Organising to survive in Greece

Tonia Katerini of Syriza describes the social solidarity movement rising as Greeks struggle for survival

December 5, 2012
11 min read

Greeks queue to buy cheap sacks of potatoes sold directly by farmers at cost price in the northern town of Thessaloniki. Farmers in northern Greece have joined forces with local residents to provide cheap produce for the people. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis

The first problem is that in Greece now we have 25 per cent unemployment, with youth unemployment reaching 58 per cent and unemployment in areas that used to be highly industrialised sometimes reaching 70-80 per cent. Many industries either close because we have very low consumption or, as in the case of the big multinationals like Coca-Cola, they are leaving.

Around 170,000 small companies have closed in the past three years. It is almost impossible to set up a new company today in Greece because you can’t get the finance. The banks are taking 80 per cent of the money that Greece is getting from the EU and IMF. But they are not lending a euro to the people.

Unemployment benefit only lasts for one year, and then you get nothing to survive on – only help from friends and family, from social networks and working for very little in the black economy. The problem up to now hasn’t been as severe as it could have been because of very strong family and friendship networks – if someone had difficulty in paying bills, for example, others would support them. But it isn’t possible to sustain this kind of support indefinitely.

A related problem is homelessness. In the past, homeless people were mainly those who had problems with drug use or illness. Now many are homeless because they lost their jobs. There are least 20,000 homeless in Greece now – some estimates are much higher. And state-provided shelter only covers around 250 people.

At the same time, there are 300,000 houses for sale in Athens because people need the money to live on. About 40 per cent of mortgages are in arrears. There are few repossessions at the moment because the mortgage companies would not know what to do with the houses. But they are talking about it.

Salaries have fallen substantially – by up to 70 per cent in some cases. When the state cannot pay its debt, it reduces public sector salaries, as well as pensions. My sister has been working in education for 25 years. Her monthly salary has dropped from €1,400 to €1,000 (£800). People with bigger salaries have seen an even bigger drop. So talented people, especially the young, are going abroad to find better paid work.

Food direct

At the same time, contrary to the normal assumptions about prices falling during a recession, they are actually going up. The reason is that many products are imported and with trade in the hands of big companies, these companies can keep prices high. This is why, with Solidarity for All, we’re trying to create a network to provide food direct from producers without using the normal market. In this way we have been able to lower prices by up to 50 per cent compared to what they are in the supermarket. This is a big movement in Greece now. We have not managed yet to organise for all products, but there are now networks for the direct exchange of some vegetables, potatoes, oil, flour and lemons, for example.

There are many families who are undernourished. Children are fainting in schools because they haven’t eaten anything for a day or two. We have therefore tried to push the government to provide some food in schools – something that hasn’t happened since the 1950s.

There is a big problem with the health system. Most people have to pay health insurance. But they have not been able to keep up payments, so they can’t go to the hospital, to a doctor, or buy medicine. Insurance is very expensive, €350 per month – so it is very difficult to afford when salaries have been cut from, say, €2,000 to €1,000. More than one third of the population can’t use health services because of this. So we have tried to set up small health centres with volunteer doctors, and gather from pharmacies some medicine for people who have no insurance. We’ve also tried to collaborate with some hospitals where there are sympathetic managers and send them the more serious cases.

There is a particular problem with the most expensive medicines, such as those for cancer. Even the hospitals don’t have these medicines because of lack of funds, so the patient ends up just being given cortisone. Every day in our network we try to inform people who have these diseases where they can find the right medicine – one day it’s this hospital, three days later another one.

Another problem is the taxes. The government has reformed the tax system but it has benefited the rich. Before the change those with up to €10,000 income wouldn’t pay taxes. And beyond €10,000 the taxes were between 10 per cent and 40 per cent (and for companies from 25 per cent to 40 per cent). Now individuals have to start to pay taxes from the first euro, with tax rates for individuals between 20 and 35 per cent, while corporate taxes are now 25 per cent maximum. The idea is that this gives the companies an incentive to invest. But at the moment most companies show no intention to do so.

There has been a big increase in suicides. Before the crisis, the suicide level was very low but in the past year suicide ranked equal first with car accidents as a cause of death. This particularly affects middle class men who have lost everything. One newspaper reported that every day we have 500 attempted suicides, around 50 of which are successful.

Solidarity networks

The solidarity networks are working in six spheres: food supply and health services (see posters, right), education, cultural activity, legal advice and social economy.

