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Greece: More than a demonstration, less than a revolt

Alex Nunns reports from Athens on the human consequences of the austerity measures, and how they are being resisted

April 12, 2012
11 min read


Alex NunnsAlex Nunns is Red Pepper's political correspondent @alexnunns


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A student protest in Athens. Photo: Odysseas Galinos Paparounis

‘Although Athens is not São Paulo, it is not any more a normal European capital,’ warns Yannis Almpanis, one of the organisers of a ‘solidarity mission’ of European social movements visiting Greece in late February. And he’s right. The consequences of the austerity programme can be felt on the streets – not only in the latent threat of crime but in the beggars lining the pavements, the queuing migrants desperate for help, the political graffiti covering every wall and the gangs of riot police loitering on street corners.

Greece today is in the middle of a wild experiment, a testbed for neoliberal fantasists zealously dismantling the structures that underpin society. But it is also a laboratory of resistance, a place where traditional movements and new social forces are trying to work out how – or whether – they can work together. As Greek economist Merica Frangakis puts it: ‘Athens is the epicentre of the earthquake, the centre of Europe. And it’s all happening now.’

Austerity on the ground

This is what austerity means on the ground: on 12 February the Greek parliament abolished social housing. It voted to close the Workers’ Housing Organisation (OEK), the only body providing low-cost homes to workers. With the same stroke it shut the Workers’ Social Benefits Organisation (OEE), which runs free nurseries and subsidised leisure schemes.

And here’s the bigger scandal: neither of these organisations is funded by the state. Both are financed by direct contributions from workers and employers, which are being snatched by the government to pay the debt.

At a meeting in the OEE’s headquarters the anger is palpable. ‘We hear that in other European countries they pay through tax for everyone,’ says one man. ‘In Greece we do it through contributions. It’s only for people who work, and even that they want to take away.’ There is little doubt in the room why this is happening: the government wants to keep €3 billion it has collected through the scheme but failed to pass on to the organisations.

Aside from the dire consequences for the public – ‘there will be no more social housing in Greece,’ says Evi Kaila of OEK, and thousands of children will find their nurseries shut – the closures will put 1,400 people out of work.

‘We are trying to make it clear that the people are losing their money, money they have already paid in,’ says Aggeliki Argyropoulou from OEE. The staff are mounting a noisy campaign but they say that in an atmosphere of fear it is difficult to rouse those dependent on the services.

In a city famous for its street protests and defiance, this strain of trepidation is striking.

Inspiration and caution

But there are inspiring stories amid the gloom. Eleftherotypia was Greece’s second biggest daily newspaper, a respected left-leaning outlet, but in August last year it stopped paying its staff. The journalists went on strike in December, and started an occupied newspaper.

Released under the title Workers with the strapline ‘56 days on strike from Eleftherotypia’, the first two issues outsold the original paper. ‘We didn’t want to do a strike paper about our dispute,’ says economics correspondent Moisis Litsis. ‘We wanted to produce a normal paper. We’ve actually been criticised for not making it radical enough because we have the same range of opinions as before.’

Workers has no bylines for fear of reprisals. Moisis has been a journalist since 1989: ‘Seven months unpaid. I don’t know how everyone manages with no money. In my family no one has work. I have two children.’

The company responded to Workers by going to court to stop it being distributed. But aside from this difficulty there are different opinions on whether to continue publishing. ‘The majority simply want to return to work at the original paper,’ says one journalist.

This caution about self-organisation – seeing it as a temporary measure until normal service is resumed – is characteristic. Greece is not yet Argentina in the 1990s. It has not moved towards radically different ways of organising economic life. There are exceptions, like an occupied hospital in the city of Kilkis resisting the decimation of the health service, but in general people are still defending the existing structures against attack with only hints of attempts to build something new.

The 380 workers of the Hallyvourgia steel works have been on strike for four months over increases in their working hours and cuts in wages. So far, the management has sacked 80 of them. On the picket line, enduring bitter cold, steel worker Harris Manolis says the Hellenic Steel Company is taking advantage of recent labour market liberalisation: ‘This factory was one of the richest in Greece. The boss has no problem with money. He’s using the situation to increase his profits.’ Yet ask him if the workers plan to take control of the plant and he looks surprised: ‘No, because to reopen this factory we would need money. Which bank would lend us money?’

Just inside the gates is a group of strike-breakers, shuffling around in the cold, occasionally telling those on the picket line to give up. The strikers respond with sporadic chants. A union man gets on the microphone: ‘We’re fighting not only for the reinstatement of our contract and our 80 sacked comrades, but for a Greek exit from the euro and the EU!’ he exclaims. The union here is the Communist-led PAME and this is Communist Party (KKE) policy on the euro.

Divided left

The left in Greece is historically strong but hobbled by divisions. Within the General Confederation of Greek Workers (the umbrella union for private sector workers) the political composition of the executive committee is decided in elections. The last vote was two years ago, before the consequences of the crisis hit, so Pasok, the pro-austerity social democratic party, is still well represented, while outside its support has crumbled from 44 per cent in 2009 to 8 per cent in a February poll.

At the confederation’s HQ, Vagelis Moutafis, a Pasok member of the executive, jokes about possible national elections. ‘Next time I’m going to vote for one of the small parties,’ he says: ‘Pasok!’

