Workfare politics: unemployment & class struggles in Greece

 unemployment & class struggles in Greece
Workfare politics: unemployment & class struggles in Greece

Greek radicals from SKYA (Assembly for the Circulation of Struggles) look at the current situation in Greece, focusing on workfare and reforms to benefits for the unemployed.

Submitted by @s_ky_a on July 10, 2015

1. Who is skya [1]

The Assembly for the Circulation of Struggles (S.KY.A) is an assembly that brings together activists from different political backgrounds and different experiences of struggle; from struggles in the workplace to neighborhood assemblies. Its main purpose is to connect those struggles.

We gather every week in a social center in Athens, Exarchia. We weren’t founded on a basis of maximum ideological principles but in our common belief about the meaning of social struggles in the process of the transformation of society and advancement of social revolution for a society without bosses and state. Twice a year we (try to) publish a small magazine that we hand out in the broader movement.

SKYA was created through our participation in the events of December 2008 (marches, riots, sit-ins, assemblies, solidarity interventions) and through the development of a collective critique of this experience.

This experience involves the development of a certain attitude towards the struggles that we participate in: on the one hand, a criticism of party guidance of the struggles by leftist organizations; on the other hand, a critique of the logic of vanguardism on the part of anti-authoritarian and anarchist organizations. SKYA works in order to build a collective perspective through the circulation of different experiences: experience linking theory with practice, forms of action with the content of each struggle.

We begin analyzing our experiences in order to build a strategy linking different struggles. We would like to contribute, with our small forces, to the development of an antagonistic strategy on an international level that will be able to respond to the needs of the movements in which we participate – movements that have emerged through the economic crisis.

As the years pass, and through our interest in the struggles that have erupted at an international level (Occupy movement, Gezi park), we have come into contact with comrades from various parts of the world. An international perspective is necessary for our purposes. But, until now we haven’t been able to build solid international relations. This is what we want to do now among others.

With this in mind, we desire to communicate our political views and struggles against the labour programs for unemployment that have been growing fast in the Greece of crisis. As an assembly we started a discussion a few years ago about our needs and problems as unemployed-precarious workers. Obviously, a significant part of the collective belongs to this social category. The basic conclusion of this discussion was that many young and typically unemployed people work continuously and under bad conditions. In other terms, we consider unemployment as a new model of labour.

In the meantime, some of us started working in these new programs for unemployment and engaging in struggles against the working conditions. So, after searching a little bit about them, we realized that these programs were of the same philosophy with other policies for unemployment that were implemented around the world. We call this capitalist strategy workfare. Our collective thinks that workfare as a practice is very important. We published two brochures, one some months after the beginning of these programs explaining what workfare is and referring to experiences of struggles from these programs mainly from the UK. In the second brochure, which was recently published, we try to analyze the Greek case of workfare and the struggles that have emerged against it. But first of all, we must speak about the general situation during the last years in Greece.

2a. The situation in Greece in a few words. Capitalist restructuring and struggles

From the student movement of 2006-07 and the revolt of December ’08 until the movement of the squares of 2011 and the riots of 12th February 2012 when the second memorandum of the Greek state with IMF/EU/ECB was signed, a multitude of serious struggles tried to block the capitalist restructuring on a central level. This cycle of struggles has been defeated. In the depressive period (2012-14) following the defeat of the movement, the neoliberal policy started being applied in two main directions: Firstly, the completely militarized repression of any form of social resistance (e.g. strikes are declared illegal, a lot of squats where evicted etc.). This repression is accompanied with the ideology of “national development”. This development is supposed to come after the crisis if society isolates the “corporatist minorities who are responsible for the corruption of the Greek state”. Secondly, the restructuring of the labor market in order to replace the previous legal framework of rights and conditions protecting the workers, (e.g. collective labour agreements) with a series of “innovative forms” of precarization of labour. The workfare programs that are promoted as a struggle against the massive unemployment are actually serving this strategy of capitalistic restructuring.

