Greece: austerity and workers' resistance

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Mark L Thomas spoke to revolutionary socialist Nikos Loudos about the explosive resistance to austerity in Greece

Photo Jess Hurd/Report Digital

Greece is being shaken by repeated general strikes, militant strikes by sections of workers, workplace occupations, mass protests and occupations of city squares.

While the headlines have been dominated by the threat to the eurozone, the attempt to shift the burden of the biggest economic and financial crisis of post-war capitalism onto workers' shoulders has now provoked the highest level of struggle in Europe since the defeat of the Portuguese Revolution in 1975.

Greece stands at the centre of the storm.

The moves by the Greek ruling class, driven on by demands of the European and US ruling classes, to sharply force down workers' living standards in a very concentrated period of time is producing a major crisis for the Greek state.

All this is taking place in the context of the revolutions unfolding in the Middle East.

As the interview with Greek socialist Nikos Loudos that follows makes clear, it has been the working class that has been the spinal column of the rebellion over austerity in Greece, against all those who have rushed to proclaim that workers won't fight back.

Pressure from below has pushed union leaders to fight and has in turn helped build rank and file confidence and organisation to drive the struggle higher. These lessons from Greece are vital for all those who want to oppose austerity and fight for a better world.

What have the austerity measures meant for workers' living standards? The scale and speed of the assault seem almost unprecedented in recent European history.

That's true. There is no easy way to measure it because of the speed you mention. But the official level of unemployment is now up to 16 percent. The institute controlled by the trade unions is saying that we are moving towards 22 percent unemployment. That means that in the next few months we'll reach the crucial number of one million unemployed in a population of 11 million.
Another measure is that the median income in the Greek economy has gone down 15 percent. The actual attack is even bigger, because it not been the same across all sectors of the economy. So if the median is 15 percent, there are workers who have lost even more than this. At the same time there is a generalised attack - you can see what's happened in public education and public health, for example.

There are hospitals that virtually cannot work now due to cuts. There are university faculties that have shut down because they cannot work - this happened in the architecture faculty in Athens. There are instances in hospitals where doctors and staff asked people to bring medicine and equipment from their homes.

The same thing is happening in local government. Many local governments around the country are saying that they cannot function, that they cannot collect the garbage.
In many ways, it's a picture of generalised destruction.

How do you think the popular mood has shifted over the last 18 months?

The shift is really big. Even the other side don't know how to cope with it. For example, a recent poll organised by a big media company, which supports the austerity measures, found that 87 percent of people think that the country is going in the wrong direction. Just 7 percent say it going in the correct direction.

Also, 88 percent of people said they are not happy with the way democracy is working in the country. So it's not only a loss of political credibility for Pasok [the Greek Labour Party] and the government, it's something different. It's the majority of the people thinking that the whole political system and its institutions don't work.

In the same poll 92 percent said that they are disappointed with the government, but 88 percent also said that they are also disappointed with the right wing opposition [the New Democracy party].

When they asked people what they believe is the solution, a little less than 10 percent agreed that the solution is to go along with the austerity measures, with 60 percent saying we need a different solution. But 26 percent say that we need a really different solution, to leave the euro, to leave the IMF and so on.

So we have a big shift as far as the majority is concerned and we have a big minority, 26 percent, who want something really different.

Is there the beginning of a crisis of parliamentary democracy in Greece?

Yes, and even the other side is talking about such a crisis. One way you can see it is that if we had been in the same situation a few years ago, the solution would be new elections. Now they are saying we cannot go to an election, because the polls show that none of the big parties could form a majority to implement the austerity measures.
So they are saying, we know that the majority of the people are against us, but we are going to push through these measures anyway. It's a crisis going deep into parliamentary democracy itself.

There have now been something like 12 general strikes in the last 20 months. How has the strike movement developed? How has the relationship between the trade union bureaucracy and the rank and file changed?

The trade union bureaucracy is controlled by members of Pasok. When the government was elected one and a half years ago, one of the advantages they were supposed to have was that through control of the trade union bureaucracy they wouldn't have any strike action. The trade union leaders were themselves saying that they wouldn't strike against this government.

