Greece: Massive general strike stops country

Complete paralysis of absolutely everything and massive demos in all major cities of Greece were the results of the general strike by the Greek Trade Unions last Wednesday, December 12.

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Massive general strike stops country

Complete paralysis of absolutely everything and massive demos in all major cities of Greece were the results of the general strike by the Greek Trade Unions last Wednesday, December 12.

An endless flow of workers, youth and pensioners, people of all ages and layers, took to the streets in each of the major cities of Greece. In Athens, the number of demonstrators reached “at least 100,000” according to all the major bourgeois media – daily newspapers, radio and TV, both private and public. Only the police suffered from short sightedness – they could only see 15,000 people. In Salonika, there were at least 20,000 demonstrators. In all other major cities, there were massive strikes and demos, such as have not been seen for many years.

Nothing moved. Both the private sector and the public sector came to a standstill. Schools, universities, hospitals, Telecom workers, the Electricity Company, Olympic Airways, banks, ports, boats, construction workers, cement companies, mines, and textile workers, all took strike action. The only things that moved were the trains and the metro, during the hours of the strike, in order to carry workers and youth to the demo. Then they stopped too. There were no long queues of cars trying to get people into the centre of Athens – very few people, if any, were interested in going to work. And if there was a small minority that wanted to protest about “respect of their right to be allowed to work”, there was no way it could be heard – the strike of the journalists in all kinds of the mass media was absolutely solid.

This is the largest working-class strike and demo since 2001 when the then government of PASOK (the so-called “socialist” party of Greece) tried to attack the social security system, i.e. the pensions and health benefits of the population, and was forced into retreat and compromise.

An initially routine call by the Unions led to a massive response

The Greek Trade Union Confederations in the private and public sectors, GSEE and ADEDY, had called the demo in a routine manner, many weeks before, as a protest against the austerity budget proposed by the right-wing New Democracy (ND) government. It was one of the usual “general strikes” called by the conciliatory leadership of the Greek Trade Unions, who often call them just to let off steam. However, this time things took an entirely different turn as the plans of the ND government to launch a new attack on pensions became clear.

Government plans

The plans of the government are to raise all retirement ages to 65 years of age, and to cut pensions by up to one third.

As things are now, a worker who has completed 35 years in work, paying his or her monthly subs to the social insurance funds, can retire at the age of 58. Also, mothers who in their mid-forties and have dependents have the choice to take early retirement. These will no longer be possible. The case of industrial workers who work under particularly bad conditions (“heavy and unhealthy” work) will be re-examined. Early pensions to people with serious health problems will also be re-examined.

At the same time the government proposes to “allow” workers to work “voluntarily” for another three years – up to the age of 68. The idea of “voluntary” work is a farce; by lowering pensions, the government will actually be forcing workers to work up to their 68th year of age.

It should be noted that two thirds of all pensioners in Greece, i.e. 1.6 million pensioners, receive less than 580 euro per month. This is already a starvation pension and if pensioners have an “opportunity” to work for longer years they will have no choice but to take it. Even more so when these and many more low pensions will be cut further.

Apart from this the government is proposing a unification of “rich” pension funds, i.e. those that have a surplus, and “poor” social security funds (those that face deficits). In this way, it is trying to make the “rich” funds, like those of the journalists and the bank workers, pay for the deficits of the “poor” ones which represent the huge mass of Greek workers. The better-off sections of the working class developed additional, supplementary pension funds because of the low level of the official pension rates. In this way, they could hope to get pensions of between 1,000 and 1,300 euro – not rich by any means. Now the government wants to cut these supplementary pensions by up to 44% and to use this money to pay for the debts of the “poor” funds.

Liars, hypocrites and robbers.

The monotonous argument of the Greek bourgeoisie and the Greek governments of both ND and PASOK is that the social security funds are faced with huge deficits and that at some stage they will collapse. Their explanation is the so called “demographic factor”, i.e. populations are becoming older, therefore the pension and health provision funds cannot respond, and at some stage will be unable to pay pensions and will collapse.

This is a distortion, to say the least. One of the central tasks of “Xekinima”, the Greek section of the CWI, in its campaign for the success of the general strike, has been to expose the lies and hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie. Of course, demographic changes can and do play a role but the attempt of the bourgeoisie to lay all the explanation for the deficits of the funds on this factor is a blunt attempt to distort reality. The main reason for the deficits of the social security funds lies in the fact that they have been looted in the past, and continue to be so, by the Greek capitalists. This is the story of the crisis in the social security funds:

In the decades between the mid-1950s and mid-1980s the funds were, by law, handed over to the government’s Central Bank, which then lent them with next-to-zero interest rates to industrialists and ship owners for the supposed purpose of the development of the Greek economy. At this time, inflation in Greece was running between 20% and 25% annually. With the interest paid at around 0% one can easily understand how fast the funds would vanish. In this way a total of 83 billion euro (in today’s prices), that is around 40% of current Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was “lost” – actually it was stolen and handed over to the Greek capitalists. As regards the development of the Greek economy, no comments are necessary…

The government is obliged since the 2002 law on the pension reform to supply 1% of the GDP annually to support the social security system. It does not! The state simply does not apply the law – its own laws! As a result the Greek state is the greatest debtor to the funds owing around 12.4 billion euro!

Private sector employers follow closely. About one third of all employers follows the “habits” of the official government and do not abide by the law. Yet none of them has ever been arrested or punished. This affects an estimated 1.1m workers, close to one third of the labour force. This costs the pension and health funds an average of 5.4 billion euro every year.

On top of all this, we have repeated scandals as the pension funds are being looted through “investments” in the stock exchange and other similar practices. Hundreds of millions of Euros have been lost through such practises.

