Resist and transform: the struggle for water in Greece

A combination of opposing privatisation and putting forward practical alternatives is helping water campaigners mount an effective challenge to austerity in Greece. Hilary Wainwright reports

May 21, 2013
12 min read


Hilary WainwrightHilary Wainwright is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective and a fellow of the Transnational Institute. @hilarypepper

Illustration: Cressida Knapp

Privatisation and the nature of the state is moving to the centre of the struggle against austerity in Greece. The troika of the three key lenders to Greece – the European Commission, IMF and European Central Bank – is trying to speed up the sell-off of the country’s public goods and resources by putting them in one holding company to be auctioned off in quick succession. The Hellenic Republic Asset Development Fund (TAIPED), as this company is pompously named, might as well be an auction house advertising an ‘everything must go’ clear out: ‘Greece for sale. Real estate bargains, profitable companies going cheap.’

Resistance to this handover to the corporate market faces a challenge. In 2011 a reputable polling company found that 75 per cent of Greeks believed privatisation was necessary; in 2012 it was down to 62 per cent but still well over half the population – including more than 40 per cent of Syriza voters. These same polls, however, indicate a point of vulnerability for the troika: water, the one issue on which a majority opposes privatisation. And it is on this issue that resistance is beginning to gain momentum as TAIPED announces that bids for the two state-owned water companies will be invited before the summer for sale by October.

Water privatisation has proved to be a source of fatal vulnerability for governments bent on privatisation. In Latin America victories for water as a human right, against governments assuming they could sell it on the global market, have contributed, for example, to the downfall of right-wing governments in Uruguay, in the late 1990s, and Bolivia, with the Cochabamba ‘water wars’ of 2000.

Already the strength of practical commitment to water as a common good is beginning to prove awkward for the EU members of the troika on their home ground. For example, French president François Hollande’s encouragement to French water companies to start bidding for Greek companies is hardly convincing when the municipality of his own capital city is reporting efficiency savings of £30 million in the first year through bringing water back into public hands, after managers discovered private water companies extracting extortionate profits. Paris’s ‘remunicipalisation’ is part of a trend across Europe. In Berlin, too, private contractors have been dismissed.

Germany is also the source of a direct intervention against the troika’s insistence on privatising water. At the end of February, the president of the association of public water managers in Germany wrote a strong letter on behalf of the country’s public water supply and sewage companies to the European Commission president insisting that, according to the EU’s own directive on water stipulating that water is ‘not an article of trade’, ‘the supply of water, sewage water disposal and water management cannot be privatised’.

First initiatives

The first initiatives in Greece towards politically decisive resistance over water have come from the country’s second largest city, Thessaloniki. Here the preliminary steps towards privatisation in 2007 were slowed down in part through the resistance of the water workers’ union, which staged a four-day hunger strike during the city’s international trade fair. The first tenders were eventually announced in 2009 and again the union – which, unlike most unions in Greece, had determinedly maintained its autonomy from all political parties – responded with a 12-day occupation of the company’s main building.

The reputation that the water workers’ union established with activists in Thessaloniki has proved to be a foundation on which today’s growing campaign has been able to build. Union president George Archontopoulos says that in 2009 he used to invite himself to neighbourhood groups to put the arguments against privatisation. Now, he says, ‘they are always asking us to come to them and there are many more of them.’

‘We spent more than six months trying to convince them that we act as citizens and not as workers who are afraid of losing our jobs,’ he continues. ‘The truth is that they were testing us and we didn’t know! As you know, there is a lot of mud, sometimes rightly, thrown at public servants and there can be a lot of corruption in trade unions.’

The union helped to overcome this generally negative attitude to public servants by taking a militant line not only against privatisation but also against corruption, price rises and the growing number of water cut offs. It was not surprising, then, that the new energies and convergences stimulated by the occupation of Thessaloniki’s White Tower square in 2011 should lead to discussions between the indignados and the water workers.

Initiative 136

From this came ‘Initiative 136’. The idea is that if every water user bought a non-transferable share, ‘the public could own the water company through a system of neighbourhood co-operatives of water users coming together through a single overall co‑operative’. €136 is the figure you get from dividing the €60 million for which the company is to be put on the stock market by the number of water meters in the city.

‘It would, in effect, be a public-public answer to the troika’s public-private partnership,’ explains Theodoros Karyotis, a founding member of Initiative 136 from Thessaloniki’s social movements, who has also been involved in supporting the workers of the city’s Vio.Me factory during their occupation and now their self-management of production.

George Archontopoulos describes how ‘the idea first came out of a press conference during the earlier struggles. To reinforce the argument for keeping water public we divided up the stock exchange price by the number of water users to show how the public could buy shares and keep the company in public hands. With the indignados we turned this the idea into a practical campaign.’

In reality, the practical impact of Initiative 136 has been more in its propaganda power – illustrating vividly how water can be managed as a common resource ‘without relying on either private companies or the existing state,’ as Kostas Marioglou, another water workers’ leader put it. Although co-ops have been formed in eight of Thessaloniki’s 16 neighbourhoods, and the city’s municipal council has given it a unanimous welcome, people simply cannot afford the one-off €136. And municipalities hardly have the money to keep going.

‘We are under attack on every front,’ declares Theodoros Karyotis, having just returned from a 20,000-strong demonstration against the gold mining operations of Eldorado in the nearby Kavakos mountains and the vicious police repression of anyone, including school children, suspected of protesting.

But the organisers of Initiative 136 are not giving up the practical project. They are discussing now with the influential European Public Water Network about finding the funds to turn the public-public solution into reality. ‘It’s no longer a Greek issue. It has become an emblematic issue for the European movement,’ explains Karyotis. ‘If the privatisation is not defeated, it will be a real setback for the return of water to the public, which is happening everywhere else.’

