Greece: New round of austerity announced by unelected Greek Prime Minister

Xekinima national meeting discusses balance sheet of 2011’s class struggles and prospects for workers’ fight-back in 2012

Yesterday, the German and French governments put pressure on Greece to “find a solution” to its debt crisis, threatening to deny its government another 130bn euro bailout unless it reaches agreement with its bondholders. Investors are being urged to ‘write down’ 50% of the value of their holdings of Greek government bonds. This action is being encouraged because of the desperate situation facing the euro, which French President Nicolas Sarkozy called “tense, more so than ever in the euro-zone’s history”.

But it is the majority of Greek people who are still asked to take all the real pain to satisfy the markets. Last week, the unelected Greek Prime Minister, Lucas Papademos, announced a new round of deep austerity cuts. Amongst other things, Papademos declared new cuts to social and welfare benefits, including health, a slashing of the minimum wage, an assault on public sector workers’ wages and pensions and changes to labour legislation that will be used to attack workers rights and conditions.

All this is preparing the ground for more large-scale confrontations with between the government and the Greek working class and youth.

Below, NIALL MULHOLLAND, who visited Athens last month to attend a national meeting of Xekinima (CWI in Greece), reports on the general situation in Greece after a year of major class struggle, and discusses perspectives for a fight-back by workers and young people in the coming months.

Greece’s struggling families tried to make the best they could of Christmas. But with the country set for a fifth year of deep recession/slump, the coalition government’s announcement of another 5 billion euro in spending cuts and another 3.6 billion in new punishing taxes, and with unemployment at an official figure of 18% (in reality much higher), there was, not surprisingly, a noticeable lack of festive cheer.

This winter, Athens is darker than usual, as many residents forgo decorating the outside walls of their apartments with customary Christmas lights because they cannot afford the electricity bills. Many more homeless people are on the streets. The country has the highest suicide rates in Europe, according to the British press. There is a mass exodus of a new generation of Greek migrants out of the country, involving many tens of thousands. The Greek press estimates that 30,000 new ‘illegal’ Greek immigrants are in Australia, alone.

Two years of deep spending cuts on healthcare, from around €15 billion to €13 billion, is directly affecting the lives of millions, sometimes fatally. The poor and jobless cannot afford new fees and ‘co-payments’ imposed at public hospitals. Nurses are handling four times the number of patients as previous and waiting times for operations have grown longer. Public health facilities have seen a 25 to 30 per cent increase in patients because so many Greeks can no longer afford to visit private clinics.

This desperate situation – a collapse into the dire social and living conditions usually associated with the poorest parts of the world – comes after another year of titanic struggles by the Greek working class against austerity policies, including two 48 hour general strikes. The determination of the working masses to force the previous PASOK (‘Panhellenic Socialist Movement’) government to stop its cuts was never in doubt. But they did not have a leadership equally determined to inflict a defeat on the government or with a viable alternative to the cuts agenda – a socialist perspective and socialist policies.

Last November, the new unelected government of Greek Prime Minister Lucas Papademos was imposed on the Greek people at the behest of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the European Union (EU) and the European Central Bank (ECB) – the infamous ‘Troika’. The administration is made up of PASOK, the right wing New Democracy and the far-right LAOS party.

During a visit to Athens, last December, the Troika demanded 2 billion euro more spending cuts, to be in carried out by January. The IMF, EU and ECB want more austerity to be carried out by the Papademos administration before the ‘uncertainty’ of new parliamentary elections which are due to held in February 2012.

But the ruling parties fear that imposing more heavy cuts will prove disastrous for them in the polls next year, even if they agree to postpone the elections (there is speculation elections may be moved back to March or later). They have very good reason to be concerned. The Greek Left – including the KKE (communist party) and SYN (Synaspismos – Coalition of the Left of Movements and Ecology), are gaining in the polls, sometimes reaching around 30% of the total vote.

This was the background to an excellent meeting of over 125 members of Xekinima (CWI in Greece) who travelled from all over the country, including from Salonika, Volvos and Corfu and Crete, to discuss in Athens on 18-19 December.

Although Greece has been the centre of class struggles in Europe this year, the Athens meeting aptly started with a discussion on the international situation. Greece’s deep economic crisis is inextricably linked to the global capitalist crisis, as speaker after speaker outlined. While intensely involved in the major social and industrial struggles throughout Greece’s year of protests, Xekinima members also closely followed events across the world, including the process of revolution and counter revolution in the Middle East and North Africa, the movements of the ‘indignatos’, the strikes in Spain and Portugal, the public sector strike in Britain, the occupy movements in the US and the recent mass protests against Putin in Russia.

The main discussion on Greece heard in detail the experiences of members and supporters of Xekinima who participated in all the major industrial struggles of Greek workers over the last year, as well as taking part in the weeks-long occupations of city squares by radicalised youth fighting cuts.