The Institute of Labour of the Trade Union Confederation has estimated that if all the wealth of the pension and health funds was left intact, then not only there would be no deficits but that there would be enough funds to pay a pension of 1,000 euro per month to every Greek worker.

What is clear, and more and more Greek workers and youth have begun to understand, is that the policy of the bourgeoisie is to take the pension and health funds into its hands, use them for their own profit and then make the workers pay for the deficits that they cause. There is not the slightest exaggeration in this claim. Also, by cutting down pensions and health services they force bigger and bigger numbers of people to go to the private insurance companies and hospitals.

Angry workers

The power, the determination and the anger of Greek workers is such that, if it was correctly channelled and organised by the trade union leaders, this present government with a fragile majority of 152 out of 300 MPs would be looking for a place to hide.

In the weeks before the general strike, the government called the trade unions for negotiations over the social security funds. The trade union leaderships could only demand that the state pays its dues before anything could be discussed. But the “minister of employment” (as the anti-working class pro-unemployment minister is called) said that the government could not accept blackmail (!) and that a democratic (!) discussion could not be based on preconditions…!

This naturally angered workers. But what angered them even more in the few days before the general strike was the fact that the minister of “employment” had, in his own personal employment, Indian migrant workers who worked in the orchards of his villa, for whom he paid no social security! This is the man who is supposed to make all those who should pay their social security dues, do so! Any household that does some construction work and does not pay construction workers their social security will immediately be dragged to the courts, if discovered, but the minister, responsible for making sure the laws were adhered to, was ignoring them. The unbelievable explanation of this individual was that he was… offering hospitality to the poor Indian garden workers! Obviously, he is not only corrupt but he also thinks that all Greek workers are cretins! The government of Kostas Karamanlis which won the elections on anti-corruption declarations gave its full backing to this minister saying that he was unjustly attacked – only showing thus how reactionary, corrupt and rotten the Greek bourgeoisie and its representatives in the government are.

What do 84% really want?

A few days before the demo the government referred to polls which showed that 84% of the population wanted an immediate and lasting solution to the problem of the social security deficits. The government tried to use this poll to show that the Greek people were strongly in favour of the government proposals – in other words, according to government logic 84% wanted a cut in their pensions and to work until they die.

It was, of course, one of those polls the special characteristic of which is to cover reality, distort the truth and insult the common sense of the average worker. The poll only asked: “Do you want a clean and lasting solution to the problem of the deficits of the social security system?” And, of course, nearly everybody said “yes”. If the poll had asked what is this solution the answer would probably be “Down with the bastards!”

And conciliatory trade union leaders

The truth of the matter is that the only reason why this government is still in office is because the leadership of the opposition party, PASOK, and the leaders of the trade unions who are controlled by PASOK are not willing to really fight against government policies. Their aim is some kind of compromise. Therefore, they mobilise the workers only to force the government to a partial retreat, but not to a complete defeat.

Because in order to really defend the pensions of the Greek workers and safeguard the viability of the social security system, they would have to fight to:

  • Get back the 83 billion euro (about 40% of GDP) stolen from the pension funds by industrialists, ship owners and bankers.
  • Force the government to pay what it owes to the funds, i.e. 12.4 billion euro and pay its dues every year, i.e. 1% of GDP.
  • Force the private sector employers to pay their dues, otherwise face heavy penalties.
  • Impose workers’ control in every workplace to inspect the books, as the only means of safeguarding that employers pay their dues.
  • Nationalise all enterprises whose owners refuse the payment of their dues and thus deprive workers of their pensions, under workers’ control and management.
  • Nationalise the pharmaceutical companies who profiteer on drugs and squeeze huge amounts of money out of the social security system.
  • Nationalise under workers’ control and management all private insurance companies who thrive on the insecurity caused by the crisis of the social security system.
  • Fight unemployment and “flexible” employment which costs massive amounts of revenue to the social security funds (unemployed do not pay, and part-time workers pay much less) by bringing down the retirement age and the working week.

If such measures are not taken, there is no way that the crisis of the social security funds will be solved.

But there is no way that these measures would be accepted by the capitalists and by their governments. Thus, the struggle for pensions and for a proper national health service goes hand in hand with the struggle for the overthrow of the power of the capitalists and for a socialist society.

The Next Day

The day after the general strike found Greek workers with a high morale and the government wavering. The ND government will not retreat; it will push as hard as possible for the best deal in the interests of capital. But the huge success of the strike shows that it is possible for the working class to force the government into full retreat.

Already, in large sections of the working class, there is talk of the need for another strike to follow the 12 December one.

What is required, however, is not just another strike, but a full strike plan to be extended over the next period. What is required is a 48-hour strike to follow the last 24-hour one. Its date should be announced as soon as possible, so as to warn the government about what is coming and to increase the already existing frictions in its ranks.

January should be planned as a month of general strikes. If the government does not retreat after a 48-hours strike, then further action by the working class in a coordinated and continuous manner could lead the government and the economy into complete paralysis. No government would be able to stand up against such a movement.

There is not the slightest doubt that, faced with the prospect of a massive attacks on their pension rights, Greek workers would be willing to strike not for one or two days but for weeks!

The question is who will provide the plan and the lead for such a struggle? The present leaderships of the trade unions will not – if left on their own. Only through pressure from below could they take some of the necessary measures. It is the task of left rank-and-file fighters, inside and outside the mass parliamentary parties of the left (CP and SYRIZA) but particularly of Marxists, like the CWI forces in Greece, to take the necessary initiatives from below, press and drag the trade union leaderships in the direction of the road to struggle. And at the same time, they should link the present struggle to save pensions and public health with the struggle for the overthrow of the capitalist system and the building of an alternative, socialist society, run democratically in the way the CWI frequently explains in its articles and pamphlets.

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