Created: Wednesday, 09 June 2010 22:02
Written by Andrew Alexander
FRFI 215 June/July 2010
‘Peoples of Europe, rise up!’ read the huge banner of the Greek Communist Party (KKE), hung from the ancient walls of the Acropolis. This was a call to the workers of Europe to follow the example of the Greek working class as it takes to the streets in protest against austerity measures imposed to pay for the capitalist crisis. We should follow their example as the European imperialist project enters a new and unstable phase.
Andrew Alexander reports.
Europe in crisis
In the words of Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou, Greece is ‘on the brink of an abyss’. His words were echoed by European leaders, most notably German Chancellor Angela Merkel. As we stated in the last issue of FRFI, European imperialism was clear about the implications of the Greek crisis for the whole of Europe. So, on 9 May, an historic deal was reached as the European Central Bank agreed emergency measures worth €750bn (£650bn) to prevent the Greek debt crisis from affecting other euro zone countries, most notably Spain and Portugal. The 16 members of the single currency bloc will have access to €440bn of loan guarantees and €60bn of emergency European Commission funding. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) will also contribute up to €250bn.
Greece was the first country to gain access to this financial ‘safety net’. On 27 April Greece almost defaulted on its debt as its public deficit rose to 13.6% of GDP, far higher than previously declared. Credit rating agencies downgraded its debt to ‘junk’ status, making it impossible for the Greek government to get further credit through the normal international markets to finance its debt, as well as making it extremely difficult to get insurance against default. Papandreou was forced to ask the EU and IMF to activate the loan negotiated in April. On 2 May a €110bn bail-out was agreed and on 21 May the money reached the Greek government. A day later Finance Ministry sources said the government had redeemed €8.5bn in expiring 10-year state bonds, which would have been impossible without the bailout. The haste with which the deal was negotiated and delivered is unprecedented; it reflects just how close Greece was to defaulting and bringing down not just the rest of Europe, but the global economy with it, sparking a second global recession similar to that precipitated by the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008.
Protests take hold
So, what does this mean for the Greek working class? After the deal was brokered, Papandreou said ‘This gives us an opportunity to breathe and take big initiatives.’ Who is this ‘we’ he is referring to? It is the ruling class that has been given a breathing space. The ‘big initiatives’ can only mean one thing – big cuts. The message to the Greek government from the German paymasters is clear – the cuts must be quick, deep and extensive.
The austerity measures agreed by the Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) government include a freeze on pay for all public sector workers until 2014 – though pay cuts will also be extensive, on average a cut of 20% for public sector workers, and many will lose their jobs. There will also be an end to early retirement: typically, many Greeks retire in their mid 50s, but new legislation will raise this to 65 years. But it is the youth who are already most affected by the crisis: unemployment for 15 to 29-year-olds is already 18% – twice as high as for 30 to 60-year-olds. It is not surprising therefore that it is the Greek youth who have spearheaded the protests.
On May Day, over 30,000 people took to the streets of Athens, bringing traffic and trade to a standstill. Anger focused on the Finance Ministry building where violent clashes took place with police. Protesters chanted anti-EU and IMF slogans and shouted: ‘We do not step back! We do not consent! The social class will take to the streets!’ Huge demonstrations also took place in Thessaloniki, Greece’s second city, where Molotov cocktails and stones were thrown at riot police who were protecting the banks.
Further mass protests rocked the country following the 2 May agreement and its endorsement by the Greek parliament on 3 May. Papandreou called desperately for calm. On 5 May Greek trade unions organised a general strike and there were more demonstrations. Three bank employees died when the bank they were working in was firebombed. The protests have received support and sympathy from the majority of the Greek working class and even sections of the middle class.
On 20 May Greece was hit by its fourth general strike which again saw most of the country come to a standstill as hospitals, schools and other public organisations operated with emergency personnel, and public transport was severely disrupted, as buses, subway, railway services and ferries did not run. Thousands of anti-riot police were deployed across Athens as more than 20,000 protesters marched in front of the parliament denouncing the cutbacks on salaries and pensions. ‘Thieves get out’, angry protesters chanted as they clashed with police in front of the parliament building.
