Today we visited one of the solidarity clinics that operates in the suburb of Peristeri. We met with some of the volunteers that work in the clinic that included two doctors as well as other activists. The clinic is staffed by 60 volunteers, including 20 doctors, and offers free medical consultations and pharmaceuticals.
Peristeri is largely a working class suburb of 400,000 people and is located in west Athens, which has a population of 1 million. Before the economic crisis most residents worked in blue-collar industry or were self-employed in small businesses.
Now many of these people are unemployed, or have had their wages and pensions significantly cut. There are high levels of poverty in the area and many residents are living without basic services, such as electricity or running water.
The solidarity movement was born out of the No Pay campaign, a mass resistance to rising tolls and to the growing cost of public transport. This was built on by the Occupy movement of 2011. After the mass occupation of the squares of Athens and throughout Greece, the solidarity movement was strengthened in the neighbourhoods in a rejection of the unfair property tax.
These struggles helped communities organise and work together through democratic structures. The solidarity movement now has hundreds of self-organised collectives that assist people with health, food and education needs.
In September 2012, there were about 180 self-organising initiatives. Now there are about 400. Most activists in the Solidarity4All movement are unemployed and 60% are women.
SYRIZA plays an important role in this campaign. Each SYRIZA MP donates 10-20% of their wage to the solidarity campaign. Manny SYRIZA members are also active in the campaign and volunteer to assist those most disadvantaged by the austerity measures.
In 2012, the solidarity movement created groups that included educational programs where retrenched teachers tutored children and established trading cooperatives with farmers. The absence of middlemen meant that farmers could get a better price than supermarkets offered and people could buy the produce for less than supermarket sold.
They are expanding into new fields, such as campaigning against foreclosures and assisting people who are in debt as a result of unfair taxes. They provide free legal advice and representation, and protest at the courts to stop foreclosures from occurring.
The Peristeri clinic operates by appointment and assists people with a range of health needs including access to GPs, psychologists, dentists, cardiologists, peadiatricians, and other specialists. Medicines are all donated to the clinic and are given to patients for free. The clinic has an MRI machine, which was donated to them from supporters in Germany.
Volunteer doctor Olga Kesidou said: “Doctors are the front line and our hearts bleed. The first thing to suffer after the memorandum [agreement that forced austerity on Greece] was the notion of public health. It was impacted by underfunding and understaffing, while at the same time there was a private health blow out.
“Doctors decided not to work alone, but to create a nucleus of resistance in order to keep the health system alive. We do not want to create beggars but want people to know that public health is a right, and as doctors we preserve this right.”
While providing these services is essential, Solidarity4All is not a welfare project. Christos Gevganopoulos described it as “a political movement, not a charity or NGO. It challenges the capitalist way of doing things.”
The notion of solidarity is central. They do not accept cash donations, but rely on a system of trade and donation of goods. This ensures that this movement maintains its political clarity.
Gevganopoulos explained how, through the action of helping and supporting each other, people see how public services can be run by the community with the support of people. He described how through this process, “democracy is exercised and deepening. [It is] engaging people with the movement of solidarity and expanding the program of self-management.”
Flora Toutoutsli from the Solidarity in the West, in west Athens, described how her solidarity group consists of 20 volunteers who support 50 families. They work in conjunction with the Peristeri clinic and provide food and clothing.
She described how there were some families who had gone three months without electricity and water. Heating costs had quadrupled over the past three years and last year, 80% of apartments in the area went without heating.
She said depression was a major problem and that when they meet with people they “tell them it is not their fault for the situation they are in”. The group’s slogan is: “Solidarity, Resistance, Overthrow.”
Solidarity in the West organises a weekly stall outside of the local supermarkets. The stall targets a different supermarket each week. They hand out leaflets to people as they enter explaining who they are and what they do.
Most people make a food donation as they exit the stall. She said that it was not uncommon to see people carrying one bag of their own groceries and donate two or three bags to the group.
Toutsouli emphasised the solidarity aspect to their work. They cook dinner for retrenched Ministry of Finance cleaners and take it to their protest. On November 17, 2013, to commemorate the Polytechnic uprising in the early 1970s, they organised a solidarity action with the retrenched cleaners, ERT workers, school guards, the Coca-Cola factory workers, and the Thessaloniki BIOME workers.
She said they “build solidarity and encourage people to get involved. We engage and mobilise.”
The volunteers at the clinic believed that a SYRIZA government would restore public services. They explained that the process was not going to be easy and straightforward, however, they hoped that they would be able to close the clinic in about a years time.
They believed that the solidarity model provided a new way of doing things. They did not want things to go back to what they were but wanted to create a new democratic system.
[Vivian Messimeris is part of the Green Left team in Greece to cover the potentially historic January 25 elections. She is a member of Australia's Socialist Alliance in Sydney.]