On 17 January Athens subway workers began a nine-day strike. They were eventually forced back to work when the government used emergency laws to intimidate strikers and sent the riot police into an occupied subway depot.
The subway strike was directed at the government’s 2013 budget, which includes a 25% cut in public sector wages (on top of other wage cuts in the last two years) and other austerity measures. This was the biggest labour unrest the current government has faced.
December 2012 was marked by occupations, demonstrations and sits ins by council, university and other public sector workers against a plan to sack at least 15,000, to abolish collective agreements, to cut wages and reduce the minimum wage.
The 2013 government budget also includes a €3.8 billion reduction in pensions, an increase in the retirement age (to 67), a €1 billion reduction in health and education finances, a €347 million reduction in benefits and €3 billion extra in taxes.
At the same time the government is selling off public assets for pennies.
Subway workers are to be incorporated in the public sector salary scheme, scraping existing contracts. As all public sector salaries have been levelled down to the “lowest common denominator”, this has big implications.
The government also plans to privatise public transport; ticket prices will increase, services will be reduced.
On Monday 22 January a court ruling declared the strike illegal. But the workers defied the ruling.
On Thursday 25th, the government invoked emergency legislation which bans strikes and threatens imprisonment (of three months to five years) for any worker defying the ban. It seems the legislation is being used illegally — it should only be used for defence needs, when there is a natural disaster, or on grounds of public health.
Immediate solidarity strike action paralysed all transport.
Just before 4 am on Friday 25th, 300 Greek riot police stormed Sepolia subway depot in west Athens. The depot was occupied by 90 striking workers. While rows of police blocked off surrounding roads to keep hundreds of supporters away, other police removed the strikers. At least ten were arrested and one female worker was injured. The police allowed only strike-breakers to enter the depot.
These emergency powers have been used nine times since the 1974 collapse of the military dictatorship — three times in the past two years in strikes.
On Friday morning hundreds of people gathered at the depot gates in solidarity. All other transport workers declared immediate strikes and the government had to extend its emergency powers to rail and train workers. A bus strike continues.
Train workers have declared a 24 hour strike on Thursday 31 January. On the same day other nationwide strikes will begin — by the Panhellenic Seamen’s Federation (48 hours), health workers (24 hour), GENOP-DEH (24 hour) and ADEDH (four hours). Other public and private sector workers are preparing to join the battle.
Eleysina Shipyard workers have started an indefinite strike. Peasants and farmers are blocking several roads in protest against excessive taxation and the increasing cost of production. Media workers have also struck. A new round of workers’ struggle has begun.
The brutal repression of the government against subway workers followed their refusal to accept the defeatism of their unions, the GSEE and ADEDY. Those unions organised just a few scattered work stoppages and 24 hour strikes to defuse anger.
Once the strike went beyond a week it began to give hope to the other sections of the working class, to demonstrate a way to fight austerity measures, and even overthrow the government.
The coalition government is determined to crush all workers’ struggles.
The cries of the government about how privileged transportation workers are is a far cry from the reality of a €1,000 monthly wage. But it highlights the fact that the government wants to install a norm of a minimum wage of less than €600 a month.
The government consciously chose to escalate the confrontation believing that it would win.The government reasonably believed transport workers were not organisationally ready for an indefinite confrontation. They also believe the anti-memorandum opposition, the left parties and Syriza, are unable to mobilise protesters against the austerity measures.
Pasok’s stance is revealing. On Tuesday 22nd Pasok reminded the government of their proposal to exempt transport workers from the public sector “levelled down” salary scheme. One day later the president of Pasok, Evangelos Venizelos, made a remarkable u-turn stating: “The unions that place their workers against society do not support workers’ rights” and declaring himself in the government crusade against transport workers. On Thursday Venizelos declared martial law was the “gentle solution”.
Strikes on 31 January and beyond, if properly planned and co-ordinated, should be instrumental in building a unified social front. Such a front could defeat emergency laws and strike bans.
But full support from the left and especially from Syriza, for every working class struggle is essential. Syriza as the opposition and potential future government of the left has a duty to speak clearly in the name of the workers, to call on them to refuse to return to their jobs and to take political responsibility for this. They should state boldly and unequivocally that a government of the left will protect and guarantee the rights of every worker.
Trade union struggle alone, even the most combative, is not enough to bring victory. Any outbreak of strikes should be immediately taken up by Syriza and put into a context of a radical political change linked to a government of the left.
Syriza and the left generally need to represent the interests of the working class and the popular strata, to be the political voices of labour and social struggles.
Such a programme would include restoration of salaries and pensions, the recovery of collective bargaining agreements, the right to challenge the employer, the fight against precarious employment, the protection of the unemployed. And those measures would be linked to broader radical policies to raise resources through the nationalizstion of banks, utilities and strategic sectors of the economy, heavy taxation of wealth, the abolition of the memoranda and debt and workers control.
At the same time Greek workers need a revitalisation of the trade union rank and file and the creation of new unions in the private sector. Only with fighting rank and file unions will tomorrow’s government of the left be defended against the attacks of the capitalist class.
It is the duty of the revolutionary left to speed up this process by not only participating in the industrial struggles but organising and being the vanguard of these struggles.
It is our duty to organise every battle small and big, and to win to our ranks the most militant workers and youth; every workers’ victory is a step closer to the emergence of the working class as the decision-maker of history, a step closer to winning the final battle and to opening the doors to socialism from below.