Militant workers protesting in central Athens clash with thier union leaders
As the first lines of striking bus drivers’ contingents entered Syntagma Square, the main square in Athens city, a cry shook the air: “Thieves… thieves… thieves…” It was repeated innumerous times! Hundreds of hands rose and pointed to the national parliament building at the opposite side of the square: “This is a brothel, not a parliament – Fire to the brothel!”
Of course, the threat was not meant literally. It was an expression of the intense hatred of the Greek working class towards the people who rule over their fate, who savage their standard of living and the rights working people won over a century of struggle.
Two and a half thousand bus drivers stood in front of the parliament, at just 2-3 meters from the riot police. The riot police were rather relaxed, with their uniforms loosened, and were sympathetic to the strikers. The working class movement has no need of “clashing for the sake of clashing” with the police, contrary to the methods of many anarchist groups and of course the activities of agent provocateurs (which are a regular feature in Greek demonstrations).
Slogans were chanted, very loudly and vividly, such as: “Papakonstantinou, do as a favour… go to the window, and jump!”
Papakonstantinou, the Greek minister of ‘national economy’, and a “successful businessman” – as the Prime minister himself proudly boasted a year ago when he appointed Papakonstantinou – is one of the most hated people in Greece. Not the only one, of course. Repas, the minister for transport, is equally, if not more detested by the masses: “Repas, you too, do as a favour… resign and f… yourself off!”, protesters shout.
This is not very polite, of course, but extremely mild compared to what was chanted against the most hated government figure of all, the Vice-President, Theodoros Pangalos. Last December, Pangalos used unbelievable abuse against public sector workers, describing them as, “dirty, lazy dogs”. So the slogans chanted against Pangalos understandably lack any kind of ‘diplomacy’ or ‘courtesy’ (and thus they better not be put in writing!).
The bus drivers, the metro workers and the tram and trolley workers are on continuous strikes, nearly on a daily basis, since the beginning of December 2010. It is a continuous struggle that went all the way through the Christmas and New Years’ holidays, without pause. The government is pushing public transport on the “fast track” to privatisation and is raising the cost of tickets on public transport in Athens and other cities (where public transport is private run already) by around 40%.
The workers were angry during the 13 January’s protests but were also jubilant. The whole city of Athens was paralysed by their strike. Not one bus, metro train, trolley or tram moved.
During the protest on Syntagma Square some workers began to express the idea that they should stay and occupy the square but then the union leadership called on the workers to move away.“Go where?” Workers asked, puzzled. They had only been in Syntagma Square for 15 – 20 minutes. There was an immediate reaction against the union leaders by some of the most militant workers: “We must not move! We must stay here, all day, all night!” they said. They started to discuss with other workers and argue that the demonstration should not leave Syntagma Square. The trade union leaders hesitated for a few minutes. They realised that the mood was against leaving. So the bus union leaders began to mix with the workers and try to convince them that the demonstration should proceed. “There is no decision by our general meeting to stay here” they argued.
Bus workers vote to occupy GSEE (TUC) offices
This was only half true and was an argument deployed by the bus union leaders to divide the workers. The workers’ proposal to stay in Syntagma Square was correct and had the support of the huge majority of workers present. The last general meeting of bus workers (three days before the strike) had voted for the demonstration to pass by the parliament building and to finish at the offices of the GSEE (the General Confederation of Greek Workers – the Greek TUC). This was not to offer fraternal greetings to the national union leadership but to occupy the GSEE offices in protest at the union leadership’s insufficient support to their struggle!
The act of the transport workers’ occupying Syntagma Square and surroundin the parliament (and, as a next step, invitin other workers to join them), would act like a catalyst in the present situation. But this was exactly what the bus workers’ leadership was worried about on 13 January. They were determined to make the workers’ demonstration move out of the square! Tensions rose between the union leadership and the workers. Many workers become demoralised: “How can the struggle develop with these people at the top?”, they asked.
In the end, the union leaders decided to move out of the square with around 100 followers! The rest stayed in Syntagma Square but confused and disappointed, the big majority began to disperse. Finally, another couple of hundred followed the bus union leaders, concluding that, after all, occupying the GSEE’s central offices was a worthy idea.
The few hundred workers who followed the union banner soon arrived at Omonia Square, the second best-known square in Athens, with its own long history of workers’ rallies and demonstrations. The GSEE central offices are off the right hand side of Omonia Square, less than 10 minutes walk away. But the union leaders did not turn right but turned left!
Workers could not believe their eyes! Workers ran to the front of the demonstration, to block their way. “Where are you going? You said we are going to GSEE!” No reply. Union bureaucrats merely pushed through to escape the anger of workers. An incredible scene developed. Workers formed two rows of human chains to prevent the union leaders from leaving. A struggle developed. “If you want to go away, go, but leave the banner with us!” workers demanded of the union leaders. But the union leadership was determined to bring the demonstration to an end and they would not give the banner away! After some pushing and shoving, the union leaders managed to keep hold of the banner and to escape from the grip of the workers. About 100 hundred workers managed to maintain ranks and not to disperse. Their contingent continued to shout at the union leadership as it disappeared from the square: “Traitors… traitors… traitors…”
After some discussion, this small contingent of workers’ decided to walk to the GSEE (TUC) headquarters but discovered the riot police were there. The leadership of the bus workers’ union had informed the GSEE leadership about bus workers’ intentions and the GSEE leaders asked for the ‘protection’ of the riot police against the workers!
The CWI section in Greece, Xekinima, marched together with the workers from the bus depots to the GSEE headquarters. We carried a detailed report of this march on our website, which brings out, in a stark way, the role of the tops of the Greek unions to many thousands of workers.
We have explained that the need for general meetings of workers to elect strike committees has become an absolute must, as the role of the union leaders becomes more and more clear to the majority of the workers.
Such strike committees should take the lead role of the transport workers’ struggle and develop it in the direction of repeated daily or 48-hour strikes of the entire public transport system. At the same time, they need to appeal to workers across all public utilities (water, electricity, post etc) who are all on the fast track towards privatisation. This can bring about a general, all-out mobilisation of the public utility workers against government attacks.
Workers’ strikes and mobilisations should aim at converging with a new movement developing in Greece – a “non payment movement” against big hikes in road tolls, for example – which is acquiring bigger dimensions [a further article on this movement will soon be carried on socialistworld.net].
The instinctive idea of the transport workers to remain outside the parliament building and to occupy Syntagma Square was correct. The most fighting activists in the unions should start an active campaign around this issue, not only in the bus workers’ union but amongst the working class, in general. If unions take such a step and call on other unions to join them, it would have a catalytic effect on huge numbers of workers, youth and pensioners. This, after all, is the way to realise the most popular slogan in the bus workers’ demonstrations: “We are on the road to Argentina, Papandreou you will go, you’ll need a helicopter to get out!”