Greece: self-organisation for workers' power?

Submitted by Matthew on 1 August, 2012 - 2:20

We asked many people in Greece about what forms of grass-roots self-organisation exist in the Greek working class or can plausibly be developed towards something comparable — though possibly very different in detail — to the soviets (workers’ councils) which were the basis of the Russian workers’ revolution of 1917 and which have re-emerged in many revolutionary crises since then.

Tereza from Kokkino said explicitly that given the dominance of small enterprises in the Greek economy, neighbourhood-based committees were a more likely form than factory councils; and everyone described more life and movement in neighbourhood organising than in industrial organising.

Everyone agreed, more or less, that neighbourhood-based assemblies are at a lower level now than before the election campaigns and the start of the summer, during which heat and holidays reduce political activity.

Everyone also agreed, however, that there is potential for neighbourhood-based organisation to grow again as the struggle against the new coalition government's discredited and destructive policies grows, especially from September.

Spiros from OKDE in Thessaloniki said that neighbourhood committees had been formed from the movement in the city squares in June-July 2011. Then there were neighbourhood committees formed in the campaign for non-payment of the new property tax.

Now, said Spiros, “each committee has a special thing. In west Thessaloniki there is a committee to create a self-organised food market and a community restaurant. There is another committee in Kalimaria, in east Thessaloniki, with about 40 or 50 people involved.

“There are a couple of other neighbourhood committees in Thessaloniki where we don’t participate. There is one in northern Thessaloniki against plans to develop a toxic waste site there.

“The neighbourhood committees usually meet weekly or fortnightly, but less often in the summer. They aren’t elected” (i.e. they are open meetings for anyone who wants to be active).

Vicky Karafoulidou and Yannis Karliampos at the Syriza office in Thessaloniki, who emphasised that they were talking informally rather than speaking officially on behalf of Syriza, told us that Syriza had run “popular assemblies” to “talk to the people and hear their ideas” during the election campaign, and now plans to continue them permanently.

The idea, they say, is to run an Assembly, monthly, for each neighbourhood of say 10,000 people.

They reckon to get 100 or 200 people to each Assembly (though, they say, an attempt to organise an Assembly at the university was not so successful).

People are and will be informed of the Assemblies by social media and posters.

There “is a plan”, they said, to have these Assemblies, if they develop, elect their own committees, not necessarily of Syriza members.

However, when we spoke later, and more officially, with Miltos Ikonomou, a Syriza leader in Thessaloniki, he was categorical that these assemblies will be Syriza assemblies.

“We are making open assemblies, and we want to have a Syriza place in each neighbourhood. We had a hundred people to one last week, and others are in the next few days.

“We want new members, but our target is first to involve the people”.

So, these are Syriza assemblies. What about also building broader neighbourhood organisations, not just of Syriza supporters, with the aim of enabling people to take control of their own neighbourhoods?

“These are the open assemblies of Syriza. People who come, become members of Syriza and then elect committees in their neighbourhoods.

“Our target is to see how we can inspire people to become involved in the cause of Syriza. The basic idea of the left is to fight about one’s rights”.

Of the non-payment committees which grew up in neighbourhoods to resist the new property tax and the threat to cut off electricity to non-payers (because the tax is levied on electricity bills rather than through the regular tax system), Vicky and Yannis said that “they come and go”.

The government has now conceded that people may pay their regular electricity bill but not the tax addition (at one time, the electricity company was allocating all payments first to the tax, so that any partial payment would leave electricity charges unpaid), and people are not having their electricity cut off.

However, Vicky and Yannis said, there is a neighbourhood committee which was based in that movement still functioning in the eastern part of Thessaloniki.

On Syriza’s Popular Assemblies, Spiros was cool. The KKE has run local Popular Assemblies, too, he noted, though Syriza, unlike KKE, participated in the city-squares movement.

“We can have common committees with Syriza”, he said, “but Syriza has not been very successful with its local assemblies in the past. Probably it will have some success now, but probably it will fade. Syriza needs a more developed policy”.

Sofia, from OKDE in Athens, gave a more downbeat picture. In autumn 2011, after the city-squares movement, OKDE had been participating in local assemblies in five municipalities (areas covering some hundreds of thousands of people), with attendances ranging from 30 to 100 at weekly meetings.

There are none functioning now, she said. OKDE will intervene in Popular Assemblies if Syriza initiates them.

Mihalis Skourtis, from OKDE-Spartakos, was more scathing. Popular Assemblies? Syriza is doing nothing, he said, but propagating its electoral programme.

Syriza did nothing against the fascists. The only thing in its mind was the election results. Now OKDE-Spartakos is calling on Syriza to organise open assemblies in the neighbourhoods, to resist the fascists, to organise solidarity, and to combat poverty. But we will see.

Tereza from Kokkino described a local assembly in Athens she participates in. Currently meetings draw a maximum of 20 people, where there were 50 or 100. Tereza was not sure of the population size for the area covered by the assembly, but says it contains three high schools, which suggests a population of about 30,000.

