The standard of living for the people of Greece has dropped dramatically since the signing of the first “memorandum” — the agreement signed by the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) government with the IMF and European Union (EU) representatives last May.
The agreement has meant — among other things — unprecedented salary cuts, a rise in the allowed number of dismissals and a reduction in termination pay, and a cut in the minimum wage for those entering the workforce.
The retirement age has also gone up and retirement benefits have been cut. There is also a long-term plan to force people into private retirement schemes by methodically downgrading public insurance funds.
The eight-hour working day has been practically abolished. Overtime penalty rates, if they are paid at all, have fallen by 20%.
The health and education systems have also been adversely affected.
The consequences have already been disastrous. Last year, 211,000 permanent work positions were lost — 28% of the country’s workforce. “Flexible work” rates (casualisation) went up by 67%.
Only one-third of unemployed people receive any kind of benefits.
It is therefore no accident that about 400,000 electricity bills are unpaid and 245,808 customers have had their power supply disconnected as a result.
There have been three more “Memorandum” agreements, (with the last one still to be passed through parliament) accompanied by extremely harsh austerity measures, with no end in sight.
The money to pay back the original debt (estimated at 319 billion euros in May 2010) could easily have been found in other ways. It could have been found, for example, by retrieving the 600 billion euros earned by financial fraud, bribes and tax evasion that are stashed away in Swiss banks.
However, Prime Minister Georgios Papandreou’s Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) government opted to raise the money from the poor. In the meantime, it keeps receiving new loans to pay for the old ones!
The country’s debt is not only a pretext for transferring wealth to the ruling classes of both Greece and the European Union. It is also an opportunity for the government and its corporate friends to get rid of remaining workers’ rights won in previous decades.
Despite the devastating measures imposed last year, the troika negotiators and Greek employers are still not happy. They are seeking the total dismantling of workers’ rights.
EU and big business representatives have raised demands to this end for many years.
The Greek parliament passed a law in December that wiped out decades-long gains of the working movement. The law takes the country back to 1920, when collective bargaining was first introduced.
The law abolishes collective union agreements. In their place, it leaves “free” bargaining between employers and workers on an enterprise level.
It also facilitates dismissals and loosens restrictions on working hours.
In practice, this means that now workers can be (and are) asked to “freely” agree to a salary cutback, even to the minimum amount specified in the National General Collective Agreement (739 euros gross).
They also have to “freely” agree to unlimited dismissals, part-time and “flexible” work.
In the same spirit, hundreds of applications for the creation of enterprise-employer unions have been submitted by bosses.
Employers are already taking advantage of the new law and cutting back salaries under the threat of dismissal — or by firing workers who refuse to sign an individual agreement.
The unemployment benefit of 454 euros (only given for a maximum of 12 months in Greece) is also about to be cut.
This comes at a time when unemployment is reaching extreme heights. In January, the total number of sacked workers was 79,000 compared to 49,626 new hirings.
In response to these ferocious attacks and under the pressure of the people’s anger, the sold-out union leaders have called for general strikes and demonstrations — such as the one that took place on December 15.
There has also been substantial industrial action by public transport employees resisting plans of privatisation. This would cause worsen services and working conditions.
Other recent union action has involved truck owners (against the opening up of their business to big companies), doctors and chemists.
The huge protests have been met with unprecedented police repression. Huge quantities of highly toxic gas have been used on protesters, marches have been broken up and demonstrators bashed and arrested.
The protests and strikes have been largely unsuccessful in stopping the attacks — due to the lack of a militant union leaderships as well as a lack of solidarity.
The government has announced its attacks on individual sectors separately and the media and government have applied a divide-and-rule tactics to isolate each group of workers.
In spite of this, there have been some flickers of solidarity. For example, urban transport employees and truck drivers have linked their struggles with the “We won’t pay” movement, which opposes predatory road tolls and bus fare rises.
