Workers’ reactions against the government plan

Part of Mouvement Communiste Letter number 32.

Submitted by Dan Radnika on May 30, 2022

Workers’ reactions against the government plan

Chronology1

10 February
The first strike is called by ADEDY with a rather feeble participation by public sector workers.

23 February
As a prelude to the strike called for the next day, the CP (in fact its trade union current PAME) decided to squat the stock exchange first thing in the morning with a surreal and incomprehensible banner, saying in English “Crisis pay the plutocracy”. Their aim was, in their own words, “to show the European Commission inspectors of the European Central Bank and the IMF where the money is”. In fact, the services of the stock exchange had been transferred to another building and the demonstrators left the stock exchange at 2 p.m.

24 February
General strike called jointly by the GSEE and ADEDY. The number of strikers was estimated at between 2 and 2.5 million. In some sectors (ports, shipyards, oil refineries, construction, banks and public sector companies) the level of participation reached between 70 and 100%. In the civil service (education, health, public services and ministries, the post office) participation was much weaker, between 20 and 50%.

Estimates of participation in demonstrations in Athens vary enormously. According to the police, there were 4000 demonstrators while some media spoke of 100,000 and others of between 9000 and 30,000. According to the TPTG comrades who participated in the demonstrations, the figure of 40,000 seems about right.

There are two things to note. The first is the significant participation of immigrants, not only behind the groups of the extreme left but also spread around the body of the march. We should point out that the participation of immigrants is linked to a new law on “citizenship of immigrants” which creates divisions between them by distinguishing those who are eligible for citizenship from the thousands who are not.

The second is the confrontations which took place between the riot police and the demonstrators who did not necessarily come from the anarchist milieu2 . On several occasions, there was hand-to-hand fighting because the police had orders from the government not to use tear gas. Bank windows were smashed and businesses (bookshops, large shops, supermarkets and cafés) were looted and, although in a marginal way, this gave a non-habitual atmosphere to the habitual trade union demonstrations in Athens.

3 March
The Socialist government announced new measures for the “salvation of the country”, including a reduction of 30% in the wages paid for the 13th and 14th months for workers in the public sector, a reduction of 12% in wage bonuses, increases in the prices of petrol, alcohol and tobacco, along with cuts in spending on education and healthcare. The first reactions came from PAME which carried out some spectacular occupations of short duration, this time occupying the Ministry of Finance and some TV stations in provincial towns. Once again, PAME called for afternoon demonstrations in Athens and in various other towns for 4 March. Later, some left trade unionists and extreme left organisations, joined by the secondary school teachers’ union and ADEDY, called their own distinct demonstration in Athens. Given the short notice and the general sentiment of powerlessness, only about 10,000 people demonstrated in the streets of the centre of Athens, in a rather lifeless manner.

5 March
The initiative for the strike of 5 March was taken by the CP which called a “general strike” and a demonstration. ADEDY and the GSEE followed this with a three-hour work stoppage, while the other unions (primary and secondary school teachers and public transport) called for a strike of one day. The PAME demonstration gathered around 10,000 people and it finished before the other one began. The anti-authoritarians and young people had a more visible presence this time and the atmosphere was tense from the beginning in Syntagma square near Parliament, where PASOK was voting through its new measures.

The boss of the GSEE, Panagopoulos, tried to speak on his own to the crowd and got some yogurt pots thrown at him, followed by various other projectiles and finally there was a rush towards him. The attacks came from different directions and so his minders were incapable of stopping a large crowd (mostly of anti-authoritarians and leftists for sure) from practically expressing their hatred against him and what he represented. He was pursued and hit all the way along the road up to the entrance to Parliament where he was protected by the riot police. Soon, an angry crowd gathered at the foot of the building. The Parliament guards had to immediately leave the building and fights broke out between the angry people and the riot squads. It is then that the MPs of the SYRIZA coalition chose to make their spectacular appearance by setting up a banner in front of the entrance with a phrase from Breton which said “The human being is the answer whatever the question might be”, a sentence which probably made the anti-humanist Althusserian intellectuals belonging to SYRIZA feel uneasy, although it can be read in the proper SYRIZA-like social-democratic way of “People before profits”.