We are people of the left and radical left, and connected with Syriza – though it’s not only people from Syriza who are involved. Syriza also decided that 20 per cent of its MPs’ salaries would be given to solidarity actions. We have decided that this will be used to help people to start small collective businesses, or to buy essentials for social kitchens, but we don’t use it for direct payments to people or for paying rent.

Solidarity for All is a growing movement – last year there were maybe only 100 initiatives and now it has grown to 2,000. There is a lot of activity, spreading fast. So far it has been people taking action by themselves but we are trying to coordinate it. We are trying to make a database of all the small groups doing solidarity actions so they can meet each other and exchange experiences. The aim is to make a movement out of this, and try to find solutions to the problems encountered by solidarity networks.

Many of these problems arise from state intervention. For example, there is a very important solidarity centre in the town of Volos in Thessalia, in the middle of Greece, where products and services are exchanged without money. They have a social currency called a ‘tem’. They have created an exchange system, so that, for example, one kilo of potatoes is one tem and one hour of babysitting is one tem. So if you want someone to babysit you could give them a kilo of potatoes in exchange. As this grew, the state asked them to pay taxes on the services and products they were exchanging. Up to now the state has not succeeded in enforcing this but we don’t know what will happen in the future.

Another example of state hostility is towards the social kitchens. The state told us we didn’t have the necessary sanitary conditions or permission to run these kitchens. In response, all social kitchens got together and answered with a huge communal meal where many people cooked all together and challenged them to arrest us all!

Our work on education is important because in Greece you have to pay for subjects such as languages, music and so on. People increasingly can’t afford this, so we have volunteer teams giving lessons in foreign languages and music in many neighbourhoods in Athens and other cities.

Then there are teams of people who provide legal information when people have problems with the banks and so on. Also we have groups who put on music or theatrical performances, where people can watch by donating food, which then goes to feed others in need of it. And finally we have networks working on different aspects of the social economy – for example to support people taking land that is not being used and cultivating it, or people occupying a free space and running a social marketplace in it, with very low prices.

People are expecting an even bigger crisis and we have to be prepared. The most important thing is to provide medicine and food. Greece is very competent in agriculture, so we could easily become self sufficient in food.

Reducing fear

It is also important to ensure people aren’t isolated and fearful. The only weapon of the government is fear. My mother is an old woman and is afraid of losing her pension. She knows that the money Greece receives from the EU is not, as the media pretend, for salaries and pensions but is for supporting the banks. No one really believes the government’s policies are right, but many people are afraid to protest.

We are trying to reduce people’s fear, so that they can exert their right to protest. But our aim is also to counteract the increasing support for the Nazi Golden Dawn party in Greece, which is now approaching 12 per cent support in the polls. These people offer their own kind of ‘social solidarity’, but only for white, Greek Orthodox people and mainly as a media trick. They go to a square, call the media and distribute food, and if, for example, a woman who is not originally Greek tries to take some food they chase her away in front of the media. They campaign for nursery schools to give priority to ‘Greek’ children and not to take the children even of legal migrants. And the most severe problem is that they attack migrants every day without any punishment from the state. Worryingly, they are starting to have an influence in high schools, where they have formed gangs.

Their vote comes largely from the middle class or poorer – though not the poorest – people, including many from rural areas. Their voters believe that Golden Dawn is an anti-system party because its MPs vote against the austerity measures in parliament. We are trying to inform people that in fact they are the violent hand of the system.

More positively, Syriza is coming first in many polls now, with about 32–33 per cent support, with the governing New Democracy party on 27–28 per cent and the old social democratic party PASOK collapsing. In a recent poll asking ‘Who do you think will form the next government in Greece?’, 58 per cent answered Syriza and only 28 per cent New Democracy.

We have received support from the left all over Europe, but it’s not yet organised in an effective way. The strikes across the EU on 14 November gave strength to people in Greece. But we also need to create a network of help and solidarity. Maybe people could come and volunteer in Greece – doctors, for instance, or a solidarity brigade that could come and work on the land. Or maybe organisations could donate food and medicine. The solidarity brigades could be organised in an open and symbolic way, so that the solidarity with Greece is very visible.

People willing to offer solidarity should contact +30 210 380 1921 or email

Tonia Katerini was talking to Red Pepper at Firenze 10+10, a convergence of networks and campaigns working against austerity and debt, for natural and social commons, for social and labour rights, for democracy, global justice and peace, for gender liberation and for migrant rights. Meeting in Florence exactly ten years after the first European Social Forum met there, it agreed a common day of action around the EU spring summit on 23 March 2013, with a combination of Brussels-based and decentralised actions.

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