Health workers in Greece are fighting government efforts to sack unvaccinated workers due to a mandatory vaccination rule in hospitals.
Doctor and union member Argyri Erotokritou told Solidarity, “The government announced the suspension of every health worker that was not vaccinated by 1 September.”
It claimed the COVID vaccine mandate was necessary as a health measure. “The main argument was that these [unvaccinated] workers are irresponsible towards public health and most of all towards our patients. That’s a total absurdity!
“Health workers in public hospitals are vaccinated or have natural immunity at a rate of 95 per cent, one of the highest percentages among the [Greek] community, where vaccination reached only 60 per cent.
“Around 6000 health workers have been suspended but the fight still carries on.” A total of 10,000 staff are facing the sack.
“The actual reason for the suspensions,” Argyri continued, “is the effort by the government to privatise parts of the public health [system]. A reshuffle of the right-wing government was held last month. The Health minister was replaced by a far-right politician, Thanos Plevris, a racist, sexist bigot.
“The first thing he did was to approve the entrance of private contractors to replace the suspended health workers.
“The government wants to smash the opposition that formed in the hospitals, especially during the pandemic, demanding the employment of another 20,000 health workers, permanent jobs for all health workers on annual contracts, and nationalisation of private clinics. They [want to] try to divide us between vaccinated and non-vaccinated.”
The hospital workers union, POEDIN, representing workers in public hospitals including doctors, nurses and cleaners, is fighting the vaccine mandate.
“Since 26 August we had five stoppages and strikes against this attack,” said Argyri, who works at the George Gennimatas General State Hospital in Athens. “On 1 September many local unions organised occupations of the management offices in every hospital.
“On 9 September a massive strike and demonstration took place. On 21 September, during another stoppage, the minister of health was forced to announce that some 20,000 health workers with annual contracts will stay for another year.”
Health workers recognise that if the government gets away with sacking unvaccinated staff, it will mean fewer health workers, stretching the hospital system even further. Anger at the vaccine mandate comes after a disastrous government failure to properly respond to the pandemic.
“There is a lot of anger and frustration among health workers. The [right-wing] New Democracy government is responsible for the third worst death toll in the European Union due to COVID-19.
“During the health crisis they chose to reduce the public health budget by 600 million euros ($965 million). Instead of hiring extra staff they moved staff all across the country to cover any extreme needs. ICU beds were far fewer than needed.
“The government imposed one of the strictest lockdowns that was a total disaster. Nothing was done about safety in workplaces, public transport, schools or nursing homes.
“The anger forced the union to take action. Our network of the anti-capitalist left plays a key role in organising the struggle.
According to Argyri, the failure to fight the vaccine mandate would only push people into the arms of the far right.
“It is a crucial fight because the far right tries to connect with people that do not trust vaccination by organising demonstrations. The fact that our union calls for action against suspensions builds a wall against the far right as well.”
Argyri is a member of the Greek Socialist Workers Party, Solidarity’s sister organisation, which is opposing the vaccine mandate.
“We do not think that making vaccination mandatory will solve any problems”, she said.
“On the contrary it produces more distrust in people who chose not to take the vaccine.
“We support vaccination as one of many weapons we have against the pandemic. But at the same time we understand that governments and big pharmaceutical companies are responsible for the catastrophic results of the pandemic.
“People that saw all the government failures are sceptical towards vaccination and in some cases towards science. We believe that the most successful way to achieve a high percentage in vaccination in the community is for health workers to take control of the vaccination campaign and to nationalise the pharmaceutical companies to produce as many vaccines as the planet needs.”
The struggle in Greece shows the kind of action unions could take to fight vaccine mandates and defend workers’ jobs. And it shows how this can go hand in hand with pushing for high rates of vaccination, and a fight for the increased funding for hospitals needed in the face of the pandemic.