But the reality is that we have had the biggest series of general strikes ever in Greece's history - so something has changed.

The general strike on 5 May last year was the biggest we'd ever had. After that because the government used the police to scare people, we were supposed to see the movement come to a halt. But many sectors of the working class went on fighting against the specific implementation of austerity in their sectors.

The result was to push, every month or couple of months, the trade union bureaucracy to call for a new general strike. And every general strike was again a new experience with new sectors of workers joining in, creating networks between them. So there was a give and take between the general strikes which the union leaders were pushed to organise and the networks of militant workers in the workplaces pushing for even more strikes, occupations and so on.

If we compare 5 May last year with 15 June this year, it was obvious that this time it was not just a general strike, but there were organised sectors of workers using the general strike to push forward and now we have many of these sectors organising for new strikes and new occupations over the new few weeks.

It was not that the trade union leaders moved to the left. They were always pushed by sections of the most militant workers organising.

How has rank and file organisation grown?

Rank and file organisation is something that can be found everywhere now. It's not something that can be seen in an organised way, or in a network that combines different workplaces.

I'll give you some examples. The workers in the media industry had one of the most right wing trade union leaderships ever - they were members of the New Democracy party, the Tories - and they managed to organise a four-day consecutive strike against the layoffs in the media industry. This was done because the workers were able to organise rank and file action committees in the newspapers and TV channels that were able to push even the most right wing leadership forward.

Another example is the big occupation we had recently in local government in Athens. Again, this was considered the most right wing trade union in local government anywhere in the country, controlled by the Tories. Again it was a rank and file committee that was organised during the struggle itself that said we have to occupy the town hall if we want to go forward - they provided an example to all the others.
This is way the struggle has developed in several sectors.

How would you characterise the movement of "the Indignant", the mass rallies and assemblies in the squares of the cities? The media here talk about a "Facebook generation". But is it just organised online? What relationship is there to the workers' movement?

It's very far from the truth that it's some kind of Facebook phenomenon. Recently, the union of the local government workers put out a statement calling for support for the Indignant movement and calling for more strikes. They said that the Indignant movement is the result of the strike movement of the previous year.

The rallies in the city squares are the result of the fact that a majority of the population has taken part in the struggles of the last year, but now they consider that this is not enough and they want more. There was a recent statistic that said that in the previous year we had two demonstrations each day in Athens! The rallies in Syntagma Square in central Athens are a continuation of this wave of struggle and an open demand for more action and more militancy.

Are the mass assemblies with debates and voting a reflection of the crisis of democracy, that people feel shut out of the political system?

Of course it's an element. People want to go to the assemblies in the squares and feel that they have a space to say what they want. They feel excluded from a political system that openly says that it doesn't take into account the feelings of the majority, but I wouldn't like to overstate that. The trade unions in Greece still work, so there has also been space for people to organise and express their opinion, not only in the workplaces but also in the universities for students, and the schools for the youth.

The assemblies in the squares are a continuation of the democracy of the workplace, schools and universities.

Can you give an outline of how the different forces on the left outside Pasok - the Communist Party, Syriza/Synaspismos, Antarsya [the Anti-Capitalist Front] - have responded to the crisis?

The good thing is that the whole of the left, the Communist Party, Syriza, Antarsya and the anarchist movement, stood against all the austerity measures and the arguments of the other side. This is important because there was a big pressure to bow and say that we don't have any solution except to go to the IMF. There was only a small split from Synaspismos to the right by those that were open to accepting the arguments of the government. So we have a left in Greece that stood by the movement.

But there have been problems with the strategy of parts of the left. This has been at two levels: both the general strategy of how to explain the crisis and to propose a way forward for society, and the specific strategy for the struggle in the workplace and so on.

Part of the left, those around Synaspismos, still have an analysis that sees the crisis just as a product of neoliberal policies in Europe. They argue that different policies would have saved Greece and taken us out of the crisis. They have put a bet on the European Union shifting policies and becoming more progressive. So they have been very reluctant about demands that clash with the system itself. For example, they have been very hesitant about demands to default on - stop paying - the debt, or nationalising the banks. They consider these demands to be off the agenda.

