A New Season of Resistance in Greece
October 22, 2012: In the past four weeks, Greece has seen another 24-hour general strike, huge workers’ action in different industries and sectors, and mass demonstrations—proof that the resistance to austerity measures which have devastated the country is far from over.
Now the stakes are even higher as the coalition government—led by the center-right New Democracy party, but including the center-left PASOK and Democratic Left parties—pushes for yet more cuts, tax increases and privatization. Earlier rounds of austerity were encapsulated in the Memorandums—two agreements negotiated between the Greek government and the “troika” of the International Monetary Fund, European Union and European Central Bank that produced a financial bailout in return for the savage cuts. Now, the troika wants more, and the New Democracy-led government is preparing to comply.
But the electoral challenge presented last spring by SYRIZA—the Coalition of the Radical Left, which nearly won two national elections—is being matched by a rise in workplace struggles and street protests. Panos Petrou, a member of the revolutionary socialist organization Internationalist Workers Left, looks at the latest developments in the struggle.
Early in September, one of the leading journalists of the mainstream press in Greece wrote, “Finally, the age of social activism is coming to an end.”
He supported this argument with an over-optimistic view about the future of the Eurozone and Greek capitalism. But while his economic predictions were just wishful thinking, the political argument seemed plausible for a while. Because of a combination of factors—from the shift of focus to the electoral arena and to the traditional “summer break” in Greece—the resistance movement ebbed for some months.
The victory in last June’s election of pro-austerity forces and the formation of the three-party government was another burden for some people, who after two years of strikes and mass demonstrations, had placed their hopes in a left-wing government taking over. There were some struggles over the summer—like the strike of workers at the Agricultural Bank of Greece against privatization—but even among activists, there were doubts about the mood in the workplaces.
This debate seems absurd today. Instead of wondering whether the people are willing to go back to the streets, the current question is how to move forward from protests and mass demonstrations to deeper and more sustained resistance.
The signs of a new stage in the struggle have been here since the demonstration against the government in Thessaloniki in early September.
Every year, the prime minister attends the annual Thessaloniki Fair to announce his political program, and there is a traditional union demonstration that kicks off the season of protest—and that serves as a barometer of the mood in workplaces.
This year, Antonis Samaras attended the Fair only briefly and didn’t even make his traditional speech. Meanwhile, the protest march was one of the biggest Thessaloniki has ever witnessed, with the contingent representing SYRIZA covering half of the demonstration.
Following this, there have been a series of separate strike actions, involving teachers; doctors, nurses and hospital workers; public transportation workers; other municipal workers and so on. These strikes were confined to specific sectors, but they set a new tone. Under this pressure, leaders of the two main union confederations—one representing the private sector and the other representing the public sector—called a one-day general strike for September 26.
The general strike was the first since the new government took office, and it was a success in terms of participation. Major demonstrations took place in Athens and all main cities of Greece.
Thus, the political landscape has changed radically since September and the general strike.
Of course, one reason is the new round of devastating austerity measures that are on the table. Negotiations among the three parties that form the government and also between the Greek government and the troika are still ongoing, but we already know the general outlines of what’s to come.
Once again, wages and pensions will be the first victims of the cuts. Social spending will also be slashed further, at a time when the first two agreements for cuts embodied in the two Memorandums have already left public education, health and the retirement system in a state of near-collapse. These cuts will be accompanied by a new round of heavy taxes hitting workers and the poor—while the capitalists don’t pay a cent more and in some cases see their tax rates reduced—and the promise of sweeping privatizations.
The current government was elected on the promise that it would “renegotiate” the Memorandums and the austerity measures—promises it made mostly of the pressure of the electoral rise of SYRIZA. Today, even the most optimistic New Democracy voters who hoped for a renegotiation realize that the coalition government is totally devoted to implementing the harshest measures dictated by the Memorandums.
In general, this new attack is fueling the anger of the working class and makes clear to many people that a fightback to reverse austerity is necessary, and that bringing down the coalition government is the precondition for achieving that goal.
Another reason that the landscape is changed is that the success of the strike gave confidence to many workers that the struggle isn’t over—something made clear by the series of brief but numerous local and sector-wide mobilizations after September 26.
