Greece's long hot summer

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Greek workers have refused to surrender despite Alexis Tspiras capitulating to the Troika. Costas Pittas reports on how we can see workers' power in the industrial and political turmoil.

Over the last five years July and August have ceased to be months of relaxation for Greek society. Dramatic political developments and struggles by workers no longer automatically come to a halt in the summer heat. This year the speed with which the situation has evolved since 5 July, the day of the referendum, is unprecedented.

On 5 July the people of Greece voted No to austerity with a massive 61.3 percent. Ranged against them were the European Central Bank, using extortion to close the banks, the whole of Greek capitalism, the media barons, the church, and hundreds of conservative and social democrat politicians, both old and new.

Every day we were bombarded with the threat, “If you vote No they will kick us out of the euro and we’ll be ruined.” Even Syriza ministers failed to come out clearly in favour of No, which confused people.

And yet what won was a clear working class No vote. In the rich suburbs of Athens, the Yes camp won 80 percent of the vote. In the working class districts of western Athens and Piraeus, No swept to victory with the same percentage.

Alexis Tsipras’s government turned that No to Yes the day after the referendum. He agreed a package of savage austerity measures with the lenders: more indirect taxation (rises in VAT), new privatisations worth €50 billion, raising the age of retirement and increasing pension contributions. He also accepted that there would have to be large primary surpluses despite recession in the coming year, with the economy contracting by an estimated 3.3 percent.

The Syriza government voted for all this in parliament with the help of the right wing, centre and social democrat parties.

In early August the “quartet” of the EU, European Central Bank (ECB), International Monetary Fund (IMF) — the ex-Troika — plus the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) returned to Athens. It had more demands: the immediate privatisation of the ports and airports, reduction of wages in the public sector, immediate increase of the retirement age to 67, new charges for hospital and pharmaceutical care, measures to make redundancies easier, more flexible labour relations, the elimination of collective bargaining and even greater tax cuts for the rich.

All these demands had to be accepted so that the Third Memorandum could be signed by 20 August. The new memorandum provides about €80 billion in new loans, most of which will go to repaying older loans and recapitalising the banks! This is the real face of the EU.

The Syriza governmental majority may have capitulated, but what happens on the ground is a different matter.

The movement has battled hard against austerity for five years. Despite the disappointment of Syriza’s actions, workers are willing to continue the fight. More and more you hear it said in the workplace, “We used the weapon of the vote and it was stolen from us. Now we will use the strike weapon. No matter what they do, they cannot steal that weapon from us!”

ADEDY, the public sector trade union confederation, called a strike on the day the new measures were voted on in parliament in July. Thousands participated in the strike demonstration that morning. One of the main slogans was, “Left austerity is a con; what is right is workers’ rights”. On the same day railway and metro workers took strike action in Athens.

That evening thousands more surrounded the parliament building in Syntagma Square. The police attacked the demonstrators with tear gas to disperse them.

A week later, when the second vote on the new measures took place in parliament, thousands of workers and young people again gathered in Syntagma, in response to the call from ADEDY. Large demonstrations took place in Thessaloniki and many other cities.

ADEDY has called on union members to prevent the technocrat controllers of the “quartet” entering the ministries, with the result that some negotiating meetings with the government had to take place in the Athens Hilton Hotel.

Not only have there been big general strikes, such as those called by ADEDY, but struggles have also broken out in a number of workplaces in the public and private sectors.

In July and August the guards on the Acropolis twice went on strike and picketed because they had not been paid for months. Workers in the biggest private roadside assistance company, ELPA, occupied the administrative offices because they too had not been paid. They demanded that the company be nationalised with employee participation.

Technical staff and journalists in one of the biggest TV channels, ANT1, closed the station for five days with a strike to stop 30 technical staff being laid off. A few days earlier, the entire staff on the Eleftheros Typos (Free Press) and Ethnos (Nation) newspapers went on strike.

Employees in the Thessaloniki municipalities took strike action and successfully blocked the privatisation of the city’s refuse collection services. Railway workers have begun work stoppages to demand job recruitment and in opposition to the privatisation of train services planned by the government.

The port workers’ union has said it will take strike action against the recently announced privatisation of the ports. The same is happening in the hospitals against the cuts. All this has taken place in the “quiet” summer holiday period when temperatures reach 40 degrees Celsius.

The protests are not limited to economic struggles. There are demonstrations called by KEERFA (Movement for Unity Against the Racist and Fascist Threat) outside the courtroom where the trial of the Nazi Golden Dawn is taking place.

There is solidarity with the demand for asylum and housing for the thousands of Syrian and Afghan refugees who have erected their tents in the parks and squares of Athens.

These pressures and the mood on the ground have deepened the tensions inside Syriza. Forty MPs, most from the Left Platform, voted against the measures in parliament and 25 have since formally split from Syriza to form a new party, Popular Unity.

This breaking away by the Left Platform is a welcome development that can enhance the resistance against austerity. It has opened up greater possibilities for joint action — for united front action — by the left on all fronts against privatisation, cuts to pensions, etc.

Since then another 52 members of Syriza’s central committee have resigned in protest.

Action

What the workers’ movement needs, at a time when even in the heat of August workers have been hitting the streets, is a left that organises and coordinates these struggles in massive initiatives of joint action, in strikes and occupations to stop the ports, airports, and the state electric power company (DEI) being privatised, to stop pensions and wages being cut, and to prevent hospitals and schools being totally destroyed because of cuts.

After the mass No of 5 July the possibilities for such joint action are greater than ever.

Last but not least, there is the issue of what perspective there is for a working class alternative. The reformist strategy of Syriza has reached its limits. The workers’ movement and the left need a comprehensive anti-capitalist strategy.

The anti-capitalist transitional programme put forward by Antarsya, the coalition of the anti-capitalist left and the revolutionary socialists of SEK is not a propaganda proposal for the future.

Cancelling the entire debt, nationalising the banks and big companies under workers’ control, banning lay-offs and breaking with and exiting from the euro and the EU, is a single set of measures affecting the lives of the working class in the here and now. It is the answer to Syriza’s leader Tsipras when he says, “There is no other way out of the crisis,” and a weapon in the hands of people who are fighting now against austerity.

Popular Unity has yet to formally launch its programme, but some of its prominent figures have already publicly limited their proposals to a return to a national currency, to nationalising the banks and to stopping privatisation.

That is to say, breaking with the eurozone but not with the EU. But this is not sufficient. The EU is a ferocious capitalist organisation. Austerity and economic blackmail, racism and imperialist intervention are in its DNA. Even a Grexit from the euro simply “on our terms” would not put a stop to this unless there was a complete break with and exit from the EU.

The crucial question is, under the control of which class would this take place? Workers’ control is not just the icing on the cake of the anti-capitalist programme. What is needed to provide a real alternative is whether it is hospital workers who monitor care and medication or bank workers who make sure the money goes into pensions and not speculation. For two years the ERT workers in the state national broadcasting service showed that workers’ control is not a utopia. With every day that passes, more and more workers recognise the need for such action.

Tsipras says he was forced to capitulate because all the governments of Europe were against him. We say that we can get a No all the way to victory because we have the support of millions of workers who demonstrated round the world in the days before the referendum.

This huge wave of international solidarity and the strikes against austerity in each country give hope, strength and inspiration in the struggle by the workers of Greece.

Costas Pittas is secretary of the civil servants’ union at the Ministry of Energy and Industry, and a member of Antarsya and SEK (Socialist Workers Party)