The harsh compromise forced on the Syriza government by the Eurogroup has deepened the anger against austerity, argues Costas Pittas. This is most pronounced among rank and file workers.
The electoral victory of Syriza in Greece on 25 January created huge optimism. After five years of struggle — with strikes, occupations and demonstrations in the squares — the government of the austerity Memorandum collapsed and a left party came to office. The Syriza ministers’ first declarations boosted this optimism: redundant civil servants would get their jobs back, privatisation would stop and the immigrant detention camps would be closed.
Two months later things look different. The agreement reached by the Syriza government with the Eurogroup on 20 February is an extension of austerity and an abandonment of even the minimum promise to give justice to workers’ demands. This creates disappointment among Syriza supporters. But it is wrong to assume that what dominates is a mood of passive waiting. The experience, confidence and radicalisation of the working class movement that created the electoral victory by the left are too strong to be dissipated quickly and easily.
It’s also true that people are rallying around “their” government against the blackmail of the Troika (EU, IMF, European Central Bank) — now known as the “institutions”. In addition, the ruling class parties are in complete disarray — for the time being. This is very important. People voted for Syriza not because the party had a pro-euro line, but because they wanted back what was stolen from them in the past five years. This hope is still huge, in spite of the compromises. So the more pressure the Troika exert, the more people get angry. This anger is translating into support for Syriza.
In the weeks that have followed the agreement with the Eurogroup, pressure from the Troika escalated. Newspapers and TV news in Europe are full of threats, blackmail and attacks on the Syriza government. The forces of austerity are in a rage because the message of the Greek elections is a left turn that can embrace other countries. So they are doing their utmost to erase this message, pressurising the Syriza government to carry on with austerity. In discussions on the implementation of the measures agreed by the Troika the demand was even made for the government to stop paying salaries and pensions for one or two months!
On 14 March the finance minister Yanis Varoufakis told a business conference in Italy that “the government might have to suspend all its promises”.
It is worth outlining the level of compromise by the Syriza government. In September Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras declared that the new left government would drop the memorandum straight away regardless of the outcome of negotiations; negotiate a “haircut” for most of the debt — with the remainder requiring growth clauses (meaning the government would only repay it if there was growth in the economy); and request a “grace period” to direct savings into growth.
In February the government began to negotiate on the following basis: that 70 percent of the Memorandum would be accepted as valid; that part of the debt should be reduced and replaced with bonds; that there should be an international conference for all the indebted countries; and that there should be a six-month moratorium with no austerity programme in order to implement at least some of its commitments.
What came out of the negotiations were the following: instead of a moratorium, the government accepted a four-month extension of the Memorandum subject to relentless surveillance by the Troika; the government signed up to paying all its debts “in time” to its creditors; any discussion about a conference on debt was cut; and no unilateral action on any issue would be taken.
Far from satisfying the Troika, this has only increased the pressure from German chancellor Angela Merkel and co. A second Eurogroup meeting has brought privatisation and “structural adjustment”.
All these compromises translate into concrete concessions. In September Tsipras had promised that the first, basic, measures to deal with the humanitarian crisis would cost 2 billion Euros. The bill now brought to parliament speaks of measures costing 200 million Euros. At the same time, to pay the installments of the debt to the IMF in March, the government took money from the reserves of the workers’ pension funds.
The bill laid before parliament for the reopening of the ERT (the state broadcasting service) is far from what the workers and the trade union movement are asking for. The bill says that “ERT will reopen on a zero-basis”.
This means that it will treat all personnel with the same criteria — the big majority that occupied, demonstrated, kept broadcasting under workers’ control and in practice supported the movement that pushed Syriza into office, will be treated as the same as the scabs who applied for work in the new state TV of the Memorandum governments.
Also many things remain unclear, such as wages, work conditions, and whether all the radio and TV stations will reopen in cities and towns around Greece. And, of course, one of the biggest problems is that ERT administrative structure is like any private TV station and the workers have nothing to do with the policy decisions. The ERT workers’ union has refused to accept this new bill.
Restoring the minimum wage to 751 Euros (the first measure that Syriza promised it would immediately implement) is postponed to the end of 2016.
Conclusion: there is no relaxation of austerity. Quite the contrary, there is pressure on Syriza to demonstrate in the next three months that it can maintain tight budgetary discipline and open the doors to privatisation.
The left dynamic of the movement has not been exhausted since the elections; on the contrary it has strengthened. This is expressed by the fact that the Tsipras leadership has been under pressure from the left from the beginning. During the Eurogroup negotiation thousands gathered in Syntagma Square opposite parliament. Almost from the outset the mobilisation in the squares was characterised more by pressure on the government not to give way on its promises than by support for Syriza.
When Varoufakis signed the agreement, it was the revolutionary left coalition Antarsya that organised the first protests against the compromise, followed by the KKE (Communist Party). Within Syriza itself disagreements opened up on the left of the Parliamentary Group around the Left Platform and in the central committee.
There is a big difference between the members or supporters of Syriza in workplaces, universities, and so on, and the “official” internal opposition of the Left Platform. The difference is not ideological, although the Left Platform holds a very “left patriotic” attitude on many issues. The real difference is that the Left Platform avoids everything that might identify them with the political forces to the left of Syriza and to any left opposition to the government. So it says a lot (though very modestly and carefully) but refuses to take action.