Wide coalition

At the same time as pushing ahead with finding the funds and legal structures for the co-operative, all those in Initiative 136 spend time building a wide coalition against privatisation. ‘We are working on two legs. The broadest possible alliance against privatisation is the first leg and exploring a means of direct socialisation as the alternative,’ says Theodoros Karyotis.

‘We must unite against privatisation,’ emphasises Kostas Marioglou, ‘and be able to debate the best way to manage water for the common good.’ For alongside the unity there is a heated debate on Initiative 136. ‘Why should we buy what we already own?’ argue many in Syriza. ‘The problem,’ says Karyotis, ‘is how do we stop privatisation? Lobbying, protesting on its own, does it get anywhere? Initiative 136 is in one sense fighting them on their own ground, exploiting a loophole, but this is making it difficult to stop us, if we have the funds and we have the popular support.’

‘The target is common,’ insists George Archontopoulos, who stood in the elections for Syriza, ‘even if we shoot from different directions. Let’s surround the target!’

Meanwhile, a water movement developing across Attica, the region of Athens, is converging on this same target, the imminent threat of privatisation. Like the water that it is defending, a flow of campaigns is gathering force across the municipalities of Attica and from the port of Piraeus to the largest working class residential suburbs of Athens.

A determined driver behind this is an interesting and outward looking new grouping of water workers for the EYDAP public water company of Athens. It calls itself SEKE (‘participatory unity movement’). Vasilis Tsokalis, a founder member of SEKE., describes its origins during the elections for worker representatives on the EYDAP board.

‘Suddenly last year this new organisation came together, from the left and centre left, independent of the two old parties. We wanted to get rid of the existing board members who’d been there for over ten years; one a member of PASOK and the other of New Democracy,’ he explains. ‘They had been catastrophic actually, working with management and the political parties, saying they were against privatisation but doing nothing.’

SEKE immediately won 17 per cent of the vote. ‘But we knew we could become stronger through taking action with others fighting privatisation and for a management of water in the common good,’ says Tsokalis. SEKE made contact with Save Greek Water, and together they set themselves the task of convincing all 45 municipalities to support a commitment to public water.

Citizens’ movement

Vasilis Tsokalis says emphatically: ‘This is a citizens movement.’ Theodoros Karyotis stresses the importance of the ‘autonomy of our movement from all political parties’. Their insistence comes from a history in which independent civil society has been suffocated by the two main political parties. But it also comes from a positive sense of emancipation from the hierarchies, dependencies and pervasive forms of domination associated with a state operating through clientelism.

In the past, many public servants privately tried to work outside this culture but now this individual refusal is turning into a collective creation of an alternative way of engaging with politics. In the powerful wake of the protest movement of the past two years, the flourishing of self-organised collaborations such as Initiative 136, SEKE, the factory occupation at Vio.Me and more are all evidence of this.

Nadia Valvani, Syriza MP and member of its economic committee responsible for privatisation policy, sensed this in the rise of Syriza during the first elections of 2012, when the coalition’s vote rose from the 4 per cent it obtained in 2009 to 27 per cent.

‘There was something deeper than political sympathy,’ she remembers. ‘At gatherings in people’s houses I sensed a kind of emancipation process. There were people there who were not especially left who wanted to change their whole way of life and see an end to the clientelist relation to politics. They came to us for a way out. They want to participate, not just to vote. If I hadn’t lived through this, I wouldn’t have been convinced.’

This emancipation also releases productive capacities. An engineer in a responsible position with EYDAP, Antigoni Synodinou, observes the ‘huge amount of wasted talent’ under clientelism; as a trade union leader, George Archontopoulos describes how ‘workers opinions and information are ignored’.

In other words, people are describing an economic force: social creativity, stimulated and nourished through co-operation and mutuality. Conventionally it is termed ‘social capital’ and tends to be used to encourage networks of social cohesion to cope with economic hardships, without challenging structural inequalities. More radically, with transformation in mind, this same social capacity can be understood as the productive potential of democratic, participatory economics, including in the organisation of the public sector.

Changing opinion

The polls on privatisation imply that such alternatives are essential to changing public opinion, for the same people who view privatisation as a necessity also believe that it benefits foreign multinationals and does not benefit consumers. This indicates that their view is more to do with hostility to the existing state, a state already bent towards meeting primarily private interests. The problem is the absence of any awareness of alternative management of public services and common goods.

Members of Syriza’s economics committee are attentive to the importance of the initiatives autonomous of the coalition – from citizens and workers as citizens – for developing convincing and practical alternatives. In a forthcoming book, Crucible of Resistance, one of Syriza’s economic spokespeople, Euclid Tsakalotos, points to the formative importance of debate in the early years of Syriza on ‘governmentalism’. The conclusion meant Syriza not only supported social movements but also ‘learnt from these movements about the nature of the alternative’.

Syriza’s leadership see this ideal of supporting and learning from autonomous movements at the same time as aiming for government as a central challenge as it prepares to turn from a coalition to a party. Andreas Karitzis explains: ‘Syriza is dangerous because it combines those two elements, governability and the strong connection with the social movements fighting the government. The strategy of the government is to force us to decide. I am hopeful because Syriza members, whether more revolutionary or more reformist, recognise that there is no solution if we lose one of these elements.’

If the coalition against water privatisation in Greece, simultaneously resisting and experimenting with alternatives, develops its momentum, it could mean that the troika’s attempt to sell off water will again prove to be a fatal move by the political class.

Athens will be hosting the Alter Summit on June 7-8. www.altersummit.eu


Hilary WainwrightHilary Wainwright is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective and a fellow of the Transnational Institute. @hilarypepper


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