The other side of the problem is that both sides of the parliamentary left, the Communist Party and Synaspismos, have been very pessimistic about the prospects for the workers' movement. At every single point when we had a step forward, their analysis was that the struggle was not high enough to get results.

So they haven't been helpful in the development of the networks of rank and file activists that I referred to earlier. Their intervention was always on the pessimistic side, saying that these things are not enough and we should wait for a change in the general political situation and only then go forward with the strikes. They didn't put their hopes in the struggle and so they didn't get into action to help and support the strikes.

Antarsya, the Anti-Capitalist Front (of which SEK is a part) is the smallest grouping of the left in Greece, but an important part. We tried to do exactly this, to support the strikes that were going on and to support the militant minorities that were in the forefront of these struggles and to help them generalise and create the connections and networks between them. At the same time we try to provide a general answer to the situation, to explain that it's not an isolated crisis, it's not just a crisis of particular policies but it's a crisis of capitalism and to give an anti-capitalist answer to it.

What concrete solutions do you put forward about the debt?

The first demand is that we should cancel the debt and stop paying it. It's very important because the main argument coming from the government is that if we don't follow the rules of the IMF and the European Central Bank we won't have enough money to pay for pensions and wages and so on. Our answer is that they should stop paying the interest back to the bankers. Greece over the last 20 years has paid more than €600 billion in interest to the bankers - double the size of sovereign debt. So we have paid all these debts twice. So, that's the main demand, that we should stop paying for the debt.
The next thing is that we should nationalise the banks. There are two reasons. If we stop paying the debt, then many Greek banks will be in big trouble, because much of the sovereign debt of the Greek state is owed to Greek banks. So, we have to nationalise them because they are going to go bankrupt one way or another.

At the same time nationalisation of the banks will be a crucial step to organise what we should pay and what we should not pay. That will happen only if the nationalised banks are taken under workers' control.

These demands have gone onto the agenda of many trade unions, not only those controlled by the anti-capitalist left forces. They have become widespread. Even the mainstream newspapers were forced to have big articles to explain why these demands cannot happen, even though Antarsya is the only political force that put them forward officially.

What do you say about the question of euro membership?

First of all, the question of euro membership is put on the agenda by the other side as well. Today I read [former US central bank governor] Alan Greenspan's statement that Greece is about to default. If Greece goes bankrupt it will immediately leave the euro. So it's a problem for the other side as well. If we go in the direction we propose for the workers' movement, to cancel the debt and nationalise the banks, there is no other way than to leave the eurozone.

What's the next step in the struggle?

The unions are discussing a 48-hour strike in the coming weeks. This would be the first time we've had a 48-hour general strike. At the same time, the electricity union is calling consecutive 48-hour strikes, one after the other, so it's actually an all-out strike. And the local government workers are calling for a strike and also for occupations of the main town halls around the country and blockades of refuse depots. So the struggles that are coming in the next few weeks are going to be a really big thing - Athens may be full of rubbish and the country without electricity.

Our pressure in the workers' movement is that we should support the strikes and that we should create networks between workplaces to make sure none of these sectors of workers pushing strikes forward are left isolated. We should provide solidarity action in other workplaces. We also argue to bring the spirit of the democracy of the Squares into the workplaces and to try to take things under our control.

We already have examples of workplaces during struggles taking things under their control, and we have to have more examples. The bank workers are saying they will shut down the part of the banking system that pays for the debt but will keep open the part that pays pensions, for example. We are going to have more of this happening in the electricity industry, in the ports, in telecommunications, and so on. We need workers' control in those sectors where strike action is taking place.

Nikos Loudos is a member of SEK, the Greek sister organisation of the Socialist Workers Party

Who are the different Greek political parties?

Greek equivalent of the Labour Party, led by George Papandreou

New Democracy
The Tories, the main right wing opposition party

Greek Communist Party. Retains some trade union influence

Alliance based on "Euro-communist" split from KKE Formed an electoral coalition with parts of the far left, called Syriza

Antarsya Anti-Capitalist Front. Coalition of far-left groups, including SEK, the Socialist Workers Party's sister organisation in Greece

Greek fascists