Eyewitness: Greek strikes a show of workers’ power

Hundreds of thousands of angry Greek trade unionists marched through central Athens on October 19 in the biggest workers’ demonstration since the toppling of the military dictatorship in 1974, reports Carl Taylor from Athens

The mass strike followed another on October 5, itself one of many in the last year that have been the centrepiece of revolt against austerity measures.

Greece’s entire transport system stood still; even taxi drivers and airline pilots refused to work. Banks, shops and government offices shut, TV stations didn’t broadcast and ships stood idle in ports.

The cost of the “mother of all strikes” will run into the billions, a serious blow to Prime Minister George Papandreou, who is failing to convince other Eurozone leaders that austerity is politically tenable.

The “troika” (a tripartite committee including the European Commission, International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank) are demanding more cuts in exchange for bailout funds to allow Greece to pay its €370 billion debt. 30,000 jobs have just been slashed and taxes hiked, but the troika want 200,000 more jobs slashed in 2012.

Official unemployment is now at 16 per cent; many still employed have had their wage cut 30 per cent or more. Suicide rates among males have doubled.

The austerity program was supposed to save Greece from the crisis, but GDP has fallen 15 per cent in three years. The ever-shrinking tax base has eroded almost all hope of Greece avoiding a default.

Rising struggle

Workers, pensioners and students are adamant the debt is not theirs to pay.

The latest strikes came after weeks of protests. Workers have occupied hospitals and several government ministries, while students have shut down hundreds of universities and schools.

A mass meeting of Metro transport workers in Athens in September voted to join bus drivers and municipal workers for several rolling days of strikes; by October taxi drivers had joined them.

Georgois, a worker involved in the transport strikes told Solidarity, “There are 600 billion euros in Swiss banks owned by people who never pay taxes. That is more than twice the Greek debt. But [the government] never talks about them.”

He believed Greek workers were ready to escalate their struggle, “The general view is that there are too few strikes. Union leaders try to calm the workers. But we think we have to strike more often.”

Rank-and-file workers are taking the initiative. Tax office workers took over the Ministry of Finance in central Athens for several days and prevented the government and the troika meeting in the building. They hung a banner from the window declaring solidarity with other workers. One of the strikers told Solidarity, “They [the government] will not stop. They want to take everything from us.”

Networks of unionists helped build a series of hospital strikes and occupations, including a takeover of the Ministry of Health. Kristos, a doctor, said, “We set up our own syndicates at work to build support in the union for this occupation and strike… The workers wanted the strike but the union leaders did not. But now even [the union leaders] are talking against the government and speaking against capitalism,” he said.

Mass assemblies of hundreds or thousands of workers have become common, especially in the public sector and transport. Likewise, each occupied university has weekly assemblies where students vote on the next steps.

Vanessa, a student occupying her university, said, “It is important we join with the workers. Tomorrow we will be the new workers. They cut our wages and tax us more to save the bankers … We need the strikes to last for days and days. We need to fight them on the streets.”

Another student, Konstantinos, from Athens University added, “We suffer from the education [cuts] and then there are no jobs. The government now gives 1.4 per cent [of the budget] to education. It used to be 4 per cent.”

Another student joining the union rally described a shift in political consciousness among students, “I think most students are anti-capitalist now after what the government has done… We know that under this kind of capitalism you cannot win alone.”

Confidence among Greek workers is beginning to match their anger. They’re showing the rest of Europe how to fight.


Solidarity meetings

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