A good example was the 21 March rallies against racism. The pressure from the Unity Movement Against Racism and the Fascist Threat (Keerfa) was too high for Syriza and the Left Platform to ignore. But in Athens, on the same day, Syriza called people to another square, two hours earlier — though it only attracted some 500 people, while the Keerfa march saw tens of thousands.
On the other hand, as I write, in Patras in western Greece youth and workplace organisations of Syriza are organising with Antarsya, Keerfa and SEK (the Socialist Workers Party sister organisation in Greece and a part of Antarsya) and at a local level. In my union executive the KKE, Syriza and Antarsya all supported the Keerfa rally.
In the teachers’ union leadership Syriza members in the Left Platform voted in favour of Syriza’s own rally, but many local branches of the union in Athens voted unanimously to support Keerfa’s rally, with Syriza, KKE and Antarsya supporters voting together.
By applying the united front strategy both from above and below, socialists can avoid condemning Syriza all the time (as the KKE does), and instead attempt to build joint action on every issue with Syriza members.
The mood for action is clear in workplaces and in the organised labour movement. The laid-off teachers decided they would protest and besiege parliament after a minister announced that their reinstatement “would take a long time”. University administrators decided on work stoppages and a demonstration. The public sector trade union confederation (ADEDY) and the municipal workers’ union (POE OTA), not only demanded the immediate reinstatement of all those made redundant and a resolution of every problem created by the Memorandum — they also requested the immediate cancellation of the debt.
At the time of writing the leadership of ADEDY is under pressure from the unions within it to call a day of action throughout the public sector in the coming weeks. In the hospitals there have been workers’ assemblies, some of which organised work stoppages and a demonstration outside the Ministry of Health on 11 March.
The dock workers’ union threatened to go on strike if the privatisation of the port of Piraeus continued. On 19 March Athens metro workers held a three-hour strike in order to have a general assembly about bad conditions on the trains. No metro train moved for three hours.
This mood of assertiveness is not limited to the public sector, where trade unions are stronger. The first week of March saw strikes in the private mobile telephone companies (Wind, Vodafone, Forthnet) demanding new collective agreements and an end to employer tyranny. Sailors on some ships carrying passengers to the Aegean islands went on strike because pay was months in arrears. Protests against lay-offs have taken place in supermarkets, while struggles against factory closures, such as at Coca Cola, which began before the election, have continued.
This dynamic is not limited to economic demands. There are also the issues of racism and the fascist threat. After the rebellion of the Amygdaleza immigrant camp in Athens, Syriza was forced to declare that it would close it down, but the rate of release of detainees is very slow and is subject to many conditions. No promises have been made for the other camps. The minister of public order (a member of the centre-left DIMAR party) said he would keep the “fence of shame” on the north east border with Turkey and use special police patrols to restart the rounding up of immigrants in the centre of Athens.
A month before the murder trial of the leadership of the Nazi Golden Dawn (which starts on 20 April), the president of parliament and a leading member of Syriza said that the presence of the imprisoned Golden Dawn MPs in parliament was legitimate “because it is legal political party”. All this has caused great anger, with people wondering what kind of fiscal discipline it is that forbids the racist measures taken by all previous governments being repealed and the fascists condemned.
After the elections the Keerfa organised protests outside the immigrant camps and in the centre of Athens. But the mood to escalate the confrontation with racism and the fascists can be seen by the massive support shown by workers and young people for the rallies organised by the anti fascist movement on 21 March in Athens and three other Greek cities.
The electoral victory of Syriza on 25 January dramatically changed the conditions for the labour movement and the left in Greece. The period is a big challenge. Syriza won the elections with a promise of hope. The challenge is whether this hope will continue. This perspective makes the need for a left working class opposition today greater than ever.
After the Eurogroup agreement the debate about cancelling the debt and the need for unilateral action has become even more open within the workplace and has often arrived at the dilemma of reform or revolution. I work in the industry department of the Ministry of Development. In my union assembly the discussion started from how we can bring back sacked colleagues and went over to the cancellation of the debt and whether industry can be developed under workers’ control or with compromises.
Left opposition does not mean constant condemnation of the compromises of Syriza. There are three clear steps. The first is a clear policy giving a perspective to the struggles of the working class and its hopes. Such a policy means the following immediate measures: debt relief and cessation of payments; rupture with the EU, the ECB, the euro and the IMF; nationalisation of the banks under workers’ control; stopping privatisation and renationalising all the large state enterprises that have been privatised; prohibition of sackings; smashing racism and the fascists.
Second, a left opposition seeks cooperation in every economic and political battle with workers who have illusions about the role of the left government. Common action with the thousands of militants who voted for Syriza is vital, and today many of them see Antarsya as the political force that can support them against the retreats and the compromises of the government.
Finally, in order to achieve this, a left opposition needs an independent organisation that can respond to the opportunities and challenges that are opening up. It must be able to take initiatives that support workers’ struggles and highlight the demands of the anti-capitalist programme. This is the role that Antarsya and SEK wish to play. This has nothing to do with political sectarianism. It flows from the real need for clear answers and action against the Troika and austerity.
Left opposition doesn't mean just talking — it means activity to win back jobs, reopen public services, fight racism, and so on. It also means clear anti-capitalist politics raising the issue of workers’ control — something which frequently arises in the high-level political debates taking place in workplaces across Greece. The level of these debates are rising week by week. Through these steps we can ensure that the left government in Greece will not be the last, but can be continued.
Costas Pittas is secretary of the civil servants' union in the Ministry of Development and a member of SEK and Antarsya.