48-hour General Strike sees Biggest Workers’ Protests in Decades
Greece was paralysed on Wednesday and Thursday this week by a 48 hour general strike called by the General Confederation of Greek Workers (GSEE) and the public sector Civil Servants’ Confederation (ADEDY). Up to half a million workers and youth took to the streets of Athens on Wednesday and around 100,000 on Thursday. Wednesday’s demo was the largest union demonstration in Greece since the fall of the military dictatorship in 1974 and with the exception of a popular uprising in 1965, the largest since the end of World War II!
Workers readily took strike action and to the streets to oppose yet another vicious austerity cuts bill which sees further pay cuts for public sector employees, another tax hike, yet more cuts to pensions, mass layoffs in the public sector and a disbandment of Collective Agreements in the private sector. Tens of thousands public sector workers will have their current jobs “suspended”, over the next few months, with huge pay cuts, and will fully lose their jobs one year later. More layoffs in the public sector will follow in 2012 and 2013 – the ‘Troikans’ demand that a total of 250,000 jobs to go in the public sector out of a total of 650,000 (including about 200,000 in the army, the police, the judiciary and the church). All this is supposed to tackle the national debt crisis, but it is bringing precisely the opposite results: the deep recession, causing a fall in GDP of nearly 15% in three years, has raised both the budget deficits and the national debt. But the only ‘remedy’ Troikans impose is yet more cuts, while accusing Greek workers, now the poorest in the euro zone, of “living beyond their means”!
A complete national shut down
The general strike action enjoyed overwhelming support in every sector, public and private. It was a complete national shut down, involving the widest social layers. Even those sections of the population normally considered ‘conservative’, like court judges, street kiosk owners, taxi drivers and track drivers, took action.
The magnificent strike action followed weeks of escalating “rolling” industrial action by many sections of the workforce. Most government ministry buildings have been in occupation since the beginning of the month, including the key departments, like finance and justice. The government has tried to break a bitter strike, and occupation of the landfills, by refuse workers. This is nearly 3 weeks long, causing mountains of garbage to accumulate in the streets of Athens. Government attempts to break the strike, deploying private trucks, completely failed. The Pasok administration now threatens the strikers, who continue their strike, with military coercion! Bus drivers, doctors and other health workers, teachers, sailors, and many other sectors, have been on repeated strike action over the last few weeks.
The mood on the streets of Athens and other cities and towns this week was angry and explosive. Most workers feel that after several draconian austerity packages and steeply declining living standards they have “nothing to lose” by taking all out industrial action. The so-called “shock therapy” has failed to put Greece’s finances on a “sustainable” path. It has only produced an unprecedented recession at huge human and social cost. Unemployment and bankruptcies increase, tax revenue falls and recession deepens. The official rate of unemployment, already announced for this month at 16.5% according to the OAED (the official government employment bureau). But everyone knows that the real unemployment level is already around 25%. Up to 60% of unemployed young workers refuse to register as they see no point in doing so! This picture does not take into consideration the ‘underemployment’ levels which are at similar figures to unemployment figures. Poverty figures and drug addiction and suicide rates have all risen sharply. Many people suffer from poor health and illnesses because they cannot afford to pay for medical costs and because of deep cuts to the public health services – 50% of hospital beds face the Troikan axe! Children are going to school complaining to teachers they are hungry. The teachers’ union reported cases of children fainting in the class rooms due to malnutrition.
Angry and explosive mood
There were revolutionary aspects to the situation in Greece this week. The Pasok government was completely isolated from the masses, including the middle classes, and suspended in mid air. The union leaders could easily have called for further determined action to finish off the government and to stop all cuts and other attacks. But instead workers were not given clear leadership or any call for more action. After a few hours, the hundreds of thousands demonstrating on the streets in Athens, on Wednesday, drifted home, particularly after clashes between anarchist groups or agent provocateurs and the riot police. The police took full advantage given to them by about 100 to 200 “anarchists” to suffocate tens of thousands of workers with chemical weapons thrown directly into the main body of the workers’ demonstration.
On the second day of the 48 hour general strike, around 100,000 took to the streets and surrounded the parliament. Members of the Greek communist party (KKE) decided for the first time in years to join the rest of the Left and the unions in a common demonstration. They decided to steward their own contingents in front of the Parliament but this was seen as a provocation by the anarchist groups and the result was violent clashes between anarchists and the KKE supporters. Around 70 people were wounded and a building worker died from a heart attack, initial reports claim. The violent clashes were broadcast on Greek television to show divisions on the Left and to try to discredit the strike.