The movement has had some success, gaining wide-public acceptance and attracting significant participation. It has forced the government and its corporate friends with vested interests in the matter to react strongly, especially with regard to road tolls.
The vicious attack they have launched on the movement includes “divide- and-rule” (by saying that those who pay shoulder other people’s irresponsibility) as well as other tactics.
In order to protect its friends’ profits, the government is changing the Highway Code to fine drivers who won’t pay road tolls 200 euros.
However, the movement is still going strong and has found ways to adapt to the new situation.
There have been other instances of resistance, too. In the Athens suburb of Keratea, residents have been resisting the construction of a garbage dump site for more than three months.
The dump site would be highly toxic for resisidents and the archeological site nearby.
Police have been guarding the bosses’ equipment and preventing home owners’ access to their properties. This is despite two court orders forbidding work on the site.
The extreme police violence in Keratea is reminiscent of war scenes. The huge quantities of toxic gas used by police caused a pregnant woman’s miscarriage.
These struggles have led to a rise in solidarity and mobilisation. Tangible gains include the widespread refusal to pay road tolls and — in the case of the Keratea residents — legal victories.
The biggest victory of all, though, has been the case of the 300 migrants in Athens and the 50 migrants in Thessaloniki. The migrants had been on hunger strike for 44 days demanding the right to stay in Greece.
On March 9, when the government broke its intransigent position and agreed to let the migrants stay for at least six months. The government also agreed to grant residency permits to those who can prove they have lived in Greece for eight years — down from the previous requirement of 12 years.
The government’s proposal came in the nick of time, with fears growing of possible deaths. More than 100 hunger strikers had been taken to hospital.
Until March 9, the government had refused to give in to the migrants’ demands for fear of more people following suit.
Not surprisingly, the mass media has tried to downplay the importance of the concessions granted in a bid to minimise the impact of this victory.
The hunger strikers were mainly asking for legal residence status, which the existing law makes it almost impossible to obtain.
The law requires migrants have lived in the country for 12 years as well as 200 work-related social security stamps per year. The number of stamps required is extremely high, even for workers of Greek origin, with many of them being refused social security cover by their employers.
The government has now agreed to a prerequisite of eight years of residence with 120 social security stamps per year for all migrants.
It has also granted some extra rights to the hunger strikers, such as documents to facilitate visiting their countries and returing to Greece while waiting for legal residency.
Thanks to the hunger strikers, the number of stamps required for health insurance cover has also gone down from 100 to 50 for both migrant and Greek workers. This concession is a great anti-racist argument in itself!
Another big gain was the solidarity the migrant workers attracted. European Parliament MPs, artists, academics, trade unions, political parties, and ordinary people worldwide showed their support.
However, the issue generated a lot of racist talk in the media, which has recently adopted a lot of right-wing rhetoric.
A disproportionate amount of media exposure has been given recently to the far-right party, Popular Orthodox Alert (LAOS). As a result, there has been a general shift to the right.
This shift is seen in the increasingly brutal attacks on people’s living standards, level of state repression and in the right-wing views unblushingly expressed in TV shows.
The recent media exposure, combined with growing hardship, a year-long racist propaganda campaign in the media and the failure of the left to win over many people, has a potentially dangerous side-effect. It has led to an increase in LAOS’ popularity, which the latest polls showed has gone up by 3%.
The situation in Greece is highly volatile, with most people feeling very angry at the government and the political system. Accordingly, there are emotional expressions of anger directed towards politicians.
The levels of participation in union action (which is given a strongly political character by the participating political groups) is considerable.
However, the union leadership controls actions in a way that renders them practically ineffective. Some of the tricks they employ are delayed responses, separate industrial action by different sectors and one-day strikes that are doomed to failure.
The largely fragmented left has not been able to propose an effective alternative yet. It is time for it to gain people’s trust and find ways to help organise successful struggles aimed at creating a society that puts people before profits.