Deep economic, social and political crisis

Greek society faces deep economic, social and political crisis. But just a few years ago, there was much fanfare from the media and Establishment, especially from PASOK, when Greece joined the euro-zone in 2001. The country’s hosting of the Olympic Games in 2004 encouraged illusions that society was going forward and Greeks could expect ever rising living standards. Yet within a few years, Greece was hit by deep economic crisis and the working class and middle class were asked to pay for the crisis of the capitalist system with enormous cuts. Now the younger generation face a future of worse living conditions than their parents. According to official figures, it will take up to the year 2057 before the country’s debt will be fully paid off!

The Greek ruling class is under immense pressure from the working class, on the one side, which is resolutely opposed to having to pay for the crisis of the system, and also from the Troika, on the other side, which demands ever more cuts. But the Greek ruling circles are also aware of the weakness of the leadership of the working class, which allows them room to manoeuvre and to carry out brutal austerity cuts.

2011 was a trial of strength between the Greek bosses and the country’s working people and youth. The summer occupation movement in city and town squares was largely made up of youth and was not in the control of the union leaderships. Its development played an important role in pushing back the far right – an expression of counter revolution – which had mounted vicious attacks against immigrants in previous weeks.

The class struggle reached its highest point in October, when the second 48 hour general strike had the potential to immediately remove the hugely unpopular and isolated PASOK government and to pose the question of an alternative government based on the interests of working people and the poor. There were “revolutionary elements” in the situation but the key missing factor was a revolutionary party with mass support to lead the struggle successfully.

The huge general strikes showed how little support the PASOK government had in Greek society. Public sector workers occupied government ministry buildings, kicking top bureaucrats out of their offices. This left visiting officials from the Troika, who act like arrogant colonialists, unable to communicate with Greek ministries. There were also significant moves towards local neighbourhood struggles. Annual World War Two commemorations became the focus for unprecedented open defiance of politicians and Establishment figures.

October movement

But the two main left parties, Syriza and the KKE, did not lead the mass movements. Rather, they were compelled by the militant mood of the working class to come in behind the struggles. The KKE called for “people’s power” to deal with sovereign debt crisis, as “first stage” to resolve the situation. They argued there was “not a revolutionary situation” in Greece and therefore it was not their duty to fight for system change and socialism.

Yet the October mass struggle was a mighty blow against the PASOK government and, in effect, played a key role in eventually bringing down the PASOK government. With a bold working class leadership, the October movement could have pushed on to fight for a government representing the interests of the mass of working people. But in the absence of a far-sighted, revolutionary socialist leadership for the working class, the ruling classes in Greece and Europe were able to manoeuvre and a new pro-capitalist “government of bankers” was imposed on the Greek people.

Not surprisingly, after months of major strikes and continuous social struggles, but without achieving their main aims, many workers and youth are now tired and some are exhausted and pessimistic. But these moods will not last for long. New major struggles are on the agenda. Working people and youth will have no choice but to fight back against the new raft of cuts. Many will have learnt the lessons of 2011 and will fight to take democratic control of the unions from the bureaucracy, so that unions are fully representative of the views and aims of the working class.

There are crucial industrial disputes taking place now, despite the general downturn in class struggle. Steel workers have been on strike for three months. Journalists are taking strike action in various parts of the media. Workers in the mental health sector, which is fundamentally government financed but ran privately, face big job losses and wage cuts. They were told in the run up to Christmas that they could either take a 50% wage cut or face 50% job losses! More assaults on public sector jobs and working conditions are set for the months ahead, which can result in new industrial resistance. Sections of the pro-PASOK unions have announced they are no longer linked to the party due to its vicious cuts record.

The ruling parties are divided on how to pass the latest ‘reforms’ (i.e. deep austerity cuts). When in opposition, the New Democracy and far right LAOS party opportunistically opposed some cuts but now in a coalition government with PASOK they are increasingly exposed in the eyes of the masses as standing for yet more austerity misery.

Left gaining in polls

In this situation, the left parties are picking up support in polls. Between them, Syriza and the KKE are getting up to 30%, according to most polls over the last couple of months. In one survey, 60% who vote for the KKE want a “coalition with Syriza”. In recent months, joint activities have taken place between the two parties, mainly due to the pressure of the objective needs of the workers’ movement and despite the unwillingness of the KKE leadership.

In the political situation that will open up, the parties of the left will have a unique and historic opportunity to grow and to play a decisive role. But to bring about the kind of fundamental changes that are required to provide real and lasting solutions to the deep problems faced by the Greek workers and the whole of society, requires the left adopting a socialist programme and to fight decisively for system change. Up until now, the main parties of the Greek Left, like KKE and Synaspismos, refused to move in this direction. The need to build and develop the mass movements, and to build new forces of the left, with radical, socialist policies, is more starkly posed than ever.

Xekinima supporters argue for a ‘united left’ to contest the elections, to fight for a majority left government. The left must reject the trap of going into any ‘coalition’ with pro-capitalist parties, which would mean aiding the anti-working class cuts agenda. This requires the left adopting a bold socialist programme, including calling for no cuts, non-payment of the debt, huge investment in jobs, housing, health and welfare, and for the major planks of the economy to be taken into democratic public ownership and management.

