Greece: Public education in revolt

Privatisation plans meet furious response

The New Democracy (ND) Greek government attempted to go ahead with a bill to privatise higher education in spring 2006. It thought it was going to be an easy task. The majority of Greek university students “abandoned” radical ideas for many years, pro-government commentators asserted, and were considered a “conservative” section of society. There no major, all-out mobilizations by students for nearly two decades.

However the ND government made a big miscalculation. Their privatisation policy caused the biggest movement of university students since 1979 – 82. All sectors of education erupted in an unprecedented explosion, which the young generation never experienced anything close to it. For about 10 months, the whole of Greek society and politics were dominated by the struggle over public education.

The New Democracy (ND) was able, at last, to get its education bill through parliament, last week (8t March). But to their great dismay, the education movement continued after the bill was made law.

Worst possible situation for government

Two hundred and fifty colleges are occupied by students, for two months. This is the third wave of occupations and mass education struggle over the past 10 months, which all started on onwards).

It is not only the students. The university teachers refused to bring to an end their ‘indefinite strike’ – in the form of repeated 5-day strikes – which started at the end of January.

The Congress of the Union of University teachers, held in the first week of March, drove the Greek ruling establishment class to desperation, as it gave absolute control of the Union to the left, thus reinforcing those leading the teachers’ strike.

Could it be worse (for the government)? Yes! The university teachers, openly stated, after the bill passed through parliament, they will refuse to apply the law in practice.

This is a not just an empty phrase. If teachers refuse to cooperate, the new law will be inapplicable. The law provides for the funding of universities by private companies (under the authority of appointed managers in the universities), to supplement cuts in public funding. Whether this will take place is in essence a matter of class struggle and the balance of forces. The law also gives university authorities the right to call in the police and to break ‘university asylum’. For example, it would mean the police could stop students’ occupations if it “prevents others from their right to receive education, or teaching”. If this repressive new power can actually be carried out is, once again, a matter of the balance of forces in the universities and in society, in general.

Police repression

In its attempt to beat the education movement the government turned to repression. It made very good use of the actions of some ultra left anarchist groups, which “fight” the police with Molotov cocktails, sticks and stones. The police used this as a pretext to viciously attack the main body of the demonstrations.

Last Thursday, 8 March, a huge demo of 30,000 – 35,000 university students, the biggest since the beginning of the movement, was drowned in tear gas. Around 69 students were hospitalised and 61 were arrested.

Initially, public opinion began to turn (once again) against the demonstrators, who “turned the centre of Athens into hell”, who attacked the statute of the “Unknown Soldier” in Syntagma Square, and who “burnt Greek flags”.

But the moods changed as videos of the demo were released showing the extent of police brutality against the demonstration. These images of police violence against peaceful protesters were seen by millions, while those the mass media said where behind the violence, the “hood wearers” (which is how the anarchists are referred to) were never apprehended (this is always the case!).

Even some in the pro-Establishment media, not to mention progressive-minded journalists, felt basic democratic rights were under attack.

Police brutality failed entirely to frighten the movement. At students’ meetings, held this week, students voted by big majorities in favour of continuing university occupations. And the Union of University Teachers voted for another 5-day strike.

Clause 16 of the Constitution

The government was able to get its education bill through parliament but failed to get clause 16 of the constitution changed.

This defeat is much more serious than the pyrrhic “victory” of getting the education bill through.

Clause 16 of the constitution does not allow for the existence of private universities in Greece and “guarantees” the provision of free public education to all Greeks. Any change in the constitution requires a vote in two consecutive parliaments, at least one of which must vote in the changes with enhanced majorities of 60% (180 MPs out of 300).

The leadership of the social democratic PASOK party, under G. Papandreou, the so-called ‘opposition’, was ridiculed by many people for agreeing to the government’s clause 16 change!

With this agreement, the ND government hoped to have an easy ride. But the huge movement of students and the teachers forced Papandreou to make an about turn. This, of course, made him doubly ridiculed. For the protest movement, Papandreou’s U-turn was a clear victory. It means neither the current or next parliament can vote in a change to clause 16. The attack on the constitutional safeguard against education privatisation is postponed for at least 6 years and possibly more (10 years), depending on how things develop.

The constitution defeat frayed government nerves, to say the least. It was its second defeat in 10 months, after it was forced to postpone the vote on the education bill that was initially intended to go to parliament last summer.

Immediately after Papandreou’s about turn, to try not to seen as loosing complete control of the situation, the government hastened the postponed the education bill vote.

But whereas New Democracy’s defeat over clause 16 is clear and very serious, causing huge frustration in ruling class circles, the ‘victory’ over the education bill is a hollow one, as it was achieved at a huge cost, and may never be put into practice.

