Greek teachers fight neo-liberal attacks
By Afrodity Giannakis
A dispute between teachers and the government dominated the Greek political scene for some days in June. The trigger was the government's decision to replace the system of teacher placement with one based on an exam.
Traditionally, teachers have been put on a waiting list after graduation and appointed on a seniority basis.
The exam requirement would invalidate university degrees acquired after years of hard work and would give placements to only a very small number of teachers (about 8000 this year, according to the minister of education), striking those remaining off the waiting lists.
The number of teachers on waiting lists before the dispute was 120,000, at a time when the average classroom has one teacher for 35 students.
Teachers who have been waiting for appointment for up to 15 years would have to be tested on equal terms with recent graduates. The exam would hit particularly hard the 18,000 relief teachers, who would automatically be replaced if they were unsuccessful.
Relief teachers were especially vocal in response to the new legislation. They asked the government to place all relief teachers within the next five years, exempting them from the exam, but the minister, Gerasimos Arsenis, refused. The relief teachers responded in the vast majority by refusing to take the exam.
The PASOK government, which calls itself "socialist", is using the exam to evade responsibility for teachers' unemployment and to cover up a decrease in placements and a deterioration in working conditions.
The law includes other harsh measures. One is an entry test for students to attend upper secondary school, which would result in a drastic reduction in student numbers.
A solidarity movement was soon developed among teachers, university and other students, and parents. When the government refused to engage in dialogue, the teachers' association decided to protest at the examination centres, occupying the buildings where possible.
The campaign combined teachers' right to work with demands for free access to education. Many permanent teachers also joined the protests.
Very few teachers agreed to supervise the examinations; the government had to resort to compulsory recruitment of unqualified public servants. On the first day of the exam (June 11), only 20 of 60,000 preschool and primary school teachers had accepted to be supervisors.
The four days of the exam witnessed widespread, militant and massive mobilisations. For the first two days, there was a teacher strike. Examination centres in dozens of cities and towns were occupied or picketed by thousands of activists.
The government responded with repression, sending in the police with their notorious semi-military force, MAT.
There were clashes between demonstrators and police at many examination centres. The police used tear gas and chemical sprays, beating and chasing demonstrators. There were dozens of arrests and serious injuries. In one incident, police dragged a demonstrator 150 metres along the road after arresting him, and only allowed him to be taken to hospital 14 hours later.
Arsenis had the temerity to express publicly his sympathy with 10 police injured "as a result of deliberate provocation by demonstrators"!
The climate created by the government's aggression encouraged members of the fascist organisation, Golden Dawn, who bashed three people outside a court hearing of arrested demonstrators. One of those assaulted was a prominent left-wing student activist and member of the central council of the National Students Association of Greece, who was in a critical condition for several days.
The perpetrators had used pieces of wood which they gathered in full view of the police. Only a fortnight after the event, and after continuous pressure from progressive forces, were arrest warrants issued for 10 of the fascists.
While the government claimed participation in the exam of around 59% (having decided that a figure near 60% would be sufficient to declare the exam valid), activists estimated it at 40-50% at most.
The exam is now being challenged legally by candidates, relief teachers and associations, on several grounds. The fact that most teachers are refusing to mark the exam papers hasn't made things easier for the government.
Whatever the legal outcome, the movement has achieved a political victory by undermining the credibility of the exam and the legislation, dealing a blow to the government's neo-liberal policies.
The movement developed largely independently of the union bureaucracy. Despite the reluctance of the highly influential union organisation of PASOK to mobilise its members, the numbers of participants were impressive.
The dispute is expected to be one in a series of struggles against the neo-liberal offensive. At the time of this dispute, there was a campaign of employees opposing the privatisation of a bank. The links between the two issues were not lost on activists, who organised joint actions and also made the connection clear in political slogans and chants.