Greece: break the stalemate

Submitted by AWL on 2 June, 2015 - 5:39 Author: Gemma Short

Workers’ Liberty members Edward Maltby and Gemma Short went to Athens, Greece, from 25 – 29 May to meet and interview activists inside and outside Syriza. We will be publishing interviews in our paper and online soon.


There are some signs of the years of austerity in Athens; building projects have been left unfinished; empty buildings are left to fall into disrepair; pavements and roads in some districts are cracked and overgrown with weeds and grass. But there is a shiny new extension to the metro, opened only two years ago, and we saw no more people living or begging on the street than might be seen walking around London.

The average wage in Greece has decreased by 38% between 2009 and 2014, and pensions by 45%. There has been a 273.7% increase in unemployment since 2009, to 26% in late 2014. When the economically inactive section of the population is included the percentage of people not working rises to 56.3%. Unemployment is highest amongst young people aged 15-29, rising from 21% in 2008 to 59% in 2013.

Between 2010-2013 988,000 jobs have been lost, 675,000 of those in the public sector – 20% of all public sector jobs. 86% of those out of work in Greece have been unemployed for over a year – meaning that they no longer receive unemployment benefits. In addition, 2.5 million people are not covered by social security, often because their access depended on a relative being in work. The situation created by this collapse in incomes among Greek people is frequently referred to by Syriza and others as “the humanitarian crisis”.

We met “Solidarity for all” (SFA), an organisation set up by Syriza in 2012 to support the work of various mutual-aid and social solidarity activists. It is funded by a 20% levy on Syriza MPs’ salaries. Tatiana and Christos of SFA told us that they work with organisations distributing food, providing medical care, offering free tuition to children and adults, organising anti-eviction campaigns, legal support networks, debt advice services, cultural centres, and other forms of support which employers and the state have placed out of the hands of millions of working-class Greeks and migrants.

Everyone we asked described the attitude of Greek workers towards the new government as “wait and see”. Activists told us that people had low expectations of Syriza, just hoping for a let up in attacks, and these expectations have been met. Since the 25 January election of Syriza, there have been comparitively few strikes and social struggles – the exceptions being the 24-day strike by the Piraeus port workers against the sale of the port (a struggle started under the previous government), various local campaigns and occupations against hospital closures, and a strike in the health sector on 20 May.

Since the election the government has greatly reduced the implementation of further austerity measures planned by the previous administration. It has also made some, small but not merely symbolic, changes. The re-hiring of the Ministry of Finance cleaners, planned re-opening of state TV channel ERT, abolition of the €5 fee to get hospital appointments, and re-introduced citizenship for children of migrants born in Greece.

Most organisations, even those outside of Syriza such as OKDE and some groups in Antarsya, recognise that the election of Syriza was a victory, and that if Syriza capitulates or fails it will be a defeat with negative consequences in the workers’ movement. OKDE organises street stalls with the slogan “defend the victories of 25 January”. Yet prospects for a deal with “the institutions”, as the Troika is now called in Greece, over the country’s next debt payment instalment due this week do not look good.

An interim agreement on 20 February, which allowed Greece a four month extension, saw the government reduce the, already very modest, Thessaloniki Declaration to “four red lines” — no new cuts in pensions, no new wage cuts and mass layoffs, a halt on privatisations and no to new tax burdens. In the run up to a June deal these “four red lines” are increasingly looking like just two — no new cuts in pensions and no new wage cuts.

A member of International Workers’ Left (DEA) a Trotskyist group inside Syriza, told us these “two red lines” are likely to be more like “pink lines”. It is likely concessions will be made on pensions which would mean that while pensions for those retiring now, or in a few years from now, will be protected, cuts will be made to the pension pots of younger workers. He thinks that despite the talk of default, which he admits there may now be more substance to, a deal will be made with the creditors.

There is a fight going on within Syriza. For a long time the “Left Platform” has had around 30% of votes on Syriza’s central committee. But that vote is growing. 41% voted against the 20 February deal with the “institutions”. 44% voted for a “Left Platform” motion at the last central committee meeting (held on the weekend of the 23-24 May) which called for the government to stop negotiations, stop payments of debt instalments, negotiate for part of the debt to be deleted, and to nationalise the banks. This included big names such as John Milios — one of Syriza’s chief economists — as well as members of the centre-left “53+ group”. In the end the conclusion of the central committee meeting was that any deal should respect Syriza’s “four red lines”.

