The rebellion, the workplaces, and the rank'n'file unions

TPTG: An extract from "The rebellious passage of a proletarian minority through a brief period of time”

Submitted by Uncreative on January 28, 2011

To discuss the reasons why the rebellion did not extend to the places of waged labour - a question often asked by comrades abroad - we need first to be more analytical about certain segments of the proletariat. From our empirical knowledge, those workers who can be described either as "workers with a stable job" or non-precarious had a very limited participation in the rebellion, if any. For those of them who actually took part in the rebellion, to try to extend it to their workplaces would mean to engage in wildcat strikes outside and against trade unions, since most strikes are called and controlled by them, although their prestige has been undermined for a long time now. In the last twenty years many strikes have been called in the public sector (education, public utility services, some ministries). These past struggles have revealed that the workers were not able to create autonomous forms of organization and let new contents emerge beyond the trade unionist demands. As far as occupations of workplaces are concerned, such activities have taken place only in defensive struggles against closures or relocations, mostly of textile factories. But even those, as well as most strikes, in the previous years have by and large been defeated in meeting their demands.

Capitalism in Greece is characterized by a low concentration of capital with many small firms where even less than ten people are employed and where almost no kind of unionism exists. One of the main subjects of the rebellion, thus, the precarious waged workers, who mainly work in such places, do not consider them to be a terrain of proletarian power and mobilization and in most cases they are not attached to their job. Possibly, it was precisely their inability or even unwillingness to mobilize there that made young precarious workers take to the streets. Moreover, like we said before, this first urban rebellion in Greece was, like all modern urban rebellions, a violent eruption of delegitimization of capitalist institutions of control and, what’s more, a short-lived experience of a communal life against separations and outside the workplaces - with the notable exception of the universities and the municipality of Aghios Dimitrios. In the case of precarious workers, extending the rebellion to their workplaces would mean wildcats and occupations and nothing less. Well, certainly, given the practical possibilities there and their subjective disposition, such an extention was both unfeasible and undesirable.

However, many rebels realized these limits and tried to make such a leap. The occupation of the central offices of the General Confederation of Labour of Greece (GSEE) stemmed from this need as well as the need to undermine the media presentation of the rebellion as a "youth protest at the expense of the workers’ interests". Besides, it offered an opportunity to expose the undermining role of GSEE itself in the rebellion. The initiative was taken by some members of the rank’n’file union of courriers who are mostly anti-authoritarians. However, during the occupation it became obvious that even the rank’n’file version of unionism could not relate to the rebellion. There were two, although not clear-cut, tendencies even at the preparation assembly: a unionist-workerist one and a proletarian one. For those in the first one the occupation should have had a distinct "worker" character as opposed to the so-called youth or "metropolitan" character of the rebellion while those in the second one saw it as only one moment of the rebellion, as an opportunity to attack one more institution of capitalist control and as a meeting point of high-school students, university students, unemployed, waged workers and immigrants, that is as one more community of struggle in the context of the general unrest. In fact, the unionist-workerist tendency tried to use the occupation rather as an instrument in the service of the above mentioned union and the idea of an independent of political influences base unionism in general. This didn’t work. That’s why some of them remained there just for two days.

As far as the rest of the "independent" left unions are concerned, things were even worse. There was only one assembly of trade unionists in the Faculty of Law on the 10th of December where several left bureaucrats stressed the need of a "political prospect" in the rebellion, meaning a political and unionist mediation expressed in a list of mostly populist demands. They rejected any proposals of violent forms of action and pompously called for extraordinary general assemblies and agitation at the workplaces for a general strike after one week - needless to say that nothing of the sort was ever tried.

In January the media workers that had participated actively in the rebellion occupied the offices of the corporatist journalists’ trade union. The Union of Editors of the Daily Newspapers of Athens (ESIEA) is the main journalists’ trade union in Greece. It includes journalists from the major Athenian newspapers many of whom are at the same time employers because they are TV-producers or they own newspapers, while it excludes those journalists who work with precarious contracts or are hired as "freelancers". The occupation of ESIEA focused broadly on two issues: the first was the work relations and the widespread precariousness in the media industry as well as the fragmented form of union organization of the media workers; the second was the control of information by the official media, the way the revolt was "covered" by them and how counter-information could be produced by the movement.

After the end of the occupation the same people created an assembly of media workers, students and unemployed which organized a series of actions at various workplaces against layoffs or attempted layoffs and "covered" demos and other activities of the movement in a way that was against the dominant propaganda. Many members of this assembly are former students of the Faculty of Mass Media and Communication and took part in the students’ movement against the university reform in 2006-07 while some of them had attempted to create a new union that would include all the media workers the previous years. Right now the workers of the media industry are organized in 15 different unions (photographers, journalists, cameramen, clerical staff etc). The idea is to create a union that will include all workers, regardless their position, from cleaners to journalists, and their labour contract, from fulltime employees to "freelancers". Recently they tried to coordinate their activity with that of the laid off workers of the newspaper Eleftheros Typos.

On the 22nd of December, in Petralona, an old working class neighbourhood of the city of Athens, a Bulgarian immigrant cleaner, Kostantina Kuneva, the General Secretary of the Janitors Union (PEKOP-All Attica Union for Janitors and Home Service Personnel), was the victim of an attack by goons of the bosses using sulphuric acid while returning home from her workplace, a railroad station of the ISAP public utility (Athens-Pireaus Electric Trains). She was seriously wounded, losing the use of one eye and of her vocal chords and she is still in hospital. It’s worth mentioning that she had also visited the occupation of GSEE since her previous activities had led her to a confrontation with the leadership of the confederation bureaucracy. The attack on Konstantina took place a couple of days after the end of the occupation of GSEE and that was one of the reasons why there was such an unprecedented mobilization of people. After the attack, a "solidarity assembly" was formed which using direct action tactics organized a series of actions (occupation of the headquarters of ISAP, sabotage of the ticket machines so that the commuters could travel free, demos). The assembly, despite its internal divisions, played a vital role in inspiring a remarkable solidarity movement which grew up throughout Greece demanding not only the prosecution of the perpetrators and the instigators but also the abolition of subcontracting altogether. We should add here that outsourcing cleaning services has become the norm for public sector’s companies and these companies do not hire cleaners any more. Contractors are now the employers of thousands of janitors, mainly women immigrants, who clean hundreds of public utilities, hospitals, railroad stations, schools, universities and other public buildings. However, regarding the character of cleaning sector jobs, these were always precarious and until the recent past it was regarded to be normal and natural for a woman to be a janitor or home service worker. Moreover, by equating subcontracting or precariousness in general with "slavery", the majority of this solidarity movement, mainly comprised of leftist union activists, is trying to equate certain struggles against precariousness - one of the main forms of the capitalist restructuring in this historical moment - with general political demands of a social-democratic content regarding the state as a "reliable" and preferable employer to private subcontractors and thus putting the question of the abolition of wage labour per se aside.