The Syriza committee for that same area, she said, would have thirty people at a general assembly of Syriza members, but fewer for regular gatherings.

Mihalis Skourtis, despite giving the most downbeat picture of the situation now, also stressed the possibilities for the near future.

The movement of neighbourhood committees against the property tax was, he said, a big affair, where in some communities you might have a thousand people meeting weekly. It won a big victory. Non-payers of the tax now do not have their electricity cut off. “The people are still there”.

That movement has subsided. But it will re-emerge on other issues. “The people are still there”.

Thessaloniki Trade Union Centre

Near the middle of Thessaloniki, and overlooking the ruins of the city’s old Roman forum, the Thessaloniki Trade Union Centre is housed in a typical, somewhat run-down, multistorey concrete block building.

On the walls outside, across the windows of the shuttered shop next door, and on a noticeboard inside the centre, are plastered political posters from the left. As well as the main trade union offices, there is also a door marked for PAME, the union association linked to the Communist Party (KKE).

As we waited for union officials to arrive, Elena Apostolidou, secretary to the president of the Trade Union Centre, told us that no-one in the trade union centre has been paid their wages for a couple of months now.

Costas, a leader of the Thessaloniki water company workers, later explains to us that the Trade Union Centre building, its utility bills, and the wages of the people working there, used to be paid by the government. For many months now, the government has stopped paying, as it has stopped paying many suppliers.

At first the Trade Union Centre tapped funds from the “first level” unions (a term Costas will explain), but now that money has run out too. “The Government says it's a problem that will be solved, but it's being going on for too many months now”.

Costas also asks us a question. Is Thessaloniki as we expected? One of us replies that what we have been told by many people indicates that there is great trouble and suffering behind closed doors, from unemployment and poverty.

Yes, replies Costas. Things look all right in the city centre. (There are some shuttered shops and cafés, but nothing dramatic. The remaining cafés still have people sipping iced coffee through straws, playing backgammon, and chatting).

But it is different further out. “People are sleeping in doorways, and sorting through garbage heaps to find something to eat. That didn’t happen before”.

Costas believes that the trade unions in other countries “must inform people that the problem with have in Greece is a problem will will have in every country. It is a system problem. When they are done with us, and with Spain and Italy, they will go on to others, maybe France.

“We have to change the rules where everything is privatised and everything goes to a few people”.

Costas has come to tell us about the campaign against privatisation of the Thessaloniki Water Company. In the early 2000s, 39% of the Athens Water Company was sold off, and 25% of the Thessaloniki Water Company. That means, for a start, that water workers have three different wage agreements: one each for Athens and Thessaloniki, and one for the rest of the country. The workforce has decreased, the average age of the workers remaining is high, and a lot of job knowledge has been lost.

All wages of public employees have been cut 35%, and that includes the water workers. Now the government wants to complete the sell-off. It said it would start selling last year, but hasn’t yet.

“You know in Britain what water privatisation means”, Costas tells us. “And in other countries, not to mention South America. It will not just be bad for the workers. The price of water will rise, and no investment will be done”.

Costas’s union has run a campaign in Thessaloniki called Initiative 136. The goal, he says, is to let people know what is happening, and gather money so that the people themselves can buy the company, which makes a profit.

Costas also tells us about the structure of the Greek unions. “First level” unions cover a workplace, or a firm, or trade, within an area. The water company, for example, has its own single “first level” union, uniting all trades and grades. 220 workers out of 370 are in the union. Most workers join strikes when they are called, “but I think everywhere there are a few who won’t”.

Unions can then choose to be represented at the “second level” in a local Trade Union Centre like Thessaloniki’s — there are 15 centres across Greece — or in a trade federation. The “third level” is that of the union confederation.

The Thessaloniki Trade Union Centre is the oldest in Greece. It started (under a different name) in 1912, when Thessaloniki was still ruled by the Ottoman Empire.

A board near the entrance of the Trade Union Centre records its successive presidents since 1974. Why since 1974? Because since then — that is, since the end of the 1967-74 military dictatorship — the presidents have been elected, every three years.

The next election for Trade Union Centre president is in November 2012. First level unions elect their representatives every two or three years. All the elections are by postal vote.

The Trade Union Centre covers 250 “first level”unions, with a total of 100,000 members. The smallest of those unions has 22 members; the biggest, the local bus workers', almost 3000.

Panagiotis Tsaraboulidis, president of the trade union centre of Thessaloniki, gave us his picture of the situation.

“Everyone in government tells us that they don’t want the [EU/ ECB/ IMF] Memorandum, but we have to go on this road. But we must end this Memorandum if we want work in this country”.

He sees long-term problems. “We have had a fake economy. We import everything. All the factories have closed because businesses went out of the country, and here in Greece everyone wanted to open their own little business, a café, a shop”.

There is officially 27% unemployment in Thessaloniki, and 32% in the region.

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