From Greece : Class struggles in a war-like situation

As general strikes have had less and less participation after 2010 at both private and public sector and precisely because of their total failure to halt the wave of institutional measures which has been imposing an unprecedented depreciation of labour power, struggles emerged on the terrain of the implementation of this devastating attack, that is the separate workplaces at both public and private sector.

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The ‘sovereign debt crisis’ attack unsurprisingly found its immediate target at the public sector. Therefore, the workers at this sector were the first who responded against the wage cuts, the huge slashes in public spending, the dismantling of services and the dissolution of a vast amount of state entities.

Apart from strikes and demos which escalated last October, a wave of sit-in protests at town halls, ministries and public service offices by civil servants in Athens and around the country marked an unusual upgrading of struggle for this particular sector. Workers sealed off the entrance to the social security informatics directorate, as well as the entrance to the housing, interior and development ministries and to the pensions directorate of the General State Accounts Office. These militant practices, which blocked at least temporarily the ‘labour reserve’ plans of the government (whereby 30,000 civil servants were supposed effectively to lose their jobs within months) signalled the awakening of the majority of the chronically lethargic civil servants whose very existence, according to the state propaganda, now constitutes the main ‘structural problem’ of the country.

Municipal workers nationwide occupied local government offices and refuse collectors were on a ten-day protest that included a blockade of the capital’s main landfill site in northwest Athens. The municipalities undergo drastic cuts at the moment, as some of their services (starting with cleaning services) will get privatized and a part of their personnel is going to be dismissed.

On October 12, members of the GENOP union began an occupation of the printing offices of the Public Power Corporation (DEI). As part of new property tax legislation, the DEI billing department was to send homeowners bills for increased property taxes as part of their electricity bills. Although not devoid of populism -they claimed they would not cut off electricity only of those who live in abject poverty, thus undermining the aggressive character of the movement against taxes- and a macho bravado, those unionists’ action slowed down the whole process.

Capitalist crisis proves to be particularly unhealthy for proletarians as the severe cuts in all kinds of health services show: there were about 40% cuts in hospital budgets, understaffing, reported occasional shortage of medical supplies, merges or even closures of hospitals as well as mental institutions and rehabilitation centres. Health workers have responded by continuous strikes or even occupations of the Health Ministry with the last one having lasted for 15 days. An interesting struggle took place in the General Hospital of Kilkis, a town in northern Greece, for some weeks. The general assembly of all health workers (doctors included) decided to occupy the premises and started the retention of work, serving only emergencies until the complete payment for the hours worked, and the rise of their income to the levels it was before the arrival of the troika (EU-ECB-IMF), as they say. They also provided free healthcare declaring that the long-lasting problems of the National Health System (ESY) in the country cannot be solved through limited claims of the health services sector and thus they placed their special interests inside a general framework of political and economic demands against the brutal capitalist attack asking for solidarity from everybody. Though the occupation is over, the unpaid health workers continue the retention of work.

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A series of defensive and sectional struggles at workplaces at the private sector revealed that the Greek industrial capital has already taken advantage of the new institutional framework of the ‘state of emergency’ now ruling in Greece to prop up its profitability or just transfer its own debts and losses onto the workers.

The basic demands around which these struggles evolved were mainly against lay offs, factory closures, removal of machinery and commodities’ stock by the bosses, for due payment and defense of existing labour contracts. Over several months last year numerous struggles appeared of a similar trend. In a steel factory in Volos 100 workers were on strike for a month against its closure and lay offs. In an aluminium factory in a western suburb of Athens, workers were on strike demanding payment due for over a year. Similar strikes with the same demands took place in two other aluminium factories in the same area.

Two milk factories in Attiki and Larissa correspondingly were the terrain of some victories: after just one-day strike in Agno milk factory against lay offs and clashes with the riot cops, the workers got back to their jobs. In Larissa the strike made the bosses revoke both the lay offs and the wage cuts.

In a pharmaceutical factory in Northern Attiki the 330 workers’ struggle was focused on demanding wages due (they had not been paid for months) and rejecting the imposition of intermittent work (once a week). There were also clashes with the riot police when the bosses tried to remove commodities of thousands euros value out of the factory.