For our comrade in DEA, the situation is unpredictable, with multiple possible outcomes. The Syriza leadership is able to effectively blackmail much of the left opposition, claiming that resistance to Tsipras’s policies could spell the end of the government.

Several high profile figures, such as Minister for Productive Reconstruction, Environment and Energy and “Left Platform” leader Panagoitis Lafazanis, state publicly that they will oppose a “bad deal”. Lafazanis says he will refuse to sign off on privatisations of regional airports and the train system. However comrades in DEA says it is not yet possible to predict whether all of the “Left Platform” will hold its ground.

Tsipras, and the majority leadership fraction, have a mandate from the Syriza central committee for any deal they can spin as not crossing the “four red lines”. It is likely any deal made this week will not be taken back to a central committee, but taken straight to the politburo and then to parliament. The parliamentary group is much less prone to rebellion against the leadership than the central committee – but a bad deal could still be met with resignations and protests from MPs, including members of the majority. Some speculate that this could lead Tsipras to call a new election to form a new government – one less reliant on the left.

As much as there is a right-ward pressure within Syriza to not destabilise the government, there is still a large left-wing and popular pressure against implementing austerity. Comrades in DEA, OKDE and Antarsya all told us that Syriza would face political crisis, splits or collapse before it could be converted into a straightforward “memorandum party”. Through the “R network” [a faction in Syriza led by DEA], DEA has been organising public meetings with left-wing Syriza MPs and central committee members. One such meeting on 19 May, under the banner “Rupture with the lenders now!”, addressed by key Syriza figures, was attended by over 600 people, with crowds outside unable to get into the room.

One sign of the growing fight in Syriza is the increasing clamour from the bourgeois press for Tsipras to expel the left wing of the party.

A front page article titled “Tsipras is ready for anytihng, even expulsions” in main bourgeois newspaper To Vima on Sunday 24 May called for the expulsion of left-wing agitators, specifically DEA.

Much of the attention of the Greek media in general, and the left in particular, focusses on the stand-off between the Greek government and the international institutions of the IMF and the ECB. But the real key to Syriza’s ability to resolve the humanitarian crisis, and reverse the damage of the austerity years – let alone embark on a more ambitious transformation of society – lies in the struggle between the working class and the bourgeoisie within Greece.

We met the Syriza Youth organisation’s International Officer Petros Markopolous who told us he dislikes the “Left Platform” due to what he identifies as their knee-jerk anti-EUism. For Petros, not all the problems can be solved by a Grexit, but he thinks the government should be uncompromising in negotiations — if this results in a forced exit then so be it. He also told us that this should be combined with “opening up the internal front”, that the struggle is “class against class” not “Greece against Europe”.

In 2013 there were 505 super-rich Greeks, 50 more than in 2012, representing just 0.005% of the Greek population and owning a total of €60 billion, €10 million more than in 2012. This layer of the Greek population has made money out of the crisis hand over fist: to them, the Troika represented a huge support; and this social layer in turn was the firmest ally of the Troika within Greece.

Taking a stand against the EU will bring the Syriza government into conflict with the Greek ruling class. Capital controls to ensure the ruling class don’t hide any more of their money outside Greece will be needed. But more than that; taxation of the rich to rebuild public hospitals and rebuild and extend welfare provision; reinstatement of collective bargaining to support workers fighting for wage increases and working conditions in the private sector; nationalisation of the banks under social control — all of these should be popularised by the left, used as slogans in their press and on demonstrations and built for with public activity.

Agitation that focusses solely on the confrontation between Greece and Europe borrows much from Greek nationalism, and in the end may repay the nationalists with interest. It is also disempowering: reducing the struggle for the destiny of Greece to a poker game between a handful of Syriza negotiators and European bureaucrats draws attention away from the class struggle in Greece and around Europe.

To break through the current stalemate in the fight against austerity, and to galvanise the class-struggle elements in Syriza the Greek workers’ movement urgently needs to once again see itself as the key protagonist, and to resume the offensive.