As Greeks marched in a general strike today to protest a new round of austerity cuts, they’re building rank-and-file ferment that’s launching new unions and boosting a pro-worker party. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis.
Greek workers carried out a 24-hour general strike today as 50,000 people demonstrated in Athens against austerity. The conservative coalition government is proposing $15 billion of further cuts to pensions and salaries.
Police responded with tear gas when some demonstrators hurled Molotov cocktails at the finance ministry and parliament.
The strike was called by the country’s two biggest unions, which between them represent half the workforce. It was the latest of at least 10 general strikes since 2010.
A survey conducted by the MRB polling agency last week found that more than 90 percent of Greeks believe the planned cuts are unfair and a burden on the poor.
Official unemployment in the country runs at 25 percent; fully half of young people have no work. Those Greeks still working would labor six days a week under the new plan.
Already this year the minimum wage was cut by 22 percent, and for those under 25, by 32 percent. In January, the public electricity company raised rates 15-20 percent. The government has ordered an expiration date no later than February 2013 for all collective bargaining agreements.
Although more Greeks are now backing pro-worker political parties, they are also seeing the rise of a neo-Nazi movement that regularly terrorizes immigrants in the streets and says women’s place is in the home.
Today’s protests follow similar ones in Spain and Portugal. Police fired rubber bullets on demonstrators outside parliament in Madrid as the government prepared further austerity measures. The Portuguese government was forced to withdraw its plan to raise workers’ social security taxes after a half million people marched last week.
Protests have rocked Greece since the European Central Bank, the European Commission, and the International Monetary Fund—the “Troika”—imposed harsh terms in exchange for a bailout. The Greek government signed a “memorandum” promising to privatize public assets and to cut spending on wages, pensions, and social welfare to pay the debt.
“We won’t submit to the Troika!” and “EU, IMF out!” the protesters in Athens chanted.
Why was the Greek government’s debt so huge to begin with—120 percent of gross domestic product (GDP)? Not, as commentators from Fox News to “This American Life” would have it, because the Greek people went on a spending spree when they started using the euro.
As Thomas Harrison and Joanne Landy explain, the government did indeed borrow recklessly, to finance the 2004 Olympics and to buy arms from Germany and the U.S. (Greece spends more on defense as a proportion of GDP than any other EU member).
Flagrant tax evasion by the rich was also a factor. And the structure of the euro-zone itself was designed to create a market for German exports in Greece (and the other weaker European economies), by replacing weak local currencies with the euro. This also encouraged excessive borrowing.
The German government has demanded that the Greeks finalize an austerity budget by October 19.
Sotires Martalis, a high school physics teacher in Athens who was on the national council of the public employees union federation, spoke with Labor Notes in 2010. Martalis said, “All the governments took money from our pension funds and lost it in the stock market, and now they say they can’t pay the pensions we were promised.”
The majority of union leaders, Martalis said, belong to the Social Democratic party (PASOK) that was in power at that time. They wanted to negotiate with the government for lesser cuts. “But the rank and file is so angry,” he said. “Their main idea is ‘we don’t pay for your crisis, not even one euro. Take the money from the rich.’ So the leaders of the federations have had to support and call strikes.”
Here Lefteris Kretsos tells what the Troika’s austerity program has meant for ordinary Greeks and how they’ve responded with new forms of protest and new organizations.
Greece Pioneers the Economic Crisis
When Greece took an unfortunate pioneering role in the economic crisis, economic shock therapy meant that most working people saw their lives turned upside down in a matter of a few months.
But the pain caused by austerity has affected the strategies of unions and social movements. Community organizing and working with local people’s assemblies are no longer the abandoned children of union organization.
Since 2010 unions have called more than 10 general strikes, with many others at the company and sector level. Many strikes were accompanied by huge rallies across the country, organized by the unions. Angry clashes between protesters and riot police and incidences of police brutality have become endemic. You really cannot tell which spark will start a fire and when.
Strikes and protests not only have become more passionate and frequent but for the first time they are driven by new actors: strong networks of rank-and-file activists and self-organized communities. More than 45 new unions have been established in the last three years in the large urban areas, often with the aid of social media. Most are militant and democratic. Some were founded after the big unions excluded “precarious” or contingent workers, such as agency workers in banks.
These new unions and workers’ organization within unions not only put strong pressure on the existing bureaucratic union structures and leaders. This radical unionism also has helped to promote other inspiring resistance initiatives, which breathe the spirit of self-organization. Examples include self-governed hospitals (General Hospital of Kilkis), occupied factories (Xalivourgiki), workers’ self-management of factories (Philkeram Johnson), booming networks of part alternative currency/part barter system markets, local communities on the barricades (Keratea), and mass blockades of ministries and companies’ headquarters.
The Occupy Movement
The movement against austerity in the last year has included occupations of public squares, daily demonstrations of up to hundreds of thousands of people, and a new grassroots social disobedience movement called “Don’t Pay.” These were inspired by the square occupations in Spain that favored direct democracy instead of parliamentary democracy. Occupy and social disobedience movements organized huge demonstrations and direct actions against privatization of public services and fare hikes on public transportation.
Of course, these movements have not only resisted austerity but educated their members and the rest of the Greek public about the crisis. The primary role of international and national economic and political elites in causing the crisis was much explored. Popular assemblies in squares and neighborhoods took decisions not only about forms of struggle but also for political demands: stopping interest payments; declaring the debt unpayable; establishing an audit team to examine the legitimacy of loan agreements; exiting the eurozone; completely reorganizing the economy around ordinary workers’ needs.
Greece’s Occupy movement put such serious strains on the political system that excessive police brutality against civilians and strikers, especially in June and October 2011, was used to kill its dynamism.
When the Occupy movement in the country was at its peak, the authorities had lost their legitimacy. They were ruling by exercising coercive force alone.
An Anti-Austerity Party
Today Greece is highly volatile. More than 20,000 are homeless, more than 50 percent of young people and 25 percent of the workforce are unemployed. This is accompanied by thousands of suicides since 2010, as at least 60,000 small companies have closed and thousands of workers have gone unpaid for long periods.
These conditions led to the meteoric rise of Syriza, a coalition of radical left groups, in this June’s elections. From 5.6 percent of the national popular vote in 2010, Syriza grew to 27 percent—the second largest of all the parties. More and more people in Greece have jettisoned their traditional ideologies, and they no longer believe what they used to believe.
As the Troika has appeared determined to make an example of Greece by not allowing any renegotiation of the privatization-and-cuts deal, the political balance of power in the country is being transformed. The current coalition government will be short-lived, and according to the latest polls Syriza would lead in new elections, with 30 percent.
Syriza is popular with the most frustrated and dynamic groups of the population—urban and working class areas, young people, precarious workers—because of its anti-austerity agenda, its strong presence in street politics, social media, and grassroots community action, and the charismatic leadership of 38-year-old Alexis Tsipras.
Syriza is now focusing on how to turn its electoral support into a source of self-organized social power for change. Its rise boosts the confidence of anti-austerity activists, parties, and unions across Europe. Even if sweeping austerity policies are still winning, the rise of alternative unionism in the big urban areas and the political rise of Syriza give hope for more permanent radical political change in the near future.
Lefteris Kretsos is teaching industrial relations at the University of Greenwich, London. Email him at L.Kretsos@gre.ac.uk.