The 400 steel workers’ strike at Elliniki Chalivourgia (over 150 strike days) in West Attiki started as a response to 50 lay offs after the bosses’ blackmail to change the labour contract (5 hours a day for a 50% wage cut) had been rejected. The same company owns another factory in Volos, of a smaller productive capacity and with 360 workers who, acting as scabs, work 8 hours a day temporarily to make up for the production of the factory on strike, although, according to the bosses’ plan, their labour contract has changed, too.

It is a struggle ‘adopted’ by PAME through the control of its union. According to the initial strategy, the struggle was presented as having emblematic dimensions for the working class in general, with its possible victory being symbolically a ‘victory for all’ and conversely, its defeat a ‘defeat for all’. What helped build this emblematic character -apart from PAME’s activities and aspirations- was not only the unusually long duration of this struggle but also the unexpected solidarity shown by all political milieus, base unions, neighbourhood assemblies, the workers’ own community or just ordinary people (a solidarity, however, mainly confined to financial support). As time went by and the bosses seemed intransigent, the limits of the stalinists’ tactics imposed on the struggle became obvious: the strike remained stagnant without any prospect either from within –it is indicative of the Stalinist lawfulness that the strikers do not dare to even call their struggle ‘occupation’, let alone seize the means of production for whatever purpose…– or from without. Some solidarity actions were met with reserve and even hostility by the union: ‘All those who believed that they would keep our struggle away from other factories or companies, that they would turn us against the organized class movement, PAME, where we belong and which supports us, now that they failed, they will intervene more openly. They will attack us with slander, lies, terrorism and provocations, in order to weaken our struggle. They have already started doing so in various ways so far. In press announcements, through various events under the pretext of solidarity…’, (from Sifonios’ speech, the head of the union, on January 17, at the strike demo of PAME). In this way political opponents of KKE were held at bay while on this very day (17/1) of an Attiki-wide strike declared by Attiki Labour Centres, the strikers of Elliniki Chalivourgia chose to follow PAME strolling down to the Ministry of Labour leaving all other solidarity strikers take the usual route to Syntagma square. Instead of an ‘escalation’ of the struggle, the strike actually was used by the KKE as another opportunity for its electoral campaign: ‘No dialogue-No retreat-the plutocracy should pay for the crisis-Down with the government of predatory taxes-Elections now-All join the strike on 17/1 and PAME’s demo’, as the announcement of PAME ended.

The use of the steelworkers’ strike as a tool for promoting the stalinist party’s general political line, does leave room for some opportunistic manoeuvre though, as the recent (17/2) warm welcome to the neo-nazi Golden Dawn ‘solidarity delegates’ in the factory by the head of the union showed. Whether the steelworkers are heading for a double defeat –both by the bosses and the stalinists who manipulate a workers’ struggle subordinating it to their political games– or not is a bet that a lot would not like to make…

Mass media were hard hit by the recession: the huge cuts in state subsidies and private money injections led to massive lay offs in newspapers and TV stations.

At ‘Eleftherotypia’, a newspaper identified with the ‘rebirth’ of democracy after the fall of the dictatorship and of a prestige equivalent to the French ‘Liberation’, journalists, administrative personnel and printers went on strike when it became known that the boss intended to file for protection from its creditors under Article 99 of the Bankruptcy Code. The boss claimed credit problems and left the workers unpaid since summer while giving shares to shareholders the previous years. Before December, there had been a series of strikes without any effect and after it the workers published two issues of the paper with the support of the journalists’ union, without however having any definite prospects ahead.

‘Communist’ bosses have been hit by the recession, too. Since December 2010 the administration of the KKE-owned 902 FM radio station /902 TV had started firing non-party member workers without previous notice. What’s worse, when some workers started organizing against the firings, they faced the party’s divide-and-rule tactics pitting them against the party members. Just recently, KKE’s press company, Typoekdotiki, a giant printing company in Greece, which was facing potential closure, filed for protection from its creditors under Article 99 of the Bankruptcy Code. The Code stipulates that employees and other interested parties cannot request or seize assets of a company in trouble until a recovery program is applied and until it gets clear whether the company will continue to exist or will be liquidated. However, it was PAME that condemned such practices of the bosses just almost a year ago. Here is an extract from their daily newspaper, Rizospastis (10-11-2010): ‘The only ones who gain [from the application of this Code] are the employers, since they get rid of those they are indebted to, both suppliers and workers (namely the workers are regarded to be suppliers), safeguarding employers so that they proceed to default on payment to all. Workers lose everything, wages, redundancy payment, insurance money, eligibility for unemployment benefits, while they are blackmailed by employers to leave, taking half the redundancy pay or by being imposed to shiftwork or part-time employment so that the company’s profits can be saved’. So much for workers’ rights and ‘socialized’ means of production, as KKE’s political programme emphasizes!