If a single group of workers has expressed the desperation, anger and determination that exists throughout the Greek working class, it is the shipyard workers of Skaramangas. These workers, who have gone unpaid for six months now, organized a protest to the Ministry of Defense, where they managed to break into the building and occupy it for a while. The workers confronted and shouted down the head of the Greek Army when he tried to address the workers in a patronizing way.
Riot police carried out a brutal attack to clear the building, arresting dozens of workers in the process. That same evening, in an inspiring display of solidarity, metalworkers; students from nearby universities; union members from the hospitals, schools and electrical utilities; and left-wing activists gathered outside Central Police Headquarters to demand the immediate release of those arrested.
The attack on the shipyard workers’ demonstration was not an isolated incident. We are witnessing an unprecedented escalation of repression and protests. The government knows that the austerity measures it plans to implement are so harsh and the popular anger so deep that it can only maintain its grip on power by force.
A few days after the assault on the shipyard workers, police arrested unionists who work for the electricity company after they occupied the company’s headquarters in order to uncover and publish the names of big capitalists and major companies that haven’t paid the hike in utility rates that is demanded of ordinary people, with the threat that their electricity will be cut off if they don’t pay it.
Likewise, police arrested anarchists on a motorbike anti-Nazi patrol in downtown Athens after they tried to protect an immigrant shop that members of the fascist Golden Dawn party were smashing. It was revealed later that they were tortured in police custody.
The authoritarian turn of the state was obvious to all the day German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Athens. Subway stations in downtown Athens were shut down, the police banned demonstrations in most roads leading to Syntagma Square in front of parliament, and cops were patrolling the surrounding streets, arresting anyone who looked suspicious.
The security measures were designed to make access to Syntagma Square impossible—an act of intimidation for anyone who wished to demonstrate. Yet some tens-of-thousands of people defied the state’s terror and gathered in Syntagma to protest.
Fear and intimidation seem to be the only “argument” left for the pro-austerity forces. The defiance in the face of repression, as has been demonstrated many times in Syntagma Square in the past two years—along with organized solidarity among all the strands of the wider resistance movement will be crucial in organizing our fightback.
Of course, much more is needed to turn the tide in Greece. The good news is that the need for a serious escalation of the struggle is a common theme among broad layers of the working class movement, and the sentiment isn’t confined to left-wing activists.
Some unions have come out publicly against the occasional 24-hour general strike and stressed the need for coordinated and continuing strike action. In one very heated meeting, representatives of some major union federation attacked the central leadership of the two main confederations for lacking the will to organize a serious struggle. Some federations—for high school teachers, electricity workers and municipal workers, for example—are proposing more radical plans for action, such as occupations, demonstrations and rolling 48-hour strikes.
But realizing these plans won’t happen automatically. Even those unionists who stand for more militant actions haven’t been willing or able to organize them effectively until now.
Building a working-class fightback on the scale needed today will require an escalation of tactics and strategies. This could help workers take the struggle into their own hands and send the signal more broadly that the fight is on.
This is a major question. There are many workers who want to fight, but they first want to see that they have a chance to win. One question heard quite often in workplaces is: “Why waste another day’s wage on yet another 24-hour strike that we’ve tried before?” We have to address it.
The tasks for the left are huge. First, on the level of social mobilization, it must put all its efforts into organizing a serious fight around the prospect of a continuing political general strike against the government. Second, on the political level, the left must raise the demand of bringing down the government and canceling all austerity measures. To do this, the left will have to unite its demands and struggles behind a single working-class alternative to austerity.
The leaderships of the two union confederations have set a new general strike for October 181. The effort now must be to make this strike the beginning of a prolonged battle.
The stakes are high for the government and the Greek capitalists, so a victory won’t come easy. But the resistance movement has proven able to bring down governments already in the past two years—first, the PASOK government of George Papandreou and then its technocratic successor of Lucas Papadimos.
The goal of ongoing political general strike, which many on the left are agitating for may not be easy to attain, but it’s closer to being realized than at any time in the past two years.
—Socialist Worker, October 22, 2012
1 “Austerity-weary Greeks stage new general strike”
By DEREK GATOPOULOS | Associated Press – Thu, Oct 18, 2012