Pensions battle sees general strike in Greece—against Syriza

An enormous general strike in February saw tens of thousands of people march in Greek cities against an attack on pensions—now coming from the Syriza government.

Transport, schools, banks and courts closed. In some places the protests were bigger than those in 2011-2012 when protestors occupied the squares like Syntagma in central Athens.

Eurozone leaders are insisting the government cut pensions so that Greece can meet the terms of the $125 billion bailout President Alexis Tsipras negotiated in July last year to avoid default. The Syriza government is stuck between the intransigence of the Eurozone leaders and resistance on the streets.

Greek workers are fighting for their lives. With 25 per cent official unemployment and 50 per cent youth unemployment, pension payments often provide meagre sustenance for several family members.

2015 opened with the election of the radical left party Syriza to government for the first time, on a strong anti-austerity platform.

Syriza promised to tear up the hated austerity deals imposed by the European Union, the European Central Bank and the IMF in the wake of the global economic crisis of 2008.

The resulting cuts to schools, hospitals and public service jobs have helped deepen Greece’s catastrophic crisis, producing Depression-era conditions.

But by the time Tspiras went to the polls again in September last year Syriza had promised Europe’s leaders that it would implement a deep package of cuts and privatisations.

The re-election of the Syriza-ANEL government even after this historic capitulation has solved nothing.

The instability created by years of deep crisis and crippling austerity continues. Europe’s leaders are again talking of Grexit—forcing the country out of the single European currency. Meanwhile 36,000 refugees are trapped in Greece as Macedonia, Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia close their borders.

Many commentators saw Tspiras’s re-election, and the small vote for Popular Unity—the new party dominated by those who broke to the left of Syriza—as evidence that Greeks had accepted the necessity of austerity. The struggle against Syriza’s proposed pension reforms shows the Greek resistance has not been broken.

Where many neo-liberal governments were able to rationalise European pension schemes in the 1980s and 1990s, the strength of the workers’ movement successfully protected Greece’s scheme. But since the crisis in 2009 governments have forced through 11 rounds of cuts and restructuring resulting in a 40 per cent cut in the average monthly pension payment.

On top of these cuts Tsipras has promised the IMF to cut another $2.6 billion from the scheme—the equivalent of 1 per cent of Greece’s GDP.

Syriza now only has a majority of three in the Greek parliament, and some speculate that many of its own MPs will not vote for the pension cuts.

Resistance from below

The fight against the pension laws started in late 2015 with pensioners themselves taking to the streets. The main union leaders tried to stall action until the pension bill was in parliament.

But public sector unions called pre-emptive strikes in December that pulled other sections of the union movement and community into action.

Farmers are being hit by both pension cuts and increased taxes. They have organised mass road blockades across the country and sent tens of thousands to Athens for militant protests and sit-ins. Low-income professionals are also going to be savaged by the cuts. Their resistance has been coined “the movement of the tie” as engineers, doctors and lawyers struck and marched.

Lawyers staged an indefinite strike in January that is now in its third month!

There are many other smaller strikes over both pensions and workers’ specific issues.

According to Greek socialist Panos Garganas, “Sections of the movement are escalating—such as the ferry workers and possibly soon the electricity workers. The workers with the most to lose from the bill are those with the best pensions. These are the fruit of decades of struggle, so those workers are often the best organised.”

Port workers are also fighting privatisation, with another 48-hour strike held on 17 and 18 February. The government is trying to privatise the port of Piraeus, near Athens, and Thessaloniki, as part of $75 billion in sell-offs.

Previous rounds of strikes brought down conservative pro-austerity governments and laid the basis for the emergence of a new left that was embodied in the election of Syriza. Now people are fighting the very government they had pinned their hopes on.

The strikes pave the way for deeper radicalisation and the prospect for a solution to the crisis that relies on workers’ self-activity and resistance.

By Jean Parker


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