Also present are union officials from the Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza). In contrast to the KKE, here the question of the euro is fudged. ‘In or out of the eurozone – such a debate does not exist at the official level,’ says one official. ‘There’s a lot of talk about the euro but the claims of the Greek workers are very specific,’ says another.

Workers march during a general strike. Photo: Odysseas Galinos Paparounis

What worries all trade unionists is the end of collective bargaining – a stipulation of ‘Memorandum II’, the neoliberal shopping list drawn up by the ‘troika’ of the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the IMF. Memorandum II demands a deep change in the structure of the Greek economy. It also requires a massive reduction in wages (22 per cent off the minimum wage, 32 per cent for those under 25), a 15 per cent cut in pensions, 150,000 public sector layoffs and various other cuts and privatisations.

It’s a big fight, yet the union officials disagree over whether they should work with the new movements thrown up by the crisis.

‘Together we could form a new power in society,’ offers Syriza’s Giorgos Gavrilis, hopefully. But the Pasok member thinks not: ‘It’s not easy to have connections with the new movements like the indignados. For me the unions are not for representing all of society, just the workers, pensioners and the unemployed. All other areas of society should be represented by political parties.’

Then the lights go off: it’s a power-cut. The trade unionists exclaim at once ‘Troika!’ – a moment of unity.

Indignados and anarchists

Here’s a recipe for a culture shock: leave the plush union HQ, with its high ceilings and neo-classical décor, and walk to a social centre in Exarcheia, the anarchist district of Athens, for a meeting with some indignados who will state, matter-of-factly, that ‘the top union officials are government functionaries’.

The indignados – also known as the Movement of the Squares – burst onto the scene in May last year with the occupation of Syntagma Square in central Athens. They were brutally evicted a month later, but their movement resonated.

The indignados and the anarchists are distinct (anarchism in Greece is strong and deep-rooted) but they share a dim view of the traditional left. ‘In Syntagma Square the people didn’t want to hear about political parties, even the left ones,’ says Alexandros Frantzis, an indignado. Although members of political groups like Syriza were present, they attended as individuals.

With the Communist KKE, relations were non-existent. ‘They thought if they got too close there were microbes or something,’ quips Alexandros. On 20 October it got more serious, with violent clashes between anarchists and KKE members. ‘The Communist Party were stood between the protest and parliament, and they had their guards facing the people, not the police,’ explains Alexandros. ‘We wanted to get to parliament, and they were in the way. So there were fights and stupid things from both sides.’ One man died.

A problem for the indignados since being evicted has been the stop-start nature of mobilisations. ‘There must have been a million on the streets on 12 February,’ says Sissi Korizi of the demonstrations against the Memorandum vote in parliament, ‘but now we wonder if all the effort was wasted. We have difficulties with coordination and we didn’t have anything organised to follow the 12th.’

Another level of fighting

Not everyone feels down. In an office a few streets from the ancient Agora where democracy was born, Nasos Iliopoulos, secretary of the youth wing of Synaspismos, the biggest party in the Syriza coalition, believes the trajectory is still upwards: ‘Every few months there is an event that is more than a demonstration but less than a revolt. And every time it gets bigger.’

‘The thing that was so great about Syntagma was that you could find people who had never been involved in struggles before,’ Nasos enthuses. ‘Now we have over 50 popular assemblies in Athens that are the places of struggle for the local situation. The Squares Movement has transformed into something more original. It’s another level of fighting austerity in everyday life.’

Nasos describes a new residential property tax for which payment is tied to the electricity bill: ‘It’s blackmail, if you don’t pay the tax your electric will be cut off.’ Popular assemblies have taken it up, people refuse to pay, and the union at the energy company has occupied the building where the bills are processed. Such ‘little victories’ mean ‘they can’t actually achieve austerity’.

For Nasos, local resistance, demonstrations and elections are ‘complementary strategies’. Elections are scheduled for May 6. Opinion polls put the combined left vote for Syriza, the less radical Democratic Left and the KKE at over 40 per cent. Still, there will be no electoral front. ‘But if after the election you have a left percentage that could have formed a government there will be great pressure for a left unity coalition,’ Nasos says. This is significant because if no party wins enough votes to form a government there could be two elections in quick succession.

‘Anything can happen,’ Nasos suggests. ‘We could have a postmodern coup, a Mad Max society, or a new kind of society. It is certain that the austerity policies require the suppression of society. It might not be tanks on the street, but it might be a postmodern coup that brings censorship, less right to protest and strike.’

What is clear is that the measures are not intended to save the Greek people but European capitalism – meriting a pan-European resistance. Back in Exarcheia, Greeks and other Europeans are packed into two hazy rooms to work out how to organise it. There’s a proposal for an urgent international event in Athens. Some want the revival of the European Social Forum; others favour new approaches. In the end the meeting decides to have another meeting. These are small steps towards a European response, but if internationalism is worth anything this is when it must prove it.

When the Workers Social Benefits Organisation was closed, the staff association wrote an open letter to fellow Europeans. It said: ‘We are citizens of the European Union, just as you are. We are human beings, not numbers. Nobody can save us by destroying us. Even now, you can raise your voice with us. And we will raise our voice with you.’

This article was made possible by the Transnational Institute.

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Alex NunnsAlex Nunns is Red Pepper's political correspondent @alexnunns


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