Greece: General strike brings society to a halt

Unite and broaden the struggles of workers and youth!

Last week, on Thursday 11 March, Greece was again brought to a standstill by the collective action of the organised working class. Workers from the public and private sector joined the third, and biggest, general strike in three weeks against the government’s draconian austerity package. The action hit 90% of public sector workplaces and also up to 90% of large private sector concerns. Nothing functioned and nothing moved. Public transport closed down completely and only parts of the train system worked in Athens to assist workers get to demonstrations and back home. It was a further display of the enormous power of the working class when it is organised and acts in a united fashion.

Greece’s two union federations called the strike to protest at the additional €4.8 billion package of spending cuts and tax increases that the government announced 3 March, which was passed by parliament just days later. This was the third austerity package announced since the beginning of the year under the pressure of the EU directorate – they all add up to a total of about 20 billion euros.

Protest rallies were called by the GSEE union and the civil servants’ union, ADEDY, and another organized by the Communist Party-led PAME trade union front. Athens saw a huge union demonstration of 80,000 to 100,000, one of the biggest street protests in recent years. Many more workers wanted to join the protests but could not attend because there was not a proper planning of the public transport system to assist workers join the demonstrations (only parts of the train system in Athens functioned between 10.00 hours and 16.00 hours).

The strike action also hit smaller cities and towns, with big demonstrations in these areas. Society was completely paralysed. Even small shopkeepers joined the strike.

EU and markets’ dictates

Under pressure from the EU and financial markets, Greece’s ‘social democratic’ PASOK government last week presented the latest in a series of austerity packages to cut the budget deficit to 8.7% of gross domestic product this year, from an estimated 12.7% last year.

Among other things, the package cuts public-sector wages by 7%, cuts Christmas and summer bonuses (which are known as the ‘13th and 14th wage’) by 30%, freezes all pensions including the lowest (over 1 million Greek pensioners get less than 500 euros a month) and raises taxes on fuel, alcohol and cigarettes massively, and VAT from 19% to 21%.

The mood of workers on strike was angry and, in fact, that anger and frustration has hardened and widened since the Pasok government announced new cuts last week. But there is also a feeling abroad that even the strike action up until now will not be enough to stop the avalanche of attacks.

Workers’ fury but union leaders offer no steps forward

Workers are furious and want to take action but the union leaders do not offer any concrete steps forward or plan to see off the government’s assault. PASOK also blames the legacy of the last right wing New Democracy government which it decisively defeated in general elections in 2009. Indeed, New Democracy in opposition is now 12% behind PASOK and that gap is rising (the most recent opinion poll actually gives a difference of over 15%).

Due to the lack of a decisive union opposition to the cuts, the PASOK government has, so far, been able to largely carry forward this line of argument. The PASOK dominated union federations (GSEE and ADEDY) are seen by the most class conscious workers as only pretending to offer a fight to its members.

Given workers’ huge anger, it is likely there will be further general strikes. The strike movement will most probably continue against ‘pension reforms’ and new tax changes, which will be voted by parliament in the next few weeks, both of which hit the working class hardest. Last Thursday’s general strike follows several days of escalating actions by a variety of unions, but it largely takes place in an uncoordinated way.

So far, young people have not engaged in the mass protest movement in a decisive manner. This is partly because the economic crisis has not hit them directly, as it has workers in the public and private sectors. School students have not come out onto the protests in big numbers. But this can change in the next period. Both school students and university students took mass protest actions over the last few years in Greece. Just over one year ago (December 2008), the streets were ablaze with an eruption of youth anger against police brutality. Now many university students are finishing exams and some occupations are beginning to take place against the consequences of cuts in education.

University occupations

Xekinima (CWI Greece) calls for university occupations to spread into a mass wave of occupations not only in the universities but also the schools. Xekinima calls for mass action committees to be formed and for the youth struggles to be linked up with workers’ struggles.

The strike action needs to be co-ordinated and expanded. The next step needs to be a 48-hour general strike, followed by longer and repeated general strikes to force the PASOK government to back down. Workplace and community committees of action should be formed to co-ordinate and link up struggles, on a local, regional and national level.

However, if protest general strikes do not force the government to back down on these cuts then more and more workers and youth will understand the real character of the pro-capitalist PASOK government and will turn to the left in the search of answers to the catastrophic crisis and the huge attacks. In these conditions, the proposals by Xekinima for a common, united struggle by the parties of the Left to stop these attacks, and to lay the basis for a left government based on the Left parties, SYRIZA and the KKE, would find many receptive workers and youth. However, given the frustration and anger of huge numbers of young people, and the inadequacies of the SYRIZA and the KKE, blind social explosions and anarchistic moods can once again dominate the scene.

Build a mass Left alternative

This is why now the Left parties, such as SYRIZA and the KKE, have a key responsibility to form a ‘united front’, with a bold socialist programme, which includes opposition to paying the national debt, nationalising the banking sector, ending bosses enormous tax avoidance, an immediate programme of huge investment in health, education, housing and infrastructure. Above all, to carry through such a programme a Left government must nationalise public utilities and the major parts of the economy, under the democratic control and management of the working class, to enable an economic plan to be drawn up to end this crisis in the interests of the working class and poor.

Only a Left government, a government based on the needs of the working class and youth, can resolve this deep crisis, which is a crisis of Greek and international capitalism. However, both main parties of the Left refuse to fight for such a bold programme. This is therefore a factor which acts as a break on the dynamic development of the working class and youth movement and mobilisations. In these circumstances, Xekinima (which is one of the constituent organisations of SYRIZA) explains the need for a mass party of the Left, with bold revolutionary socialist ideas, based on the best elements inside SYRIZA and the KKE, but also outside concerning some of the organisations of the ‘far left’.

Socialist MEP’s visit

Joe Higgins, Member of Parliament (MEP), and a member of Xekinima’s sister party in Ireland, the Socialist Party, visited Greece last week and spoke to packed meetings of workers and youth. Joe brought solidarity greetings from Irish workers, who are also facing draconian attacks on their jobs and living conditions. He called for workers’ solidarity action across Europe and against attempts to play one country’s working class against others. The CWI is calling for co-ordinated, united mass action and strikes across Europe, to resist all governments’ cuts and the dictates of the bosses’ EU. In a very successful public meeting, on a day when there was no public transport at all due to the strike (the trains stopped after the demonstration ended) and after long hours of marching on the demonstrations and clashes with the police, over 220 people still made the effort to attend a public meeting in Athens to hear Joe Higgins and a representative of the French NPA (Anti-Capitalist Party). A similar number turned up at a very successful meeting in Salonika also to hear Joe and a representative of the local SYRIZA.

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March 2010