The demonstration then started to head for the Ministry of Labour, which was criticised by many demonstrators who saw it as an action by the trade unionists to turn the tension away from Parliament. Nevertheless, spirits remained high and so when the demonstration reached the Council of State building, demonstrators attacked the riot squad who were guarding it. Soon a large crowd began to throw rocks and various objects at them. However, one of the cops stayed behind and was captured and almost lynched by the angry crowd. This incident, which shows at the same time the acceptance of the escalation of violence even by people who have usually not reacted that way and the hatred against the police, lasted long enough for the riot squad to be prevented from intervening by Olympic Airways workers who’d been made redundant.

11 March
There are no precise figures for the level of participation in the strike, but we can say with certainty that it was higher than previously (the GSEE say that the participation reached 90%). It can also be shown by the number of demonstrators, which was almost double that of 24 February. According to the estimates of TPTG, around 100,000 people participated in the demonstrations of PAME and GSEE-ADEDY (PAME organised a separate demo as is its habit), even if the media say it was only around 20-25,000. The composition of the crowd was also slightly different, because there were more students, a few pupils from secondary schools and more young workers, while immigrants were absent for the moment. What’s more, the “anti-authoritarians” blended into the GSEE-ADEDY march.

Another different characteristic was the more offensive tactics used by the police. More than 5000 police tried to prevent the escalation of proletarian violence by surrounding the demonstration much closer on both sides. They achieved their objective because very few people, apart from those from the anti-authoritarian milieu, participated in confrontations or supported them. Nevertheless, there were a few confrontations with the police in various places which carried on around Exarchia, as is the usual practice on such occasions.

In addition, it should be noted that this time the leaders of the union federations didn’t just overtly cooperate with the police but effectively gave specific orders to the riot squads to stop the demonstrators on Patision avenue with the aim of taking over the head of the demonstration and avoiding conflicts with the rank and file and the repetition of the events of the previous Friday, when they got the abuse they deserved. While the police stopped and attacked the front lines of the demonstration (which consisted of the left union groups of primary school teachers) with the aim of preserving the leadership of the GSEE and ADEDY, the coordination committee of these same unions of primary schools and other left trade unionists (such as a group of trade unionists from OTE, the former state telecoms company) politically supported the initiative of GSEE and ADEDY, by changing their itinerary with a detour down 3 September avenue, leaving space for them to take the head of the march and then following just behind GSEE and ADEDY! What’s more, GSEE and ADEDY had done everything they could to help the police control the demonstration.

When they arrived in Syntagma, they tried to disperse the demonstrators as they arrived. It is not surprising that the police divided the demonstration in Acropolis, where confrontations broke out, after the block of bureaucrats had returned to its headquarters. We must also note that the trade unionists of the security forces (police, firemen etc.) who waited in Kolotroni Square for the separate PAME demonstration were applauded by the PAME demonstrators and applauded them in return. For sure, they disappeared rapidly afterwards because it might not be so agreeable for them to participate in an “All together!” with the other demonstrators.

Since 11 March
Some sectoral strikes have taken place: tax officials, staff of driving schools, electricity workers (16 and 17 March), health workers (16 March), service station staff (18 March), taxi drivers (18 March) etc., as well as strikes and demonstrations on 22 and 23 April.

First observations

In general
The scale of participation in the national demonstrations and the strikes called by the two union confederations and, within them, the strength and the capacity for initiative shown on these same days by the union wing of the KKE, are the noteworthy facts. The opposition to the government measures put forward by PASOK (cuts in wages, reductions in benefits, more direct and indirect taxes, raising of the retirement age, intensification of police control etc.) has a very large constituency. However, the interpretation of the political deal expressed by these movements merits a more complex and nuanced analysis.

On the problem of the “management” of the state debt, the most common reaction is to assert that those who have created it must pay for it and not the workers. The latter certainly have in mind that the long series of scandals and stories of financial corruption (including the government and the opposition parties, the Church and the private companies) have never been punished. This is why the strikers don’t swallow the state propaganda about “national sacrifices” and don’t look for a more egalitarian way to pay for the crisis. For their part, the government’s fiscal measures constitute a concentric attack against the income of workers with higher wages, against the liberal professions and against other traditional petty-bourgeois strata accustomed to tax evasion. This supposedly egalitarian approach has achieved a certain success amongst the electors most loyal to PASOK but not with the strikers and demonstrators of recent months.

