Greece: Anti-austerity struggle waged from the squares

June 25, 2011
Greek protest, June 1.

Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou and his PASOK party government survived a June 21 confidence vote in parliament. This came ahead of a parliamentary vote scheduled for a week later on the austerity measures demanded of Greece in return for new loans from the European Union (EU) and International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Greece is in the grip of a desperate economic crisis. The government bailouts, engineered by the EU and IMF, have come with demands to slash spending, cut the wages and benefits of workers, and privatise public enterprises.

But a new mass movement has arisen to give voice to the anger of the mass of the population. Following the example of youth and workers in Spain, the Greek "indignants" have occupied public squares.

On June 27 and 28, the so-called "movement of the squares" was due to march with the union movement during a 48-hour general strike against the attacks to coincide with the planned parliamentary vote.

Panos Petrou, a member of the Internationalist Workers Left (DEA) and a participant in the occupation in Athens' Syntagma Square, explains how this powerful new movement developed. The article is abridged from .

* * *

On May 25, tens of thousands of people responded to a call on Facebook to join a demonstration in Syntagma Square, a central square in Athens outside the parliament building.

It was a spontaneous demonstration, inspired by the Spanish movement of “The Indignants".

Weeks later, Syntagma Square remains occupied by thousands of people. Similar "camps" are functioning in many squares in many cities and towns all around Greece.

A new protest movement ― the "movement of the squares" ― has emerged. It is a social force further destabilising the already shaken political system in Greece.

There is a widespread anger against "politicians", but the real reasons for this popular anger are the anti-worker policies of the government.

These policies are the product of the harsh austerity measures of the "memorandum" signed by the government and the so-called "troika" of the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund.

These are devastating the lives of working people, youth, the poor, seniors and the unemployed.

These are the people who occupy the squares ― the ordinary people of Greek society. Far from being "non-political", these people are discovering politics in the streets.

One of the most exciting things about the occupied squares has been the fever of political debate among ordinary people.

All sorts of people, meeting for the first time, are debating the political system, the crisis, the public debt and how to deal with it ― even the way the economy is run.

This is mostly a youth movement ― a movement of unemployed graduates, workers in precarious employment situations, people usually left out of the unions, because the trade union bureaucracy won't organise them.

But the squares have become a symbol of resistance for hundreds of thousands of workers, seniors and so on.

A survey found more than 2.5 million people around Greece ― with a population of 10 million ― have taken part in the demonstrations in recent weeks. The survey found 87% of people support the demonstrations.

In Syntagma Square, you can see how mass action can change people's ideas.

Most people are demonstrating for the first time in their lives. There are people who had been voting for the two mainstream parties for years, who now say: "Finally, we woke up!"

There is also a whole generation of young people that had no "ties" with politics.

In the first days, you could see these contradictions: The chant of "thieves, thieves" against members of parliament and insulting gestures against the parliament building were the only forms of expression.

As the movement evolved, more political slogans have emerged, with the chant "Hey, hey, ho, ho. Take the Memorandum and go!" dominating.

The occupation of Syntagma Square has taken a life of its own. Every night, there is a "People's Assembly," where thousands gather, discuss and vote for demands and the next steps.

There are all kinds of working groups focused on specific issues, such as a politics group, an economy group, and a workers and unemployed assembly.

One of the most successful initiatives was the "Day of Popular Discussion About the Debt".

Economists who opposed the memorandum were invited to speak about alternatives. More than 4000 people attended the discussion, where they asked questions about the future of the Eurozone, the possibility of a default and the role of the banks.

Syntagma Square has turned into a centre of resistance. Most trade union demonstrations end up at the square.

On June 9, workers from the Dodoni dairy company, which unites several agricultural cooperatives in northwestern Greece, came to the square to protest the planned sell-off of the company by the Agricultural Bank of Greece.

The workers distributed tons of milk to the demonstrators.

On June 4, gay rights demonstrators from the Athens Pride celebration defied police warnings and right-wing thugs claiming they weren't welcome in Syntagma, and marched to the square.