In order to fight against this strategy, we have to analyze the reason why the previous cycle of struggles has been defeated. We believe that this happened not only because of the upgraded police repression that the struggles were faced with, but also because of several internal limits that they couldn’t overcome: First of all, there was the control/mediation of the workers struggles by the bureaucratic unions, that “killed” every effort to link social struggles in a radical way. Afterwards, during the movement of the squares, which was the most massive effort to overcome that mediation of syndicates and parties, the rhetoric of interclass national unity against the memorandum and the ideology of the “big night” (the collective social expectation that the crisis could be “terminated” on a governmental level after a series of escalating demonstrations) dominated the movement. This ideology claims, that we can stop the crisis in a “magic” moment of revolt, when the “people” will get rid of the “traitorous” politicians. This ideology, after the militarized repression against the movement of the squares led to the hope that the capitalist restructuring could be blocked in a parliamentary way: If we couldn’t invade the parliament from the streets, we could invade it through the elections, which partially explains the rise of the SYRIZA party.

2b. The SYRIZA Situation

SYRIZA or the “Coalition of radical left” which won the last election has formed a government together with ANEL (“Independent Greeks”). The latter is a sovereignist nationalist far-right party, which now controls the army and has several people in other ministries. It is still a little early to utter big words about what is coming upon us but we will give you some information to understand the current context. SYRIZA managed to win the elections for a series of diverse reasons, which we will mention below:

Its relation to the cycle of struggles from 2008 to 2012 largely as a mediator.

The decline of these struggles in the way that was mentioned before led many people to search a solution through a change in the parliament. SYRIZA took advantage of it.

Its promises to many social target groups with contradictory interests (private and public sector workers, farmers, small owners, small bosses, big bosses, religious people etc.).

Several harsh policies of the previous government, for example some heavy taxes on small property.

The almost total dissolution of the PASOK party because of its past policies.

Its opportunist patriotic rhetoric about the “poor Greece” and the “nasty Europeans”.

Many people of the movement view SYRIZA in many different ways, either to accuse it or to praise it. It has been called “left-wing with a right turn, social-democratic, half-revolutionary, same with the previous ones” or whatever. What we support here is different. Very briefly, we propose that SYRIZA is a party that aims at staying the power through the restoration of the political representation apparatus and the class mediation mechanisms, which were heavily damaged through the intense period from 2006 to 2012. Through the restoration of these mechanisms it will try to commence the capitalist restructuring with a broader social acceptance. In order to start this project of staying in power, it has absorbed large parts of the PASOK party and it’s clientelist network.

Already much of what SYRIZA had promised before the elections is “frozen” or “rescheduled” for after the “deal with the Europeans” regarding the debt etc. A debt that after the decision on the 20th of February the government accepts as valid. This was expected because as we already mentioned many of SYRIZA’s target groups have contradictory interests and it depends on the middle class and a part of the Greek capital to survive. An example of this has to do with the programs which concern us here. SYRIZA had promised before the elections to stop these programs because they function without any rights for the workers, etc. Now it’s exactly the opposite. These programs are “good” now, because they give jobs to the unemployed…

Moreover, SYRIZA and the so-called Communist Party (KKE) have won through the municipal elections the power in several municipalities. This means that we will have to face “left bosses” in our struggles to come, and indeed some struggles against “left bosses” have taken place already. For now, SYRIZA, in comparison with the previous governments, has a political cost for its actions and we will of course take advantage of this.

3a.Workfare: A definition

So, what’s workfare? It’s a neoliberally inspired strategy of reforming the system of social benefits for unemployed, which were implemented in the form of the welfare state. Traditionally, social benefits were given to people who were searching for work or couldn’t work. With workfare, everyone that is getting benefits is forced to fulfill some requirements in order to continue to receive them. These requirements are either related to certain activities that improve employment opportunities (eg. education, rehabilitation, work experience) or activities of «social contribution» (basically unpaid or underpaid work). Workfare programs are found everywhere in the world.

The international dimension of this policy, while not always entailing a true copy of the model, but rather a general logic with variations according to the specific conditions of each country, is important for the following reason: Many people in Greece (and not only in Greece) are facing the issue of public debt and the capitalist crisis as a conspiracy launched by foreign forces to hurt our «poor little, honest nation«. Faced with this national mystification, we support the idea that neoliberal restructuring is an international strategy, motivated by the reproduction of capitalist relations, and it has a history of decades of analysis and enforcement on the part of the bosses.

