Striking dock workers from the Greek Federation for Port Employees (ΟΜΥΛΕ). Photos: Will Horner
Two phones sit on Anastasia Frantzeskaki’s desk as well as a mobile phone. Occasional confusion arises as to which is ringing at any one time and she switches quickly between one or the other and even at times holds both to her ears, pinned in place by hunched shoulders, as she types rapidly on the computer keyboard. Ms Frantzeskaki, a member of the Greek Federation for Port Employees and the Syriza government’s representative for maritime affairs, is currently a busy woman.
The workers at Athens’ Piraeus Port terminals 2 and 3, which since 2009 have been run privately by the Chinese state-owned company COSCO, have walked out over workplace safety. According to Frantzeskaki, COSCO is refusing to open the gates of the terminals to let in members of the striking trade union ΕΝΕΔΕΠ, which represents dock workers in the terminals it operates.
Frantzeskaki relates rushed messages between the striking workers and the Greek Ministry of Labour in order to persuade the Labour Minister to call COSCO and inform them that, legally, they are obliged to allow the striking workers access to the port. The messages are passed successfully and the gates to terminals 2 and 3 are opened, reluctantly.
COSCO has yet to recognise ΕΝΕΔΕΠ and Frantzeskaki says that its administration of the terminals has led to an increase in workplace accidents. There have been broken hands, severed fingers, one fatal accident and one near-fatal in which a young worker fell from an overcrowded crane cabin on to a cargo container several levels below.
‘They work 12 hours per day and they do not usually get their breaks,’ she adds. ‘They have to beg for their breaks and most of them avoid this because they will have a bad record later on.’
One year ago Frantzeskaki’s party Syriza won huge support amongst the Piraeus dock workers by pledging to halt the privatisation of the remaining port terminals, but she now has to deal with a new reality.
The Greek government’s decision in July to sign a third memorandum steam-rolled that election pledge. The creditors insisted on the privatisation of Greece’s largest port and last week COSCO was confirmed as the preferred investor to buy the Greek state’s remaining 67% share of the port for €368.5 million.
The dock workers feel betrayed by the government’s decision to renege on their promise and have held three strikes in one month. They fear job losses and poor working conditions if COSCO takes over the administration of the rest of the port.
Outside the Greek Ministry of Finance and above the chants of protesting dock workers, Christos Tzimovasilis, a worker from the port talks of the government’s decision with an anger that makes his voice shake as he speaks.
‘It’s the same things the old governments told us: Lies, lies, lies, lies! They don’t want to see us they don’t want to speak to us,’ he says. ‘Syriza told us that they will not sell the port. We had a lot of meetings with the minister and now after the third memorandum they have told us that “we can’t do anything.”‘
The situation is a far cry from the optimism that shot Syriza to power in January 2015. Then they were promising to end austerity, cancel the debt, and halt the selloff of the Greek state’s assets to foreign investors. But the dramatic clash with European creditors in July 2015 caused Syriza to abandon most of its programme in the face of the threat of expulsion from the Eurozone.
The party which once was the champion of Greece’s plentiful protesters now faces its own wave of strikes and demonstrations. Pensioners, dock workers, accountants, lawyers and notaries have all taken strike action and two general strikes have taken place in four months. After a brief hiatus, clouds of tear gas and smoking petrol bombs have returned to the streets of Athens.
In another on-going dispute, Greece’s farmers—another sector of Greek society which overwhelmingly backed Syriza in the elections—have been blocking motorways and border crossings with their tractors for over a month. Last month they heightened the pressure by arriving on mass in Athens, clashing with police and occupying the central Syntagma Square for the weekend.
Syriza’s inability to deliver on its promises is badly hurting its popularity. According to the latest opinion polls the party has dropped into second place with 23.2% support, three points behind the centre-right opposition.
The prospect of an early election, which would be the fifth general election in less than four years, has been put on the table by one cabinet minister, and the leader of the opposition has suggested that he would favour snap elections over a national unity government with Syriza.
But Prof. Michalis Spourdalakis, Dean of the University of Athens’s School of Economics and Political Science, and an executive of the Syriza affiliated Nicos Poulantzas Institute, dismisses the likelihood of early elections.
‘Syriza will be in a difficult position for the time being,’ he explains. ‘That’s the choice Syriza made and it will be difficult. But I do not predict that we are going to have elections. The government doesn’t want elections, just like the opposition doesn’t want elections.’
Instead Prof. Spourdalakis predicts the government will respond to the current challenges with a cabinet reshuffle: ‘They are going to bring some new people into the government to appease the right wing. There’s going to be a reshuffle as soon as we have the [IMF] evaluation.’
Will Horner is a freelance journalist currently living in Greece. Follow him on twitter at @willhorner