But, if the figures for participation in strikes during the days of demonstrations are important, they are not sufficient to establish the existence of an autonomous action of workers nor of a contestation, even one just starting, of the organising and leading role of PASOK or the KKE. No visible attempt has been made to prolong and root these days of mobilisation in the workplaces by means of strikes on the direct initiative of workers. Above all, at no moment has the struggle against the bosses for better wages and conditions been put on the agenda of general struggle. The bosses have seized on this weakness of the movement and have kept a low profile so that class hatred only rages against their state.

If, from the point of view of proletarians, the days of demonstrations express a real will to fight, from the point of view of the state and its political and trade union organs, they serve to channel the anger of workers and wear out their strength so as to allow the government measures to pass, or alternatively, to promote the politics of the KKE and its long march to power.

Besides, it would be false to think that in Greece (as in other countries) the working class rose up as a single block (bound to be radical) and has, in a few months, swept away the separations which reinforce the everyday life of capital: between civil servants, workers in state or para-state enterprises, workers in the private sector, workers in big companies and micro-companies, full time staff and precarious workers (“the 600 euro generation”), and certainly those between “Greeks” and “immigrants”, not to mention the unemployed.

In the factories
There are no revolutionary political groups in Greece which have a regular activity in large workplaces. Whatever the reasons may be, we must not underestimate the force which PASOK and the KKE are able to exercise with their preponderant influence as long as there is no autonomous ferment formalised on the shop floor. Up until now, there has been no visible sign of independent activity by the workers in the factories. No prolonged strike has been declared. And even less one which spreads to several sectors. Wildcat strikes in the workshops and factories are not on the agenda for the moment. In terms of autonomous organisation, it should be acknowledged that some revolutionary militants, mostly coming out of the anarchist milieu, who were involved in the occupation of ESIEA (the journalists’ union) in December 2008, still meet regularly. But this is a very isolated phenomenon.

In this context, the grand gestures of the PAME — occupations of public buildings like the Economics Ministry and the Stock Exchange, massive demonstrations and rallies of its followers which have not been normal for the CP at least since 2005 — monopolise the scene, above all when they succeed, on the first call, at making GSEE and ADEDY follow them. It’s not impossible that by this tactic the CP is trying to pull the component parts of the big unions towards its trade union transmission belt so as to constitute its own federation.

Two strikes have taken place in the period of the demonstrations, that of the employees of the National Print Office and that of the employees of Olympic Airways.

The employees of the National Print Office, who occupied it on 5 March to protest against the supplementary cut of 30% in the income of employees in the Ministry of the Interior, forbade anyone who “was not employed in the ministry” from entering their premises. Comrades who went to visit them were told to clear off. The Socialist Union of Cadres decided to hastily put an end to the occupation without putting the question to a vote of the assembly on the pretext that “the government has promised” to leave out the particular regulation. The employees didn’t appreciate the movement and didn’t follow it.

The occupation of the State General Accountancy by the redundant workers of Olympic Airways had a similar outcome. The participants were for the most part technicians who hadn’t been paid for three months after Olympic Airways had been privatised or workers made redundant although the management had promised them transfers to other sites. In the course of the first day of occupation they took an official hostage for a few hours. That evening, they confronted and chased away a riot squad. Determined to maintain the blockade as long as necessary, they nevertheless forbade access to “outside” comrades. After 10 days of occupation, their Socialist representatives (from the right of the party) accepted the government’s promise to create a special committee to examine the question! It seems that, as with the example of the redundant maintenance staff of Olympic Airways who distinguished themselves during the demonstration of 5 March, there was also within the “guaranteed” workers a division between those who were sacked and those who were spared. This probably explains why the minority of around 300 staff were not able to lead the other 4700 into a more serious struggle with, for example, blockades of runways.

In the demonstrations
In Athens, as a general rule, the metro runs from 10.00 to 16.00 to allow demonstrators to get to their gathering places and also to go home again. Because of divisions in the movement, there were three meeting points and two marches: GSEE and ADEDY normally gather at Pedio Areos and demonstrate together. In their march come the cluster of parties of the far left (with the exception of the Greek CP) who for their part gather at the National Museum. Finally PAME, the trade union movement of the CP (KKE) meet up at either Omonoia Square or Syntagma Square and demonstrate separately.

