An article exploring the relationship of the recent explosion of social unrest in Greece to European-wide liberalisation of job markets and rising levels of unemployment amongst young people. Taken from issue 74 of Organise!, the Anarchist Federation's magazine.
“This is no mere clash between anarchist groups and the custodians of the law. It’s much more. It is the revolt of an entire generation, the 700-euro generation, which is how much Greek companies tend to pay first-time employees. A miserable salary even by local standards. The unemployment rate among Greek youths is the highest in the EU and the education system is experiencing a profound crisis... Political life is rife with clientilism, cronyism and corruption. ... So the young are revolting against a society in which they feel alien, marginalised and unwanted.”
The Daily Adevărul reflects on the underlying causes of the December 2008 riots in Greece.
A lost generation
Two years ago it was called the “€1,000 generation” – Europeans under age 30 who bounced around in short-term jobs that paid €1,000 a month. Now, even that social label has been devalued. Today it is known as the “€700 generation” – young people entering what amounts to a huge temporary workforce who can’t afford the life and security their parents took for granted. They have little social security, will work far longer hours for much lower pay, and are far more likely to suffer from health problems as a result of their work. A recent survey commissioned by the Greek General Confederation of Labour found that of those workers finding themselves in this category (currently around a quarter of the Greek working population) 89% were not involved with union labour, 75% have never taken industrial action, 75% work in the private sector, and 64% are women.
Widespread unemployment is of course a huge factor in the growth of this casual, poorly paid work. In Spain, Italy, France and Greece, rates are up to 20-30%. In Britain the jobless rate for those aged 16 to 24 is marginally lower at 19.1%. However, this is still on a scale not seen since the early 1990s, and well above the Eurozone average of 15.9%. Many will be forced into temporary labour as a result of the increasingly aggressive benefits system; others will simply opt for anything they can get to avoid the humiliating and degrading experience of going on the dole.
Lack of well-paid, stable work has an obvious impact on people’s general quality of life. The number of adults up to the age of 30 forced to live with their parents due to economic insecurity and lack of access to good, affordable housing has also almost doubled in recent years. In Britain, first-time buyers now face house prices that are, on average, five times average incomes, compared with a multiple of three times 20 years ago. There is also widespread dependence on credit to boost what effectively amounts to poverty wages. People are thrust into a vicious cycle of escalating debt and dependence, often being forced to take on multiple jobs to make ends meet.
The UK has never quite recovered from the collapse of the youth employment market in the 1980s. Partly as a result of this, over recent years there has been a huge effort by the state to get more people into full-time further education. The government’s widely publicised target of 50% of young people entering higher education, however, was quietly abandoned with the onset of the economic crisis. Universities are already over-subscribed and now face a squeeze on both fronts, with a wave of spending and staffing cuts accompanied by the promise of severe penalties from central government for exceeding recruitment quotas. Meanwhile, a general lack of opportunities is spilling over into the graduate job market, with levels of joblessness increasing by 44% last year alone and even more in sectors hit particularly hard by the recession, such as construction and architecture.
All is not lost, however! In a recent televised broadcast, Prime Minister Berlusconi was able to offer some highly practical advice. He was asked by a female student how she would survive the financial insecurity that had spread across Italy in the last few years. He said that the best advice he could think of for her was to find a rich boy, like his son, and marry him! Adding in the end that with a beautiful smile like hers she should have no trouble at all!
We are all workers, we are all precarious
Work has always been and always will be unstable while profit margins rule over human needs. The expansion of capitalism has witnessed massive displacement of labour according to shifts in supply and demand, the collapse and growth of markets and, of course, the onset of crisis. While capital has been free to expand across the globe, workers have always had to cope with the volatility of domestic job markets. The type of work we do has also been in a continuous state of change. In the UK jobs in manufacturing, energy and construction work have been in sharp decline since the late 1970s (levels of production have stayed the same). Last year the number of people employed in service-sector jobs more than equalled those in construction, manufacturing, agriculture, mining, energy and water supply combined.
These changing patterns of employment also have an impact on the composition of the working-class movement. Industrial labour has traditionally been the stronghold for workplace militancy in this country. Jobs in the service industry, on the other hand, are far more likely to be on a temporary basis, un-unionised and lower paid. Workers are less likely to have sustained and regular contact with their workmates, and the largest firms in this sector are aggressively anti-union. The high turnover combined with little concern for workers rights means it’s far easier to simply sack unco-operative employees than listen to their demands. These days widespread industrial action is mostly confined to the public sector where union density is still relatively high and work reasonably stable (although this looks likely to change given the wave of recent spending cuts and “restructuring”). The public sector, however, only accounts for around a quarter of the UK workforce.
For those who entered the workplace through the 1970s to the late 80s, memories of picket lines, scabs and class solidarity run deep. Workers over the age of 50 continue to have the highest and most stable levels of union membership, with almost half of those in jobs for 20 years or more being members of trade unions. This is in sharp contrast to those now entering the workforce, with union density within one year of employment as low as 10% overall and even lower in the private sector. An experience of collective organisation, class solidarity and strike action is simply non-existent for a new generation of workers. Even in areas where trade unions have traditionally had a strong presence, they have proven to be largely impotent in the face of recent cuts. The strong rank-and-file movement that sustained them throughout the 70s and into the mid-80s is all but gone. Good old-fashioned absenteeism and theft appear to be the only surviving weapons of class warfare. A recent survey commissioned for the British Science Festival in Guildford found more than two thirds of people have stolen stationery from work, with nearly one in 20 confessing to taking valuable items such as mobile phones or computer hardware. The CBI also estimated in 2007 that 21m working days were lost thanks to workers “pulling a sickie”. However this figure is little comfort compared to the 172m days lost due to genuine sickness, the most common cause of which was anxiety and stress-related disorders due to overwork.