Weaknesses of the movement

However, it is also the case that the strength of the education movement was such that a massive victory could have been won. This did not happen because of the weaknesses of this movement, or, to be more precise, because of the mistakes, or failures, of the leadership of the movement (i.e. the left leaders).

The Greek left remains badly split, and organically incapable of collaborating on basic issues.

There is no real coordination of the movement. There was a plan from the beginning of this movement. While a national coordinating committee exists it does not really function and the city wide coordinating committees are not properly working either. The two basic forces behind the student movement, the Communist Party (CP) Youth and EAAK (a federation of splits from the CP) never talk to each other.

The main forces in the leadership of the students have no real concept of turning seriously to the working class. Neither on a local basis, nor on the central arena, did they pressurize the GSEE (General Confederation of Greek Workers) to call and organize a general strike.

A serious mistake was made last September when the leadership of the primary school teachers called for a strike of their sector, at a time when university students were still in exams. The strike was magnificent and historic. It lasted 6 weeks, until the 1 October, and pulled the secondary school teachers into 13 supportive 24-hr strikes and 1,000 schools went held occupations. But, by the time the university students were ready to come out, after mid-October, the teachers were exhausted and were forced to go back to work, winning nothing – it was, unfortunately, a defeat.

Thus, the possibility of building an all-education struggle, in January-February, this year, when the third round of the struggle against the government started, were severely undermined.

Finally, the leaders of the student movement are too tolerant of the actions of anarchist groups (with the exception of the CP, which, however, goes to the other extreme and describes all anarchists as “agent provocateurs”). These groups (which never go on working class demonstrations, of course) join the ranks of youth demos in full armory (with stones, sticks, Molotov cocktails, etc) and pretend to play the role of self-proclaimed ‘defenders’. They have nothing to do with the movement; they never attended general meetings of the students, never mind making any proposals to them, but emerge on every demo to supposedly “fight the state”.

These anarchists set a few policemen ablaze, burn Greek flags, attack “the Unknown Soldier” statute (which is highly respected by all Greeks), and, of course, destroy cars, motor bikes, shops, etc. Of course, state propaganda makes full use of these antics and there is no doubt this is one of the reasons the ND is still ahead in opinion polls.

Of course, the Left needs to separate the completely irresponsible and counter-productive anarchists from genuine youth, who faced with police repression, fight back. To these youth, we need to explain that ‘riots’ do not serve the movement, but only strengthen the government and give the state more excuses for repression.

But one thing is clear: clashes between the police and the “hood wearers” (some of whom reportedly come out of police vans!) diverted all discussion and attention away from the real issue, which is the struggle for the defence of public free education, for everyone.

If this movement had a leadership which knew how to coordinate the struggle, how to time it correctly, how to link the education front with the rest of the working class and society, how to protect the movement from the counter-productive antics of ultra-anarchist groups, and how to defend against police attacks, a crushing defeat of the ND government would be entirely within reach.

Victory could still be achieved

Xekinima, the Greek section of the CWI – believes a victory could still be achieved, despite tiredness amongst sections of the movement (around 80 occupations ended over the last couple of weeks).

Xekinima proposes, in leaflets produced weekly and distributed on national days of action (every Thursday) and by participating at numerous students’ general meetings colleges, ways to develop the struggle for victory.

At this stage, the basic demands we put forward are:

No retreat, continue with the occupations, weekly national mobilizations, and daily initiatives on a city basis

The law can be sent to the dustbin. Follow the example of the French youth who revolted against the CPE, last year, or the best fighting traditions of Greek university students (in 1979, they forced the then prime minister, Karamanlis, uncle of the present Karamanlis, to withdraw ‘law 815’)

For proper coordination of the movement. Develop a national plan of action. Delegates to be democratically elected by general meetings to city-wide and a national coordinating committees, to replace the chaotic (and, in the end, undemocratic) “coordinating” meetings, which have never been able to reach any decisions due to left divisions

Make a decisive turn to the working class. Campaign for a 24-hr general strike of the rank and file in the workplaces to force the new leadership of GSEE (which bluntly refused to take decisive action) to call a 24-hr strike in support of struggling students and teachers

Defend the demos against police brutality, with much better organized contingents

Raise the issue of the role of anarchist groups in general meetings of the students. Defend demos against provocative, counterproductive actions by these groups

Link the coming university student elections (held in late April/early May) with the current movement. For united lists of the whole left (a student left block, nationally) that were in the leadership of the struggle. If this is done, then the ND youth will lose their position as the biggest force amongst university students – nationally colleges will come under political control of the left block.

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March 2007