockades against scabs, constant calls for anyone who stands in solidarity with the union to mobilize, a tenacious will to continue until the end. And what's more, these elements can be imitated in every workplace.

That's the real nightmare for the ruling party, which is trying desperately to crush this strike to send a clear message to the whole working class.

BUT IT may be too late for them. Under enormous pressure from below, the leaderships of the two main union federations in Greece--one representing public-sector workers and the other public-sector workers--were forced to turn a planned 24-hour general strike on October 19 into a 48-hour strike on October 19 and 20.

With the kind of militant struggles that are already underway and the will to fight back more widespread than ever, this 48-hour general strike will not be like the typical union actions of the past. Its size and militancy could exceed the historic general strike of May 5, 2010, when the first bailout deal was signed, and the massive mobilizations of last spring when the government was brought on the brink of a collapse.

Many sectors, including dockworkers, railway workers, tax collectors, lawyers and municipal workers, turned the 48-hour strike call into three and four days of action by organizing strikes in the days prior to or after the general strike. Other groups of workers are organizing demonstrations and occupations the day before the general strike as a "warm up."

As these strikes become more and more political, raising the demand for the government to step down, and with the new austerity legislation facing its biggest test on October 20, the 48-hour strike is taking the form of a political struggle against the government. The slogan that summarizes the spirit on the street ahead of the strike is: "It's either us or them."

The government is in a deep crisis. Many unionists affiliated to PASOK are distancing themselves from the party. Local branches are condemning the direction of the leadership and considering whether to leave. In every opinion poll, the popularity of the social democrats is at an all-time low. PASOK's group of representatives in parliament--blackmailed by the party's leadership to vote for harsh measures again and again--has been described in the media as "on the verge of a nervous breakdown."

Meanwhile, Prime Minister George Papandreou is organizing meeting after meeting--with the president of the republic, with his cabinet, with major media tycoons, with the right-wing opposition leader--all of which indicates the possibility of a government collapse is serious. So everyone is holding their breath to find out what happens in the 48-hour strike and in the following days.

This situation is full of opportunities for the radical left. Opinion polls indicate that the combined vote of all the various forces to the left of PASOK could reach 30 percent. The most radical left parties--the Communist Party, and the left-wing coalitions SYRIZA and ANTARSYA--could together get more than 20 percent of the vote.

But the situation is also full of challenges that the left must meet. There is a growing number of people who are placing their hopes in the left. The parties and organizations of the radical left need to coordinate, unite this social force, lead the political struggle against PASOK and form a united resistance against any anti-worker government that succeeds Papandreou's.

Most importantly, the left needs to mobilize this force of people looking for an alternative on the streets and in the factories, the schools and universities, where people have the real power to challenge the ruling class.

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