People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


Vol. XXXIV

No. 12

March 21, 2010

Working Class up in Arms in Greece

 

R Arun Kumar

 

GREECE has witnessed four strikes in the space on one month. Each of them bigger than the earlier. Starting on February 10, these strikes were held at regular intervals – February 24, March 5 and the latest on March 11. While the crisis surrounding the Greek economy is getting due coverage in the media, it is the working class action that is deliberately blacked out. This of course is not the case when the anarchists take to the streets and indulge in vandalism in Greece. The reasons are not difficult to fathom. The organised and conscious actions of the working class terrifies the ruling classes and they do not want the 'endemic' to spread across the continent, already seething with 'trouble'.

The genesis of the working class action is related to the economic crisis that engulfed the whole world and which did not spare Greece. The crisis unfolding there has some parallels to the debt crises that hit Latin America and Asia in the past, particularly in how Greece's problems have spread so quickly to other countries in the region with similar economic woes. There are fears that Greece might default on its debt and if this happens its impact would be felt by investors worldwide. Roughly 70 percent of Greek bonds are held by foreigners and Greece owes the world around $300 billion.

Over the past decade, Greece government, just like its counterparts in the US and the EU, fuelled a debt binge. As in the American sub-prime crisis and the implosion of the American International Group, financial derivatives played a role in the run-up of Greek debt. Instruments developed by Goldman Sachs, J P Morgan Chase and a wide range of other banks enabled the government to mask additional borrowing in Greece.

Goldman served as investment banker for Greece as the country borrowed billions by entering complex financial contracts known as cross-currency swaps. The contracts allowed Greece to limit the amount of debt it seemed to be taking on to fund its national budget. As Greece’s financial condition worsened, the role of Goldman Sachs and other major banks in masking the true extent of the country’s problems has come to the fore. But even before that became apparent, a little-known company backed by Goldman, JP Morgan Chase and about a dozen other banks had created an index that enabled market players to bet on whether Greece would go bust and made enormous profits. Now, Greece may have to seek a bailout from its European Union brethren or the International Monetary Fund or worse, default.

In what amounted to a garage sale on a national scale, Greek officials essentially mortgaged the country’s airports and highways to raise much-needed money. Aeolos, a legal entity created in 2001, helped Greece reduce the debt on its balance sheet that year. As part of the deal, Greece got cash upfront in return for pledging future landing fees at the country’s airports. A similar deal in 2000 called Ariadne devoured the revenue that the government collected from its national lottery. Greece, however, classified those transactions as sales, not loans.

Greece, along with Portugal, Ireland and Spain is in a phase of severe recession. Only six months ago, the conservative government, ND, was voted out of power in the general elections holding it responsible for the economic crisis. The new government of the Social-democrats, PASOK, which had come to power on the basis of this anti-incumbency did little to mitigate the sufferings of the people. Instead, it appealed to the 'patriotism' of the workers, to “bear the burdens”, “to save the country” from crisis and “protect it from bankruptcy”.

Like its predecessor in office, the present government too is committed to all EU treaties and is continuing with the same pro-rich, anti-poor policies of its predecessor. It vowed to impose fiscal austerity and plug its yawning budget deficit. This was sought to be done by imposing burdens on the working people and reducing social welfare allocations and state expenditure. These decisions of the Greek government sparked protests in Athens and ignited the already precipitating anger among the people. The Communist Party of Greece (KKE), stating that the policies of the ND and PASOK are two faces of the same coin, was actively campaigning among the people, exposing the futility and inherent class bias of the government policies. They argued with facts, “the corporates that owned 36 billion Euros in 2004 increased their wealth to 136 billion Euros in 2009, while during the same period the real wages of the workers declined”. The 'organised' working class actions are thus both due to the maturing objective conditions and the subjective intervention of the communists.

The protesters made it clear that they are not willing to make any further sacrifice for the ruling classes. They demanded: (i) stable employment for all, (ii) 7-hour working day and 5-day week, (iii) minimum salary of 1400 Euros, (iv) retirement at the age of 55 for women and 60 for men (at 50 and 55 for those involved in hazardous occupations), (v) substantial welfare measures for the protection of the unemployed and their families in place of charity vouchers, unemployment benefit of 1120 Euros for the whole period of unemployment without any conditions and prerequisites, (vi) complete health and pharmaceutical care, (vii) drastic increase in the taxation of the big enterprises and abolition of all tax reliefs and privileges. They are against reduction of wages and pensions.

These series of strikes were led by All Workers’ Militant Front (PAME), a front of trade unions in Greece. It had carried out thorough preparations for the success of the strike by visiting hundreds of workplaces, discussing with the workers and preparing for this battle at all levels. The political campaign undertaken by the KKE in workplaces played a significant role in the organisation of this strike. KKE organised a series of protests and demonstrations in many residential areas in Athens and other cities throughout the country. As part of these preparations, under the leadership of the PAME, they even blockaded the Athens stock exchange building.

Many public and private sector trade unions, trade union centres and industrial federations participated in the strike. Students too joined the picket lines in huge numbers outside the gates of factories and other workplaces. They staged mass rallies in almost all the cities in the country. Thousands of factories and enterprises, construction sites, schools, ports and airports and the entire production activity was brought to a standstill. Protest marches were organised to the office of the Ministry of Labour and also to the Greek Parliament.

The EU had warned that if the Greek government fails to comply with the European Central Bank's austerity measures by March 16, it would lose control over its own taxation and expenditures under the provisions of Lisbon Treaty. Following this diktat, the government had announced another slew of measures that further accentuated the burden on the working class. They responded with a call for a flash 24-hour strike on the March 5. In spite of the absence of time for elaborate preparations, this too was immensely successful because the consciousness of the already burdened workers was roused by the recent campaigns and struggles. Tens of thousands of protesters flooded the centre of Athens and numerous other cities protesting the cuts on salaries, pensions, bonuses and vacation allowances. They also vented their anger on the drastic increase of indirect taxes on all categories of products and services, especially on the essential commodities.

The call for a 24-hour strike had a huge impact. For the first time many trade unions that are not part of the PAME and are under the influence of the reactionary trade unions joined the strike. The leadership of the trade unions of Athens public transport employees, who traditionally follow the reformist unions, were forced to join the call for this 24-hour strike. This had paralysed the transport in the capital. Popular pressure against the government was sustained by another successful strike on March 11.

These strikes had enriched the militant experience of the working people. The tremendous response to the strike calls and the massive participation in the rallies, not only increased the confidence of the workers in their collective strength but also served a warning to the government and the EU. The working class not only fought for their rights but also against the policy of intimidation launched by the ruling classes and their parties. These protest actions also sent a clear message to the government and the ruling classes --- (i) workers will not fall into the trap of 'patriotism' and (ii) they are also not ready to make any more sacrifices for the profits of the bourgeoisie.

The political situation in Greece proves what had been oft stated about the crisis – the ruling classes will try to transfer the burdens of the crisis they had created, onto the shoulders of the working class. It had also proved that if communists and the revolutionary trade unions take the lead and consciously intervene, the growing discontent among the people can be channelised in correct direction.