From the capital’s point of view, the unemployed are either seeking for work and unable to find it or they do not have the right skills to be hired, but they are for sure not allowed to choose unemployment benefits in order to avoid work! The first case of not finding work or “passive forms to face unemployment» is related with the traditional Keynesian idea of the welfare state: That the state must offer work and development to its citizens and if this is not possible (eg. because of bad circumstances of the labor market) it must offer a kind of compensation (unemployment benefit) if the unemployed person proves that he/she is really searching for a job. The second case, where the unemployed person is “guilty” because of his/her inability to find a job (or the «active forms to face unemployment») is related with the neoliberal concept of work and unemployment (workfare): The «self-regulating» market offers job opportunities, but many unemployed have not worked so much in the past or in the way the bosses wanted in order to meet to their requirements.

In this case, the state must “help” the unemployed, by subsidizing them to «be educated in working practice» or even, once “it’s their fault”, their «punishment» should be working for the community in order to be able to qualify for benefits and not forget «what it’s like having a job». Workfare is therefore a form of work imposition that is replacing unemployment benefits. Workfare usually requires much more money than a welfare state policy, a fact which demonstrates how politically important it is for the bosses to discipline unemployed people and at the same time overturn the existing working relations.

But there is also a third case, where the worker wants to relax for a period of time and do other things than wake up every day to go to work. That is related with the traditional proletarian concept of alienated wage labor, the «refusal of work«: The unemployed in this case choose to survive by receiving welfare benefits and using various other income sources (e.g. from family, “black” economy, delinquency, auto-reduction, squatting), while pretending to look for a job when asked by state services. Workfare comes to declare total war against this everyday practice of millions of unemployed worldwide.

This certainly needs a clarification. In the anarchist/anti-authoritarian/autonomous scene we are used to an ideological reading of the term «refusal of work», which has to do with the youth movements of the 60s–70s and the counterculture of that period. The «refusal of work» is perceived as a «life-style decision against wage slavery and the conformism of middle class”. In our analysis we don’t refer to this «insurrectional perception», in a «politically conscious movement of deniers of work«, but in various denials that emerge towards labor exploitation by those who are forced to sell their labor power in order to survive.

The «refusal of work» to which we refer to is immanent in wage labour and it’s taking various forms (denial of intensification, of disciplining, of unpaid overtime etc.), but also exists outside of work in an antagonistic relationship where periods of unemployment follow periods of work. To put it in other words, the bosses do not care about the political reason why the unemployed avoid work. They are, however, concerned about the fact that unemployed people are able to choose when and if they will work. It is in this sense that we claim –even in times like this in the corrupt economy of Greece and the worldwide crisis, when «begging for a job» has become a habit-, that the » refusal of work» as a perception “from below” does not disappear. Instead, the bosses attack its material base, with cuts in wages and unemployment benefits, taxes against having a house of your own, evicting squats and over policies that we face in Greece during the last few years and which are making our survival very difficult.


As we have already mentioned, workfare programs are an international capitalist strategy conceived originally by (neo)liberals. Its direct aim is to reform the social benefits system. Indirectly, it comes to change the very idea of how work is conceived by workers. We can find these programs everywhere in the world. Australia for example runs an extensive program, as well as Canada. From East Asia to Israel, new programs start continuously. In India for example, as a measure to combat poverty, the government offers a program of 100 days of paid work per year instead of unemployment benefits. Closer to us, workfare can be found in Netherlands (Work First -based on the Wisconsin Works in the US), England, Germany etc.

It’s been quite some time since the experimentation with such programs first started. The first experiment in this logic takes us back to the US of the 30’s, or even Nazi Germany. In the early 70’s workfare took its current meaning: Work by the unemployed so that they can be paid an allowance. The ideology of the bosses proposes that this method can help the unemployed find a permanent job and learn “not to be parasites”. Additionally, it was announced as some sort of charity that, according to the bosses, would not substitute the place of the standard positions which cover basic services. Researches [2] (UK, US) have shown that the goals propagated by the bosses did not succeed. Not a lot of people found a permanent job after the program and they even led to a rise in the percentage of homelessness. It also showed that they were often used to replace permanent workers with cheaper and more disciplined precarious workers. Such programs were and are used both in the public and the private sector. Sometimes they are even implemented with the support of the unions.