Economists have been quick to reassure us that the massive lay-offs prompted by the recent recession will be offset by growing opportunities in the service industry (the only market that continues to expand). Essentially this means a push for even more temporary and poorly-paid labour - the “€700 generation” is big and getting bigger. It would now be fair to talk of a section of the working class effectively excluded from what remains of the gains of the social wage struggles of past decades. There is a generation of people now entering the workforce who, if they can find a job, will likely have no experience of collective organising in their community (with people living at greater distances away from work) or in their workplace, have little knowledge or experience of workers’ rights, and are finding their public services under increasing attack. Holiday and sick days are also a luxury that you cannot afford when you barely make enough to meet your rent and utility bills. In the restaurant, bar and catering industry it is not uncommon to be working a 7-day week or within that to be pulling “AFDs” (abbreviated from “All Fucking Day”), which is anything above a 12-hour shift with no breaks. The best option available when faced with worsening working conditions is often just to leave and hope to find another job.
Not only this, but temporary labour is often employed to actively undermine what remains of the activity of organised labour. During the CWU (Communication Workers Union) actions of late last year, Royal Mail threatened to hire a 30,000 strong “army” of temporary workers to crush the strike. Around the same time in Leeds, the council spent more than £1m hiring temporary staff to undermine the city refuse workers’ strike. With unemployment rates so high, opportunities so scarce and with so little general experience of even the most basic principles of class solidarity, it’s hardly surprising that bosses are able to draw on such vast reserves of strike-breaking labour.
The “noughties” have seen the last death throes of social democracy. The notion of progressive social reform as idealised by the old Labour movement has been exhausted. Neo-liberalism has been effective in demolishing both the organisational architecture (for example, a strong trade union movement), and the social philosophy that underpinned the social democratic state. We truly do live in a “century of the self” where rampant consumerism is held to be the highest ideal. Where “labour” parties have attained power they have proved to be highly effective at dismantling working class movements and attacks on the social wage.
In the 2004 documentary “The Take”, a film that tells the story of workers in Buenos Aires, Argentina who reclaim control of a closed Forja auto plant where they once worked and turn it into a worker co-operative, Avi Lewis reflects on this general shift in social ideals. One of the subjects of his film is Maddie, a worker involved in the co-operative movement. Maddie is at odds with her mother (Anna), a Peronist who, despite the economic chaos into which the government has thrust the country, still holds the faith that newly elected leaders will bring change for the better. Lewis comments that, “For Maddie government has always been a force that tears things down and sells them off, but Anna like our parents’ generation remembers a time when government was about building things – a national project, a strong public sphere.”
Maddie has no faith in the political system because her experience has always been one of attacks on her class – on her healthcare, her wages, her social security and her job. It is exactly this experience that the Daily Adevărul refers to when speaking of the underlying causes of insurrection in the Greek youth - a society in which they feel alien, marginalised and unwanted; a society which has never offered any hope, only poorly-paid labour, unemployment and insecurity. It is as a result of this that the neighbourhoods of Exarchia burst into flame in response to the shooting of a 15-year-old boy, and that school students, inner-city youth and sans-papier immigrants burn the symbols of the neo-liberal order – the bank, the luxury shop and the police station – to the ground. This is also the type of generational divide that many of us find between young workers in the service sector and in temporary work and the older generation in trade unions and traditional industry – between those who are able to strike and take to the picket lines, and those who can only take to the streets.
The events of Greece and this wider wave of European radicalism are based around different communities than those we would recognise from the traditional labour movement. Although undoubtedly workplace organisation still plays an important role, a critical role even (one of the largest attended popular assemblies during the Greek December was that of the occupied GSEE trade union offices), geographical communities are playing an equally important part. In Greece the squats and social centres of the Exarchia district, and later the occupied town halls, universities and government buildings, played a critical role. In Italy, for the “Anomalous Wave” (rebellion sparked in response to education reform), popular assemblies were the key, with pupils, students and precarious teachers often breaking away from traditional trade union demonstrations to hold occupations and assemblies in the streets. The past year has also seen the resurgence of the radical university campus. Early this year saw over a dozen occupations across the UK in solidarity with the people of Gaza, and a new wave of strikes and occupations has already begun in response to recent attacks on education. Germany and Austria have also seen mass occupations. Claimants’ action groups are also springing up across the country and, in a time of such high unemployment and such sustained attacks against social welfare, have a crucial role to play. This is not to leave aside the inspiring examples of occupations of schools, swimming pools, libraries and other local resources that have recently occurred across the country. Riots and inner-city and urban unrest have obviously been a constant feature of working-class resistance, as have occupations. What is important in these examples, however, is the way these social spaces are able to act to unify otherwise isolated working-class people. These other means of organisation are able to act as an expression of class interests, in spite of the fact that in many cases there is a complete absence of the traditional labour movement.
The experience of many young people entering the workforce is almost reminiscent of the early days of organised labour. It is almost necessary to go “back to basics”. Informal links of fraternity and defence, the building blocks of a united working class, are more important than ever. People need to be in control of their own struggles and seek to cut across this growing divide, which is more than often also a generational divide, between unionised and non-unionised labour. It is clear from the election speeches of all the major parties that they intend to enter us into an “age of austerity” – that whoever wins the next election, cuts in spending and jobs in public services are on the cards. To those who have only known a post-Thatcher Britain this is nothing more than business as usual. That is not to say, however, that people are not angry and frustrated with the position that they find themselves in. Apathy and disillusionment are at an all time high, but as the many examples of recent unrest show. This does not mean that there is no hope. Quite simply, if capitalism has provided us with no future, then the responsibility we have is to make one for ourselves.