At a TV station called Alter, its 620 unpaid for months workers proceeded to work retention, brought transmission to a halt and with interventions at the TV frequency in the occupied TV station they presented mainly struggles at various workplaces. This struggle, we must note, is also largely controlled by PAME.

Certain other strikes were effective enough at least in blocking attacks on wage and labour relations: at Vodafone mobile-phone company, the few days’ strike resulted in preventing the change of labour contracts (less hours for less wages). At Notos department chain stores, a 24-hour strike and strike pickets were enough reasons for the bosses to withdraw a new labour contract (less hours for less wages) at least for the moment.

Struggles over wages due are quite often the case in the tertiary sector, too. Hotel workers were on strike in Northern Greece demanding wages due for months and mainly young and unemployed people who took part in the National Census managed to get their wages after a 6-month delay and after self-organized mobilizations (since there was no union for them).

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Apart from workplace struggles and because of the head-on attack on both the production and reproduction spheres, new forms of struggle have flourished mostly organized in neighbourhood assemblies.

These ‘popular assemblies’,1 as most of them are called, have proliferated (over 40 only in Attiki) after the repression and exhaustion of the mobilizations at Syntagma square last August. They attract a growing number of disappointed, conservative voters of the two big (which is highly questionable now, as their legitimacy is fast diminishing) parties, leftists of all kinds, anti-authoritarians and quite ordinary workers or unemployed who are not acquainted with any political procedures and usually frequent the assemblies in the beginning of certain struggles to abandon them later and thus delegate powers to the militants.

Such struggle is the one against a new property tax integrated within the electricity bill which just shows the emergency nature of the capitalist attack we undergo. For a combination of reasons (the struggle is an opposition to the blackmail with the electricity, it expresses certain legal claims of unconstitutionality and it’s a privileged ground for a collective refusal of payments from below), it soon took on the characteristics of a country-wide movement, mainly through neighbourhood assemblies. It is estimated, according to data by the GENOP union (of the Public Power Corporation), that around 30-40% of the households have not paid this particular tax. Faced with this mass indiscipline, the state seemingly retreated while it made a manoeuvre subsuming the tax under the responsibility of the Tax Office and thus it hopes to weaken the movement dispersing it into isolated, fragmented tax-payers. At the moment, they are cutting off electricity at small enterprises or professionals who have not paid the tax and at households that are in arrears with electricity bills for over four months. Moreover, as a response to the movement, the Ministry of Finance is claiming to have purloined money paid for the electricity and channeled it into the payment of the tax instead, which will be a new terrain of struggle.

The responses to the crisis are however varying and not necessarily of an antagonistic character. There has been a growing tendency –mainly within neighbourhood assemblies or ‘citizens’ networks’– of promoting projects of co-operative commodities exchange (usually without the intermediary sellers), service exchange, soup kitchens, self-sustained farming or even local social programmes for unemployed in an era when the welfare state is disintegrating and the social wage is under attack.2 It seems that this self-managed austerity strategy’s boundaries with charities flourishing now in Greece and led by the Church, NGO’s and various well-known capitalists are somehow blurred. This movement will have a long way to go at the expense of a more radical and aggressive class one.

 TPTG (Ta Paidia Tis Galarias), April 2012

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1 Some of them pre-existed the Syntagma square occupation.

2 Particularly for SYRIZA (the Coalition of the Left), such initiatives are promoted under the slogan “No one on their own to face the consequences of the crisis” as a project of an informal welfare state. It may seem similar to alternative self-managed schemes but it is basically the Left programme for a social-democratic welfare state.

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