In several places, people -politicized or not- have managed to take advantage of the welfare state in order not to work. There is a long story on how the bosses were trying to change this, and a part of this effort (which many times goes together with austerity measures) is done through workfare programs. These programs were not always applied so easily and without a cost. There were many reactions to them, many times spontaneous and invisible to outsiders. The historical examples of struggles vary, but for reasons of space we will just briefly mention here some examples from the UK.

From 1996 there were several local struggles in the UK, against a program called “Project Work”. Maybe the only successful campaign against this project was in Brighton. In Brighton there were already organized politicized people with experience from the riots against the Poll Tax in the 90’s. Many of them considered themselves as representatives of a proletariat which was negating work. They saw these reforms as an attack against them, carried out by the capital and its representatives. As representatives of the capital in this case they saw the “permanent” clerks in welfare services. Soon it became clear that their logic of negation of work was already used a lot, but the people who put these practices in use were not doing it with the idea of doing politics. Most people would prefer to use work negation techniques more in order to ameliorate their life, be able to choose when they work, and have some free time. Surely not because of a big plan to “organize the class”

One of the most characteristic methods of struggle that this group used was the method called “the three strikes”. They were warning the clerks who were known for their unacceptable behavior towards the unemployed two times. If the behavior continued they put posters everywhere in the neighborhood calling everybody to beat these clerks up. This was successful mostly in cases where the behavior of the clerks was extremely explicit. Most of the time proletarians were completely indifferent about these calls for action.

In around 1995-6 there were reactions from the workers of the unemployment services against the effort of the government to turn the workers of the services into snitches and evaluate their efficiency in disciplining the unemployed. There was a strike against the second measure. Luckily the small claimants group of Brighton managed to build some connections with workers of the local unemployment office. Together they created the group “Brighton Against Benefit Cuts”. People from the claimants group were participating in blockades together with the workers and even if they were not many they could block the services for the whole day because of their relations with the workers. When the blockage was happening, the workers were taking advantage of some bureaucratic rules and were closing the system. Later, in 1997, they managed to organize occupations of the offices.

From these struggles we keep two different logics that interest us and both have their pros and cons. The first one – the three strikes- seemed more radical but failed because it was based on a logic of vanguardism. That of politicized activists, who have the conscience and take action for the workers or the unemployed, waiting for them to understand the truth and follow. The second method -to organize struggles together with the workers- managed some successful hits as well as to create relations and an experience which remained in time, but in the end failed because the unions finally managed to controlled the actions.

Lately in 2012-13 there were some new struggles, which targetted the companies using unemployed people as cheap or even unpaid workers through these programs. These recent struggles had some success because the companies had more of a political cost than the state, and they made how the state imposes unpaid work on the unemployed visible.

It was also noted that -as we will see in the case of Greece too- the government and the bosses pay attention to these struggles even if they are small, something that shows us the importance of these programs for the capital.

4. Workfare in Greece

Now, let’s go back to Greece. Three years ago, a former minister of finance wrote a manifesto called “Get Greece back to work”, which declared that all the young people from 17 to 23 years old must participate in an “apprenticeship program” in factories and industrial places for two summers, getting paid with “pocket-money” only for food and traveling. In this way, he said, “they will acquire some skills and they’ll understand what work means”. In the meanwhile (2012-13), the government of ND-PASOK (an alliance of the conservative right with ex-social-democrats) had started two new workfare programs, financed by the EU, that were materializing these ideas of the bosses” think tanks.