‘We cannot give in to such changes that strangle our families. We cannot survive with such small wages and high taxes. After all we are not to blame. Corrupted thieves should pay,’ said Thanasis Stamou, a 35-year-old civil servant, quoted on the World Socialist Website. His words were echoed by another demonstrator, Maria Grigoropoulou, who said, ‘We want the government to take back these measures which freeze our pay and force us to stay longer in the workforce. We will continue our struggle and we will not back down.’ Protester Nikos Galiatsatos who is 26 and unemployed, said, ‘These measures are destroying everything we have fought for. Where are the measures against unemployment? We were not the ones who created this crisis.’
In recent years, Greek protests have been characterised by small-scale uprisings, led mainly by anarchist youth, across the main towns and cities. This was particularly true after police killed 15-year-old demonstrator Alexandros Grigoropoulos in December 2008. But since the reality of the crisis has begun to hit home it is wider sections of the Greek working class who are now taking to the streets in anger. Most Greeks recognise that something has to be done to resolve the dire economic situation but they do not believe the Greek government, the EU or IMF offer any solution.
‘Arrest tax dodgers and ask banks to pay,’ was written on one banner during the fourth general strike, as a group close to the Greek Communist Party blockaded the entrance of the Ministry of Labour in the centre of the capital. It is this message, ‘we will not pay for their crisis’, which is being echoed over and over again on the streets of Athens. It is the role of the Greek left to build upon this momentum.
The struggle against opportunism
The angry opposition of workers to the austerity measures imposed by the PASOK government is in stark contrast to the leadership of the trade unions, which are characterised by a reformist and opportunist agenda. Two of the largest unions, the General Confederation of Greek Workers (GSEE), which represents workers in the private sector, and the Civil Servant Confederation (ADEDY) have set out, not to build and radicalise the demonstrations but, rather, to contain them and use the outpouring of popular anger to win limited concessions from the government. Although the PAME trade union federation, which represents public sector workers and is supported by the KKE, has done more to mobilise for the general strikes, ultimately it too aims simply to pressure the government into concessions, rather than topple it, and even refused to march on parliament during the 20 May general strike.
The GSEE, ADEDY, and to a degree the KKE, are compromised by having supported the election of the PASOK government; they are now concerned with how best to divert working class anger into safe channels. GSEE/ADEDY, along with PAME, have therefore worked to ensure that the movement does not develop into a direct political confrontation with Papandreou’s government. Though the majority of their members would willingly escalate the protests, the union leadership has restricted strikes to about every six weeks, conscious that, while giving the illusion of struggle, it is not enough to prevent the ruling class from implementing further cuts.
This is why PASOK has so far been able to pass four austerity packages since coming to office at the end of 2009. Even the stoppages that the unions have sanctioned have been held with reluctance, with no attempt to call out all their members. In some cases, the trade unions have called their members to work during the strikes for the good of the economy! For example, during the 20 May general strike, international flights from Athens functioned normally as the major civil aviation unions opposed the strike. A spokesman for the union said they ‘did not wish to damage the tourism industry’. Some teachers also boycotted the strikes, citing the need to administer national university examinations and many journalists, despite joining the previous strikes, decided at the behest of their union to postpone industrial action on the 20 May, citing the need to publicise the strike! What was most powerful about the first general strikes was that the news went blank.
So far no further strike dates have been set, only a vague promise to consider unspecified strikes during the summer. Illias Illiopoulos, the general secretary of ADEDY, said: ‘If the pension bill is left unchanged, we will certainly protest in June. And if the government takes more harmful measures, the summer will also be a period of labour action.’ As the union knows, the pension bill will be voted on at the beginning of June. Adedy is therefore thereby giving the government a green light to pass its measures, threatening only to strike after the event.
However, political groups like SYRIZA, which calls itself a ‘Coalition of the Radical Left,’ and Antarsya, which was established last year as the ‘Cooperation of the Anti-Capitalist Left for the Revolution’, insist that no struggle against the austerity measures is possible or legitimate unless it is headed by the unions. While of course the unions have an important role to play, it will be necessary for the Greek left to expose the role of the leadership and prevent it from diverting the struggle into innocuous channels that pose no real threat to the Greek government.
And, despite the inevitable opportunistic tactics of the unions, we should take inspiration and optimism from the overall developments in Greece. The Greek working class, with its history of struggle, has proved once again an unstable element for European imperialism. Demonstrations, though fragmented are still happening on a daily basis, led by unemployed youth, and the working class as a whole has been stirred into action, not by the trade union leadership but by the onslaught from the ruling class. The cuts will continue and protest will grow. As austerity measures begin to bite across the countries of Europe, it is the Greek working class that has pointed the way forward for us all. Peoples of Europe rise up!