The composition of these demonstrations was different from those of December 2008. If we look at the strike figures, we notice that there was a bigger participation of private sector workers and therefore a relatively weaker participation of teachers. With the exception of some isolated cases during the last day of action, secondary school pupils did not take part in the marches in recognisable groups. On the other hand, that was not the case for students, who responded to the calls for participation put out by their general assemblies. As for the contract workers and the unemployed, their presence in the demonstrations has not really been visible, apart from the involvement of very small sections of them in violent actions. Once more we need to put aside the misty-eyed vision of a union leadership who “betray”. Doesn’t the fact that on 5 March, the leader of the GSEE, Panagopoulos, did not hesitate to leave parliament to harangue the demonstrators, even if he was going to be booed and have stuff thrown at him, prove that the bosses of PASOK and the unions are still sure of their influence over the workers?

Notes on the political parties and unions3

PASOK (Πανελλήνιο Σοσιαλιστικό Κίνημα), Pan-Hellenic Socialist Party, is the principal party of the left and exercises a preponderant role in containment by the control of the two union federations, GSEE and ADEDY. It is the most important party in terms of activists, their number comes to around 250,000 (it’s noteworthy that in the internal elections in 2007, around 770,000 “members and friends” voted for the president of PASOK, which represents 6.7% of the population!). Returned to power since 2009, it is putting the policy of austerity in place.

The KKE (Κομμουνιστικό Κόμμα Ελλάδας), Communist Party of Greece, is one of the last really Stalinist parties which still represents people. Its membership consists of 40,000 activists. Apart from its spectacular actions, the KKE rests on its trade union current PAME and puts forward the denunciation of Europe and the plutocrats and is a fervent defender of economic nationalism in line with its Stalinist genes. It refuses any “union of the left” and is for “socialism now”. During its last congress (2009), it gave out figures for its social composition:
Employed workers: 76% (private sector 54%, public sector 46%).
Peasants: 2.81%
Artisans/shopkeepers/self-employed: 9.32% (without employing staff 62.8%, with staff 39.2%).
Retired: 7.15%
Students: 2.17%
Academics/researchers: 1.73%
Artists/writers: 0.55%

SYRIZA (Συνασπισμός της Ριζοσπαστικής Αριστεράς), Coalition of the Radical Left, has a minor influence in the unions (apart from a certain influence among university teachers). Recently SYRIZA formed a network of union members but it still doesn’t have any real influence in workplaces like PAME does.

Union membership in the public sector is very high in some sectors (banks and public services), reaching 90%, and in some others (education, health) the high level of unionisation can be a sort of “obligation”. In the whole of the public sector, the level of membership is around 60%. But in the private sector, the rate of union membership doesn’t go beyond 15%, on average.

On a national level, the number of members is around 30% but recent research claims it is even less. Unfortunately, we have no information concerning membership by region, but, generally, in the provinces it is much lower than in the big towns (less than half).

The supposed strengths are: GSEE, 459,000 members; ADEDY, 289,000 members. Of these, 200,000 are also in PAME. PAME is mostly in the metalworkers’ union and in a few big factories.

The General Confederation of Greek Workers (GSEE) regroups union federations of various towns which are themselves composed of the basic level unions of all sectors of production. Thus, the GSEE is composed of union federations in Athens, Thessaloniki, Patras, etc. To give an example, the Workers Centre of Athens (EKA) regroups the workplace unions of the private sector, but also those of the public and semi-public sector (banks, post office, state electricity company, contractors in the state administration etc.). ADEDY, for its part, is the union of civil servants (it regroups the federations and the unions of civil servants: teachers, prison guards, employees of ministries etc.). The call for a general strike is made by the leaderships of GSEE and ADEDY and passed down through all levels (workers’ federations, basic level unions, civil servants’ federations).

  • 1This chronology is adapted from a text written in English by the TPTG comrades, completed by their answers to our questions.
  • 2The term “anarchist milieu” covers, broadly speaking, the militants and people claiming to follow the myriad of anarchist groups, which it is impossible to list here.
  • 3There are no reliable and recent sources for estimating the number of militants in the political parties in Greece. The figures indicated here a therefore estimations obtained from several sources.