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Socialism Today 136 - March 2010

The river of fury flowing through Greece

HUNDREDS OF thousands of public-sector workers took strike action in Greece on 10 February in an impressive show of strength against the social-democratic PASOK government’s social cuts package. An estimated 75% of public-sector workers struck, rising to 90% among the bigger concentrations of workers. Two demonstrations in Athens, described as a ‘river of fury’ by foreign journalists, totalled 15,000, big when compared to similar protests in recent years, particularly given the heavy rain. The strike by private-sector workers on 24 February has been turned into a 24-hour general strike, as the ADEDY public workers’ union confederation has decided to join it.

The savage austerity measures include a freeze on public-sector pay and deep cuts in bonuses, which can be up to 90% of basic pay, and heavy taxes on fuel, tobacco and alcohol. The government plans to replace only one in five employees who leave the civil service, and raise the retirement age by an average of two years above the age of 65. Lowering pension payments is to be used as an ‘incentive’ for workers to stay longer in their jobs!

There is widespread anger against the planned attacks. A worker on the Athens demonstration commented: "What they are trying to do is roll back our hard-earned rights, rights like the eight-hour day and a decent pension after a lifetime’s work. This is a crisis that is going to make the poor even poorer and the rich even richer. It’s totally unfair". But the mood is mixed, with some workers also expressing resignation and even despair. Many have been stunned by the rapid development and depth of Greece’s economic crisis. ADEDY leaders say that they oppose the austerity package, but do not put forward a concrete programme to defeat the attacks or offer a real alternative to them. Many experienced activists say that the strike was called mainly to let off steam.

Although the PASOK (Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement) government is responsible for the cuts plan, it still has around 40% support in opinion polls, compared to the main right-wing opposition, New Democracy (ND), which languishes around 30%. This is roughly the same as six months ago, when PASOK replaced the hated ND government. The main left parties, the Communist Party (KKE) and SYRIZA (the coalition of the radical left), are around 7% and 4% respectively.

In the midst of this deep economic crisis and upheaval, how can PASOK’s current poll lead be explained? The truth is that the Greek ruling class was very fortunate (or accurate) in holding early elections to change the government. If ND had remained in power and announced similar cuts to PASOK, the situation would have been much more explosive. An ND government presiding over cuts in the early 1990s provoked huge mass movements that rocked society.

Instead, PASOK has managed – at least partially, up to now – to put the blame for the economic problems on the previous government (which hid the extent of Greece’s huge debts), the policies of the EU and eurozone (which narrow the options PASOK can take), and the predatory actions of hedge fund speculators who are betting on Greece defaulting on its debts.

Prime minister, George Papandreou, says that PASOK has had no choice but to renege on election campaign promises in order to tackle Greece’s €300 billion public debt, pledging to cut the budget deficit from 12.7% to within the eurozone’s ‘permissible’ 3% limit by the end of 2012.

The PASOK government has also announced some populist measures against the rich, including targeting tax evasion (a huge problem), and introducing higher taxes on some of the richest sections – for example, a 90% tax on bank executive and financiers’ bonuses. This is also as far as the main union federations are prepared to go, at the moment. Of the two main left parties, only SYRIZA has put forward the demand for nationalisation under workers’ control and management of the crisis-ridden banks and other parts of the economy. However, these demands are generally buried in newspaper articles and are not referred to openly by its leaders. This means that most workers do not know what demands SYRIZA is putting forward.

The KKE, in contrast, which has a bigger electoral support and a more solid working-class base, uses strong phraseology to say that workers must defeat the attacks. But it does not explain how, making no concrete proposals in relation to political and class demands, or on how the struggles should develop. At the same time, the KKE continues its sectarian tactics, organising separate demonstrations and claiming that everyone else on the left and in the unions are agents of the bourgeoisie!

Supporters of Xekinima (CWI Greece) put forward a socialist alternative. The Xekinima newspaper sold on the Athens demonstrations carried headlines and articles calling for workers to fight back: ‘Make the bosses pay!’, ‘Plan a series of general strikes’. It demanded "a socialist fight-back by the left parties", explaining that they are faced with historical responsibilities. These were well received by strikers, even from those who clearly feel rather disillusioned.

Xekinima also puts forward more detailed demands on the public sector: no wage cuts; no attacks on pensions; no increase in indirect taxation; stop the tax evasion by the bosses; end debt repayment and use the money for public investment and to raise living standards; make the bosses pay back the €100 billion stolen from workers’ pension funds; for workers’ control and management to stop endemic corruption in the state sector and by big business; and nationalise all privatised public utility companies and strategically important sectors of the economy.

The announcement by EU president, Herman Von Rompuy, on 11 February, that EU leaders have agreed to ‘help’ Greece tackle its debt crisis may raise some temporary hopes among workers that the crisis can be overcome and that, maybe, the worst cuts can be avoided. However, the EU action is not being planned in the interests of workers in Greece or anywhere else in Europe. The EU states fear that if Greece was allowed to default on its debts or leave the 16-member eurozone, the contagion could spread to other states with big deficits, including Spain, Portugal and Ireland, with financial speculators targeting them, and that the whole euro project could blow apart.

Above all, they fear that PASOK’s austerity could unleash much greater social explosions, industrial movements and class struggles that could spread like wildfire to other crisis-ridden economies and throughout Europe.

The details of the EU’s plan have yet to be seen, but it is clear that it will come with ruthless conditions to ensure that the PASOK government sticks to its austerity plans. German chancellor, Angela Merkel, warned that Greece will "not be left on its own, but there are rules and these rules must be adhered to". It will become clear to the working class and youth that the EU institutions will not provide an escape. In fact, anger and animosity against the EU establishment will most likely grow, as this bosses’ institution will demand the most atrocious attacks on the Greek people.

Xekinima calls for an internationalist response by the working class in Greece, linking up with workers in the rest of Europe who face similar attacks and suffering. We fight against the EU of the capitalists and for a socialist united Europe. To develop the movement, industrial action should move from partial strikes to 24-hour and 48-hour general strikes, of all public- and private-sector workers. Plans for these actions must be coordinated and developed at local, regional and national levels. PASOK, despite blaming everyone but itself for the attacks, will not show a way out.

One of the key tasks for socialists in Greece is to fight against the splitting tactics of sections of the left, and campaign for a ‘united front’ approach, especially of the KKE and SYRIZA, to form a powerful resistance. This needs to be linked to bold socialist policies and for democratic workers’ planning and management of the economy to serve workers, the poor and youth, and to build a socialist society. Xekinima calls for the building of a mass, internationalist, revolutionary left in Greece and for a workers’ government with bold socialist policies, to end the crisis and to transform the living standards of working people and youth.

Andreas Payiatsos, Xekinima (CWI Greece)

This is an edited version of an article on the CWI website:


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