Despite the general strike and huge protests, the draconian cuts were passed by Parliament. Around 15,000 policemen were mobilised to protect the “thieves and liars” inside the parliament from the rage of the Greek masses. The cuts were passed by 153 votes to 144, allowing Prime Minister George Papandreou’s government to cling to power, for the time being, at least. There were rumours all week that the government would fall. But it was understood by the Greek ruling class and the ruling elites across the EU that for Pasok to collapse would have been seen as a victory for the mass movement, encouraging more mass resistance to austerity measures in Greece and elsewhere.
What will happen next? The draconian cuts bill was passed but strikes, occupations and protests can continue. Many workers hope that some of the more militant union federations will continue with protest actions. But there is no clear lead from any of the union leaders or from the Left parties. Workers want to fight and have shown they will fight to the end, but they are not optimistic. All of the Left parties call for the “removal” of the government but it is largely empty rhetoric as they do not put forward any specific demands to concretely develop the mass struggle.
What slogans and demands?
In stark contrast, Xekinima (CWI in Greece) has been calling and campaigning for a continuation of indefinite occupations and strikes to remove the Pasok cuts-making government, and for a revolutionary government of workers and the poor. These were the main slogans on three prominent Xekinima banners carried on the big demonstrations this week, on the front page headline of the party newspaper and carried on 20,000 leaflets distributed in the course of this week by Xekinima supporters.
Xekinima is, unfortunately, the only prominent force on the Left in Greece that makes clear proposals to the rest of the Left and to the workers’ movement, in general, about how to develop the struggles, to bring the government down and to stop cuts.
In fact, and, actually to our surprise, others on the Left publicly opposed Xekinima’s ideas to develop a clear plan of action for the struggle. For example, before this week’s general strike action, at an important co-ordinating meeting of union activists held on 16 October, representing about 200 local union branches, trade unionists supporting far left groups, but also Syriza (a broad left party), opposedXekinima’s proposals to escalate the mass action in a concrete way.Xekinima trade unionists called for co-ordination to develop the different occupations and strikes, for rolling industrial action by sectors of the workforce every week, for repeated 48 hour general strikes every week and more, where possible, to build in the direction of all-out, indefinite strike action and occupations, with the common aim of bringing down the government. We also called for full democratic organization of the workers’ movement, based on elected rank and file committees leading the struggles.
Xekinima links these struggles to political demands, including refusal to pay the debt and nationalization of the banks under workers’ democratic control and management, to plan the economy for the benefit of the majority, instead of for huge profits for a handful of bankers and multinationals.
The representatives of the various left groups and parties at the afore mentioned co-ordinating meeting argued that given the anti-cuts mood of the working class there was “no need to take these [Xekinima’s] proposals”. In other words, they refused to discuss a programme of action that could develop the mass struggle, leaving the initiative in the hands of the Pasok-linked union bureaucracy. This refusal included the ultra left, who never tire talking about “revolution”. But when it comes to specific action, they have a sectarian approach and method and have no concept of demands, tactics or strategy.
Perspectives for struggle?
Feeling huge pressure from below, the leadership of the Pasok unions were compelled to organise general strikes but they see it as a way to “scare” the government to make a few concessions and not to bring it down. The union tops do not seriously intend to fully utilise the enormous power of the working class, displayed so clearly this week, to halt all cuts and to kick the government out of office.
Perspectives for the unfolding situation in Greece and for workers’ movement need to be very conditional given how fluid and explosive the situation remains. New waves of fury from workers over the cuts can see more workplace occupations, local and sector strikes and actions by students and youth, particularly by school students. This volcanic mood can force union leaders to call new general strikes that can escalate.
But it is also the case that in the absence of resolute militant leadership from the unions and Left, there is a real danger that industrial action and occupations could start to fall away, the new cuts will start to take effect and many workers could become demoralised for a period.
The need to democratically co-ordinate the struggles from below, and to build an alternative mass, internationalist, Left force - determined to take the struggle to the end, fight against the capitalists’ assault and to link it to the need for a socialist society - is more demanding than ever.