The revolt against the IMF-EU austerity package in Greece escalated with two general strikes in May.
The strike on 5 May turned out to be the biggest ever, with estimates of the strike rally's size reaching over half a million. There were clashes with the police as they used tear gas against demonstrators trying to go up the steps in the parliament building. Three bank employees died in a blaze when a Marfin Bank building was set on fire.
Many people thought that this explosion would exhaust the energy and the anger of the strikers. Certainly the government and its supporters in the media tried to push events in that direction. There was a concerted attempt to blame the deaths on the demonstrations. But it failed. Bank workers were out on strike on 6 May blaming management for forcing people to work on a general strike day in a building without proper fire safety and for keeping the exit locked! Tens of thousands surrounded the parliament building again on the evening of that day. And another general strike on 20 May was again huge.
This dynamic is not just the result of spontaneous reaction against the IMF coming to Greece to impose savage "structural adjustment". Traditionally Greece had been the country where the EU was most popular. Not any more. Ideas are changing. An opinion poll by VPRC for the internet TV channel TVXS showed that 71 percent mistrust the EU. Two out of three people want cuts in military spending. And an impressive 32 percent support the idea that Greece should stop debt and interest payments to bondholders!
These shifts in public opinion are producing a crisis in both major parties. Three MPs were expelled from the Pasok (Labour party) parliamentary group after they refused to vote for the IMF measures when they were ratified on 6 May. The conservative New Democracy party split over the same vote. The Tory leadership voted against, saying, "We should not allow the voice of the demonstrators to be the only opposition heard in Greece." New Democracy's Dora Bakoyannis, who narrowly failed to win the leadership contest last autumn, refused to toe the line and was expelled.
So Pasok is receiving support from a large section of the conservatives plus the far-right LAOS that also voted with the government. But this is not soothing the ranks of the ruling party. Supporters of the party's founder Andreas Papandreou (the father of today's prime minister) have produced a poster saying, "Greece belongs to the Greeks, not to the bankers."
The government is committed to continuing the austerity attacks despite its weakened position. A so-called pension "reform" bill is scheduled to go through parliament in June. It slashes pensions and forces women in the civil service to work up to 15 years longer before retiring. The unions have promised there will be a new general strike against this. The powerful electricity workers' union GENOP-DEH threatened continuous 48-hour strikes to protect the pension fund of people working for the Public Power Corporation. The strikes were postponed after the government promised to exempt their pension fund.
The debate on the way forward is raging. We in the Socialist Workers Party (SEK), along with the rest of the anti-capitalist left, are arguing that the unions should use the dynamic of the general strikes to prepare for all-out strikes as the austerity measures hit jobs, wages, pensions in local authorities, schools and hospitals. We are also arguing that the strike movement needs to raise demands for the nationalisation of the banks, freezing the debt and breaking EU discipline.
These ideas are becoming more and more popular and are affecting the broader left. Synaspismos, a traditionally pro-European party, is holding an extraordinary party congress early in June and a section of the leadership is presenting a platform arguing for a break with the EU. Panayotis Lafazanis, a leading MP who supports this platform, was a speaker at the Marxism 2010 event that was organised by SEK between the two general strikes in May. His argument was clear: "If we have to choose between the euro and resisting the cuts we should opt for resistance."
Alex Callinicos and David Harvey were also in Athens for Marxism. Both were interviewed by the media. Alex's interview hit the top viewing spot on TVXS. David Harvey's interview was published in the Sunday magazine of Eleftherotypia that sells nearly 200,000 copies. Anti-capitalism is becoming a household idea in Greece and the left needs to build on this.