Until recently we knew Syriza would at least support all workers’ struggles. Syriza might not take the initiative for struggles, it might not propose a plan for them, but at least Syriza would support them.
The Greek secondary school teachers’ strike was due to start on 17 May. Syriza collaborated with Pasok’s trade union network, Paske, and New Democracy’s, Dake, to call it off. Syriza, which is seeking a popular mandate from the Greek working class to form a government of the Left and overthrow the EU/ECB/IMF Memorandum, could not even carry through the mandate from the General Meetings of teachers.
During the last three years of Memorandum policies, one teacher in five has left her or his school. Their wages have been reduced by up to 45%. 1,000 schools have been “merged” (i.e. closed down). Government spending on education has decreased by 50%.
Just one week before the Greek Easter, one day before the commencement of the school Easter holidays, and a month from the Greek university entrance exams, the government announced further counter-reforms.
The teachers’ unions have not called a strike during the university entrance exam period since 1988. The government was cynically using the exams and the anxieties of parents and students to blackmail the teachers.
The new measures included mandatory transfers of teachers across the country, increased working hours, and an increase in class sizes to more than 30 students.
Ten to 15 thousand teachers faced being geographically displaced without compensation; around 5,000 being made redundant; around 10,000 substitute teachers losing their jobs; and it would become even more difficult for young, unemployed teachers to find a job.
In remote villages and islands the situation is already dire, with schools being shut down and the parents having to cater for their children’s transportation to the not local schools.
The government backed up its measures with slander about the supposed inadequacy and laziness of the Greek teachers, saying that they work only 16 hours a week. Classroom teaching hours in secondary education start from 21 hours a week and de-escalate over years of service to 19, 18 and, finally, 16 hours after 20 years of service. However, teachers’ actual work hours must be and are much longer than their classroom hours.
Under the pressure of the rank and file, Olme, the secondary school teachers’ union, voted for a strike to commence on Friday 17 May — scheduled to coincide with this year’s university entrance examinations, taken by 110,000 students — with five further strike days from Monday 20 to Friday 24 May.
The current balance of forces in Olme (with new elections pending for 27 May) is as follows: three affiliated to ND, three affiliated to Pasok, two affiliated to Syriza, two affiliated to KKE, and one affiliated to Antarsya.
The Olme strike call was to be ratified by the local first-level trade unions. It was followed (not unexpectedly) by the three-party coalition government led by ND’s Antonis Samaras signing a civil mobilisation order on Saturday 11 May.
The order affected all 88,000 secondary school teachers and was to come into effect from 15 May. For the first time, a civil mobilisation order was to be imposed prior to a planned strike.
Civil mobilisation orders were originally only used in times of national emergencies, such as earthquakes. But this is the third time this year such an order has been used against workers. In January the government used a civil mobilisation order, backed by hundreds of riot police, to break a nine-day strike by Athens subway workers. It was followed by the extension of civil mobilisation to 2,500 rail and tram workers, after they protested at the action against the subway workers. In February, sailors on strike because their wages had not been paid for months received the same treatment.
In July 2010, the then Pasok government issued a civil mobilisation order to break a strike of 33,000 truck drivers. In October 2011 an order was used again to break a strike of refuse workers in Athens.
The civil mobilisation order meant teachers would be treated like soldiers, with a strike considered equivalent to a soldier deserting their post. Teachers who struck could face up to five years in prison, and dismissal.
The Olme leaders signalled that they never intended to wage a serious struggle against the order, but instead had authorised a strike that they never intended to see through, using the civil mobilisation as an excuse to call it off.
Olme president Nikos Papachristos said: “In the final analysis, if the government decides to put us in khaki, we will return to schools with our heads held high and trade unionists will be able to look their colleagues in the eyes”.
Yet, following the signing of the civil mobilisation order, Olme asked the two union confederations, Gsee and Adedy, to call a solidarity general strike for 17 May.
The Greek Communist Party, KKE, and its trade-union front Pame, fell short not only of the needs of rank and file teachers but also of the level of the trade union bureaucracy of Olme.
They condemned from day one the teachers’ intention to strike during the exam period. They proposed an inconsequential two-day strike before the exams, and KKE’s youth section KNE asked students to focus on their exams and ignore the teachers’ strike plans.
The Greek Supreme Court rejected a request from Olme for a preliminary injunction against the civil mobilisation order. On Monday 13th, the Greek police served 88,000 high school teachers with civil mobilisation orders. Thousands of people gathered on Monday evening in front of the Olme union hall in Athens and marched to the parliament building on Syntagma Square. Protests also occurred in other cities such as Patras and Thessaloniki.
Adedy rejected Olme’s request for solidarity, declaring that the union did not want to jeopardise exams. It refused to organise a solidarity strike on Friday 17 May, and instead called for a strike on Tuesday 14 May and a joint action on Thursday 16 May with the Gsee, the union federation for private-sector workers. Adedy’s decision was condemned as a divisive token by Olme and by teachers, with the exception of KKE/Pame.
On Tuesday 14th, the demonstration advertised by Adedy at Syntagma Square in Athens was attended by just a few hundred people, and the advertised “24-hour strike by the public service” got little support. The token four-hour strike on Thursday called by both Adedy and Gsee did little more.
On Tuesday evening, regional conferences of the teachers’ union took place, at which 95 percent of those present voted for strike action. Pame’s proposal for a 48-hour strike on 16-17 May, with a re-assessment on 18 May, was supported only by Pame members. Participation at the conferences was estimated at more than 20,000.
Several meetings in the province (in Arta, Patras, Karditsa and elsewhere) were followed by demonstrations where teachers joined with other workers. In Ilia the teachers symbolically burned the notices of civil mobilisation.
A lot of students’ councils and parents’ collectives passed motions in solidarity with the teachers’ strike.
The national executive of Olme responded to its members’ vote for strike action by entering negotiations with the government and opposition parties to discuss ways of averting the strike.
On Wednesday 15 May, the presidents of the “first-level” unions making up Olme met. Despite the overwhelming majorities in the local meetings, trade-union leadership figures from Pasok, ND and Syriza worked to suspend the strike.
The “first-level” union presidents were asked to vote on two issues. First, for or against the strike, based on the decisions of their assemblies; then, second, on whether “the terms and conditions were right for the implementation of the strike.” In the first vote, 78 out of 85 “first-level” unions voted “yes”, four “against”, and three cast blank votes.
At a further 12-hour meeting on Thursday 16th, Papachristos asked the local presidents to vote again on whether they felt there was enough social support to sustain a strike. Only 18 voted to say that conditions existed for a strike, nine voted against, and 57 voted blank. The strike was called off.
That was justified on the excuse that the relation of forces was not right. But on Wednesday 15th, the trade union of primary school teachers (Doe) had voted in favour of solidarity strike action coordinated with the secondary school teachers.
At least a few Federations and Labour Centres controlled by the Left would also have pledged solidarity if Syriza had wholeheartedly and unequivocally thrown itself into ensuring a victorious outcome of the teachers’ strike.
Later assurances by the president of Syriza that a future left government will repeal the measure of mobilisation, and that every future civil mobilisation order by the government will be met by Syriza with a call for a political strike, are moving in a positive direction... but at the wrong time — the weekend after the teachers’ strike was called off!
The Left needs to take the lead to organise meetings between unions and federations in order to decide in advance that the next conscripted workers will not be left on their own, but will have the whole of the Greek working class on their side, and unconditional support and political direction from the Left.