Although more on the left now call for ‘nationalisations’, there is still a paucity of socialist perspectives and policies coming from the larger left parties. The Syriza leadership calls for a “freezing of the debt” rather than non payment of the monstrous burden that has been imposed on the Greek people. The KKE only offers abstract slogans, calling for a ‘people’s government’ and it does not advocate any practical alternative.

Exit the euro-zone?

The lack of a viable socialist perspective from the main left parties partly explains why more commentators and sections of the left are now calling for Greece to exit the euro-zone as a way to ‘solve’ the crisis. It is true that leaving the euro-zone would probably lead to the fast devaluation of a Greek national currency and allow for cheap exports from Greece. Those supporting this move claim that Greece would then be able to export its way out of recession and pay off its national debt. But a devalued currency will also mean more expensive imports and a hike in inflation. What is this but austerity for the Greek people by another name? And where would Greece export to? The EU is facing a ‘double dip’ recession and even Germany’s economy is slowing down. China and the other ‘BRICs’ are also heading towards slowed growth, even a ‘hard landing’ in some cases. Greece leaving the euro would also likely trigger a flight of capital from the country and a ‘strike’ of foreign investment into Greece.

At the moment, the majority of Greeks do not want to leave the euro, fearing it means even worse economic crisis and a shredding of their living standards. But as the crisis deepens and prolongs and as cuts continue, the demand to leave may grow amongst working people and the middle classes to even become a majority.

Staying in the euro-zone or leaving it is not a principled issue for socialists. Remaining with the euro has meant Greek workers facing the draconian dictates of the Troika, which has ruined so many livelihoods and lives. But, as explained above, Xekinima points out that exiting the euro, while staying within the framework of capitalism, is no ‘solution’ for working people. Xekinima calls for a socialist, internationalist solution, which would see the major parts of the Greek economy taken into democratic workers’ control and management. This would be linked to solidarity with the struggles of European workers fighting their own austerity cuts, as part of a common fight to transform society – for a socialist federation of Europe.

Fascists exploit mood of despondency

As well as a new surge in class struggles, Xekinima members also expect other issues to increasingly come to the fore in 2012, such as environmental questions, which are always important in Greece. Xekinima supporters are involved in local campaigns against the building of huge polluting and wasteful refuse incinerators. A mass non-payment campaign against a new unjust household tax has already taken root in many areas.

the fascists ‘Golden Dawn’

But fascist groups, like the ‘Golden Dawn’, are again trying to exploit the mood of despondency and alienation amongst sections of the most downtrodden in society. They have stepped up attacks on immigrants and launched a so-called “Youth should fight for a future” campaign in poorer areas of Athens. Some of the left, particularly the two main parties, Synaspismos and the KKE, decided to “ignore” the neo-fascists. But this only gave the far right confidence to build unhindered from serious opposition. The Golden Dawn even managed to recruit bus drivers in Athens. However, Xekinima supporters and other workers, led by a Xekinima comrade who is a member of the executive committee of the bus driver’s union, campaigned against the far right poison. The fascists were successfully exposed and their influence seriously weekend in the course of the past few months.

Public sector strike in Cyprus

The island of Cyprus was also represented at the Athens meeting. Comrades from the New Internationalist Left (CWI Cyprus) reported on the economic crisis hitting Greek Cyprus and cuts being carried out by the ‘communist’ AKEL government. This led to a recent three hour public sector workers’ strike – the first such industrial action for decades. Angry workers at the national parliament also struck, leaving MPs without lighting, working microphones or secretaries to take minutes (the MPs had to therefore record their own minutes). Humiliated MPs had to break down a door to enter the parliament hall, as the workers who normally open and close the building were also on strike! A New Internationalist Left leaflet, outlining how to develop the industrial action, was eagerly grabbed by Cypriot workers during their rally outside the parliament building.

Greek workers face more of the same disastrous austerity measures in 2012, without respite. The troika demands that more cuts are agreed before further loan instalments are given to Greece. These cuts will again reduce the living standards of the working class, hitting the poorest and most vulnerable hardest. Women are worst effected. One in five women is unemployed. On average, female workers get 20% less in salaries than men. Domestic violence is rising, which experts link to a sharp surge in drug and alcohol abuse that is a result of joblessness and a collapse in living standards.

At the same time as new cuts rain down on the heads of the working class and poor, the government takes a timid approach to the tax evasion of the elite in society. Yet workers earning just a paltry 5,000 euro a year are now eligible to pay income tax.

The government’s plans for privatisations will be stepped up, including the sell off of Athens International Airport.

All this marks a clear intent by the bosses’ and big bankers’ government to carry out yet more assaults on public sector jobs, pay and conditions and against the working class and poor, as a whole.

The apparent ‘quiet’ in Greek society is an illusion. The new government of Greek Prime Minister Lucas Papademos is not enjoying a prolonged ‘honeymoon’. The mood beneath the surface is “boiling” and political polarisation increasing. The conditions for more class conflicts are maturing.

2012 promises to be another tumultuous year in Greece.

National meeting of Xekinima

The support and influence of Xekinima has grown significantly in 2011, attracting scores of worker-militants and youth. This growth and Xekinima’s excellent December national meeting, shows the CWI in Greece in well placed for the big class battles looming.

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January 2012