First of all, we had the program of “community service”. Some thousands of young (ages 18-29) unemployed people all over Greece were getting hired in the public sector for a period of 5 months, for 625 euros per month, that were not paid as a monthly salary but in 3 installments. These people were called “claimants” and off course didn’t have the typical rights of the common workers, for example they didn’t get paid for days they were sick, they had no right to strike and so on. The “claimants” were employed by a contractor, mostly NGOs or the institute of GSEE, the main trade union federation of Greek workers, who were taking a percentage of the EU money (3-5%) “per head” for their job. Then, there has been a program of the same philosophy for the private sector, called “voucher for entrance to the labor market for unemployed youth of 18-29 years old”. They were hired for “working practice”/stage by businesses for a period of 5 months via a contractor who was first educating them for one month in what the businesses want them to do. The so called claimants were also getting paid a small amount of money, divided in 3 parts (400-500 euros if it was paid as a monthly salary).

From the first year we saw that the “claimants” organized struggles against the fact that they weren’t paid every month by the NGOs. There have been a lot of self-organized assemblies of the “claimants” that were calling to demos, work-to-rule’s (“white-strikes”) or visits to the offices of the NGOs demanding their salary. In some cases, leftist syndicalists of the public sector unions expressed their solidarity towards such actions, helping them to be organized in a more formal syndicalist way, something that we think is very important, if we consider the different situation that “claimants” and “normal” workers find themselves at. On the other hand, at the voucher programs in the private sector, where there is a lack of trade union organizations, and “claimants”/workers are much more isolated inside different small businesses, it was more difficult to organize collective actions. So, in vouchers we can find more personalized reactions against the “ping-pong” between NGOs, businesses and the Central Organization for Unemployment (OAED) when someone raised the question, “so when will we be to be paid?”. In the meantime, unemployed members of SKYA, among others groups and individuals, contributed in the formation of another assembly consisting solely of workers in these programs. This assembly of “community service” workers (“synekoh”) organized a demonstration at the central office of Labour Assistance Authority, demanding to have equal rights with the other workers, where the answer was the same: “you’re not workers, but claimants”.

All these small struggles resulted in the “claimants” being paid more quickly than the “normal” time the bureaucracy of NGOs needed. But even more important is the fact that the following year the state changed the law for these programs. In the public sector, NGOs where thrown out of the programs. We think that this happened because they were only interested, in a “traditional Greek way”, in taking the EU money, while not being able to cooperate efficiently with the state authorities. So, in the second year (2013-14) the Central Organization for Unemployment (OAED) became the Big Boss that was responsible for organizing the programs efficiently and managed to pay the “claimants” of the public sector every month, something we can regard as the first victory of the previous year’s struggles. On the contrary, in the private sector, due to the lack of collective struggles that we mentioned before, the payment for the voucher workers remained divided in three installments, which practically means that the young workers were paid the largest part of their salary after having finished their job.

Fortunately, in the second year of “community service” programs, some small struggles occurred once again. “Community service” workers participated in self-organized assemblies at the workplace of the public sector where they were placed and they demanded many more things than the monthly payment, mostly labour rights from which they were excluded (e.g. two days off per month, health insurance, not to lose daily wage when you are sick etc.). Also, we saw a lot of reactions against the decision of OAED to delete the unemployed people who refused to take part in “community service” programs from its registry and benefits. For us in SKYA, this regulation confirmed what we were already saying about workfare, that it constitutes a work imposition policy.

The peak of these struggles was the demonstration at the central offices of the Organization for Unemployment (OAED) when about 150 people demanded labour rights and the abolition of the regulation about deleting from the registry of OAED those who refused to work in the place, time, job position where they have been selected by OAED. For example several unemployed were selected to work as public transport ticket collectors, a job that was largely denied as a cannibalist way to get money. With these demands, we occupied the central building of the Organization for three to four hours. More than 100 people put pressure to the director of OAED, who claimed that the responsibility for the central policy is not his but the goverment’s. However, OAED did indeed take back the regulation about deleting unemployed who refused workfare.

After that there was another important struggle in a municipality of Athens, Kesariani, where a community service worker was fired, because he didn’t accept the position where the Municipality placed him, because it was different from what he signed up for. The local neighbourhood assembly, together with skya, synekoh, base unions and other neighbourhood assemblies gave a strugle demanding from the municipality to take back the worker and also to give all the community service workers two days off per month, just like normal workers. After an occupation of the municipality building, we didn’t let the mayor leave unless he satisfied our demands. Indeed, that happened, and it was the first example of a struggle of workers and unemployed where “claimants” managed to get paid and to be treated as normal workers, although that was against the structural logic of the program and the policy of OAED.