Sunday demonstrations at the square give the opportunity for the huge mass of sympathisers to protest ― similar to the "Fridays of Anger" in the Arab world.

Tens of thousands of people paralyse the downtown of Athens every Sunday. On June 5, more than 200,000 people took part in one of the largest demonstrations since the fall of the military junta in 1974.

The most exciting moment came when Egyptians living in Greece appeared, waving Egyptian flags and carrying a placard saying: "From Tahrir Square to Syntagma Square." The applause and the cheers were electrifying.

Egyptian, Tunisian and Spanish flags are a common sight at demonstrations.

There are also Argentinian flags and people banging pots and pans, as protesters did during the "Argentinazo" of 2001 when a series of governments were brought down by a popular uprising in the middle of an economic crisis. It is a popular example among demonstrators.

There is a slogan inspired by the rebellion in Argentina that forced President Fernando de la Rua to abandon the presidential palace in a helicopter: "One magic night, like the one in Argentina, we'll see who manages to get in the helicopter first!"

Inside the movement of the squares, there is an ongoing political struggle.

Many demonstrators exhibit hostility to the left, with statements such as "politicians are all the same", and the unions.

This is a left-wing criticism ― the "realism" of the big parties of the traditional left and their emphasis on parliamentary and electoral politics has led many people to see them as "part of the system". There is also widespread anger over the betrayals of the trade union bureaucracy.

But right-wing elements, disguised as "non-political patriots", are consciously cultivating these ideas. They are trying to give the demonstrations a conservative direction.

However, the decisions of the People's Assembly in Syntagma Square are clearly moving in a left-wing direction.

There are calls for strikes, declarations that all workers on strike are "welcome at the square", and demands that are traditionally expressed by the left.

The slogan of the radical left, "We don't owe anything, we won't sell anything, we won't pay anything", is one of the most popular at the squares.

The movement reached a peak on June 15, when a 24-hour general strike took place. Masses of striking workers joined the thousands of indignants surrounding the parliament building.

Fences were set up to protect the parliament building. Thousands of cops were mobilised to enable MPs to enter ― though most chose to stay home that day.

Later in the day, the riot police attacked the demonstration. Much tear gas was used on the streets around Syntagma.

Riot police repeatedly tried to disperse demonstrators, trying a direct raid on the camp in Syntagma.

But in an impressive display of defiance, people held their ground ― some danced in the middle of the "battleground" to show they were not afraid.

The mood was clear ― "They shall not pass" and "We won't lose the square".

Seniors, housewives, workers and young people all faced police brutality ― many of them for the first time in their lives ― but stayed on to occupy the square.

The solidarity shown by workers in nearby hotels and cafeterias was amazing. They opened doors, gave shelter to demonstrators and offered them water.

Workers at the subway station at Syntagma Square kept it open on their own initiative, offering a shelter to demonstrators, enabling the flow of people from and at the demonstration, and even setting up a makeshift clinic to take care of wounded demonstrators.

The people managed to hold their camp. That same night, thousands of people returned to attend the assembly, which was one of the biggest since the start of the movement.

The attempt to scare people off had failed.

That same day, the government nearly collapsed.

To control potential rebels in his own party, Papandreou asked for a confidence vote on June 21.

The movement of the squares organised a "vote of no-confidence on the streets" the same day, with huge demonstrations in every city.

This came after another huge mobilisation on Sunday, June 19.

With the government is trying to privatise public enterprises, the powerful trade unions in this sector are beginning to go on a war footing.

Starting on June 20, workers at the national electricity company began an open-ended series of rolling strikes.

The country's two main union federations, ADEDY for the public sector and GSEE for the private sector, have been forced to escalate strike actions.

After years of ceremonial 24-hour strikes, the two federations will hold a 48-hour general strike for June 27 and 28 against the new measures ― the first joint action of its kind in more than 30 years.

The slogan needed now is: "Bring all the unions to the Square, bring the squares to every workplace!"

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