Following the aforementioned struggles for labour rights, the state made some small but significant changes in the law regarding this year’s community service programs. The institutional changes had to do with the demands of the struggles we already mentioned. The “claimants” were given the right to get insurance for heavy and unhealthy jobs. The insurance contributions that had to be attributed to the fund of the respective fields for engineers, doctors and lawyers were recognized as well. As for the long-term unemployed that were already covered for health care from OAED, their insurance holds until the expiry of the period of the Programs. (In Greece in order to get insurance cover for health care you must work two months and then wait three more months due to the bureaucracy, so in reality the “community service” workers get insurance after the end of their 5 months period of working.) Finally, for the first time, the right to sick leave was recognized for the “claimants”, on condition that the sick person works the same amount of days that he/she was ill at the end of the program. Besides that though, the law clearly states that the provisions of labor legislation do not apply for “claimants”.

5. Conclusions

The current crisis presents at the same time both a need and an opportunity for the capital to restructure itself in order to increase accumulation. Of course, this restructuring directly affects our lives. We see that workfare has a central role to play in the current international strategy of the capital regarding waged labor. It’s not only a matter of what is happening in Greece. New programs appear everywhere. The bosses want us devaluated and disciplined, available for everything they want whenever they want it. And on top of that, they present this as some sort of charity. For many of us, the choice of working when we want, on what we choose, with a decent salary, has come to an end. A new perception of labor comes to step on our defeats. An army of bureaucrats, journalists, cops, politicians do whatever is possible to assure this, and they do it well. But their plan is also vulnerable. Our experiences in Greece, and the experiences of so many others, show us the following:

Our struggles matter

Even when they seem minor, even if many times we seem to lose, or if we seem small in front of what we have to face, the bosses do get bothered by our actions. In Greece, as probably elsewhere too, such struggles caused several changes in the programs. Regarding the struggles in Greece, we saw that the precarious workers cannot organize successfully through the traditional forms of the labour movement. The unions, for example, even if they are combative, self-organized etc, cannot serve to express the precarious workers directly. It is not easy to keep a stable and pre-arranged way of organization when you change jobs all the time. Neither when you are considered as different from other workers, or not even considered a worker, nor when you could be fired any time and be thrown out of the benefits and the unemployment databases. We don’t have some magic solution to propose on how to organize. We see, though, that the form of the programs and their conditions locally vary, so our methods have to vary as well. We have the experience of some forms of action that worked better than others.

Assembly for the Circulation of Struggles


1. First of all, the participants in the programs have to act themselves. If not, we have actions with few chances of attacking the core of the capital’s strategy.

2. The struggles become more successful when the participants connect with each other, together with permanent workers and other people, for their struggle. Even better, we can see results when they manage to connect with other struggles.

3. In Greece, and sometimes elsewhere (UK for example) organization on a neighborhood level helps a lot. Neighborhood assemblies, local groups can help and fight together. This is also a way to spread the experience of a struggle.

4. What we do in a workplace leaves an paradigm there. Even if we leave the workplace, the other workers and the bosses will remember the experience.

5. It is vital that we share our experiences and spread the experiences of others. It helps knowing what we have to face, knowing the similarities and the differences of our conditions, avoiding the same mistakes and connecting our struggles.

We’re talking about communities of struggle; we are not referring to traditional political forms (e.g. anarchist collectives, political assemblies, social centers etc) but to active communities of people with the same class interests and desires. In other words, it is crucial for political subjects to engage in struggles for our rights together with non-politicized colleagues. For us it is more than desirable to connect struggles locally and internationally, which sounds good in theory but is very difficult in practice. We wish to start from simple things. Not by making big promises or creating structures that are empty of relations, but by creating connections, relations and sharing experiences that could show us and others solutions and practices that can help us become stronger. We aim to be able to talk about international strategies – not only the capital’s, but our own in the future.

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9 years ago

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Submitted by jahbread on July 16, 2015

Good works