Cyprus: Partial general strike paralyses public sector

December’s industrial action against austerity just the beginning of the fight-back!

On Tuesday 13 December 2011, a 3 hour strike paralysed the public and semi-public sector in Cyprus, from 9am to 12pm. It was the first time for many years that all the unions in the public and semi public sector – state offices, schools, hospitals, telecommunications, electricity, etc – went out on strike. According to PEO, the AKEL (‘Progressive Party of Working People’ – the communist party in Cyprus) controlled trade union confederation, 10,000 workers demonstrated in all cities.

According to the Phileleftheros newspaper, 7,000 workers demonstrated in Nicosia, in front of the parliament building. The slogans they chanted included “No more burden on the workers!”, “This is a parliament of wealth and big capital” and “Tax evasion equals a crime” etc.

Many of the slogans referred to members of the parliament, but the rage of the people was not only towards the MPs of the governing party, AKEL, that announced cuts, but also and mainly towards MPs from the opposition parties. Anger was directed against Averof Neofitou, the Vice President of the traditional right wing party, DISI, and against Nikolas Papadopoulos from the ‘centre right’ party, DIKO. Both argued for many years that the government has to carry out more wage cuts and carry out privatisations in the semi-public sector.

The demonstrators booed Averof Neofitou and the president of EVROKO, a right wing split from DISI, as they entered and left parliament. Members of SEK, the trade union confederation controlled by Averof Neofitou’s party, the DISI, called him a “liar” and a “traitor”, and said that they will not vote for him again.

A ‘left wing’ government putting forward neo-liberal measures

The austerity measures put forward were agreed by all the main parties during a meeting with the President of the Republic, at the beginning of December, last year. The austerity package includes freezing the salaries and the Scala Mobile (an automatic readjustment of wages in line with inflation) for two years, cuts in social welfare benefit (child benefit and student benefit), a rise of VAT from 15% to 17%, an extra cut to the salaries of private sector workers who receive more than 2,500 euro a month, the rise of the pension age from 63 to 64 years, and a special charge on profits of companies of O.O5%.

Two more packages of austerity measures were already voted on between August and December 2011. This saw the wages of public sector workers cut by 6.75% while the salaries of the newly hired will be 10% less. At the same time, the pensions of the public sector employees will be cut.

At the same time that workers wages and pensions are under attack, companies have been charged with a 350 euro contribution regardless of the size of the company, be it large or small. These are measures that AKEL government, which calls itself “communist”, is implementing!

Cuts to bail out the banks

All these attacks are taking place under the threat of action by the IMF and EU institutions. All the parties say that if measures are not taken now, Cyprus will find even worse measures imposed on it by the IMF, ECB and EU and new cuts will be carried out. But they do not reveal how vulnerable the Cypriot economy is and that the reason it may come under IMF, ECB and EU scrutiny is because of the crisis of the banking sector.

The banking sector in Cyprus represents three times the GDP of the whole Cypriot economy. The 50% ‘haircut’ of Greek bonds already sees the Cypriot banks stand to loose 3.6 billion euro.

The Cypriot banks own 24 billion euro of ‘bad loans’ to Greek companies and households and if Greece defaults it is most likely that the Cypriot banks will not get their money back. This amount equals to 130% of GDP!

So even though Cyprus has until now had quite good economic outlook indicators (for 2011 it is calculated the deficit will be 6.5% of the GDP and the debt will be around 65.5% of GDP) if the government is called to save the banks it will be a disaster!

The 3 hour strike was not enough!

The 3 hour strike on 13 December 2011 was called a “warning strike” by the trade union leaders. They declared that they are protesting against the fact that there was no proper negotiation with the unions before the government put forward cuts. The union leaders complained that the measures will not equally hit workers and the wealthy, and so workers are being made to pay much more for the crisis.

But from the strikers’ chanting, it was obvious that they are beyond just demanding negotiations. The large demonstration turnout and the strike showed that workers are willing to fight back.

The government’s cuts measures were to be voted upon on 14th December. On that day, there were rumours that there will be more measures introduced that were not included in the package. These measures included new taxation and another part-salary cut of 20%.

Under the pressure of the workers in the parliament, the PASYDY, the public sector trade union, called for another 3 hour strike on 14 December and a 12 hour strike on 15 December. Around 1,000 people gathered unprompted / spontaneously outside the parliament, even though PASYDY did not call for a rally.

The day of action saw secretaries and all other workers in the parliament on strike. This meant that there were no stenographers or any working lights or microphones. The MPs had to force open the parliament doors to enter the building because the security workers were also on strike! Yet parliament still voted for all the austerity measures!

So, for the next two years, there will be no rise in the salaries and the Scala Mobile of the public sector, there will be a rise in VAT from 15-17% and welfare benefits will be cut.

These measures are just the beginning – the struggle goes on!

The same day that the measures were voted in, Averof Neofitou, the vice president of DISI, said the measures are not enough and more cuts are needed.

On 15 December, the OEB, the federation of employers, announced that there will be cuts in the private sector. During January and February, negotiations for new collective agreements take place. In all private sectors, there is workers’ unrest.

Since 13 December, things have changed in South Cyprus. Even though the leaderships of the unions revealed their timid positions quickly, workers are not willing to give up.

In the end of December and beginning of January, there were strikes, some of which were victorious. Bus drivers in Nicosia and Limassol, in the semi-public bus companies, were on strike for 4 days, struggling to get all their December wages, and to get all the social benefits they are entitled to. Their strike was successful and they got everything they demanded.

Workers at airport security services are refusing to work overtime because the austerity package means that they will be paid less if they do so.

Temporary workers in the public sector saw their salaries fall by 10% because they were regarded as ‘new’ employees, even though they have usually worked in the same posts for 5 or 10 years. These workers are discussing taking industrial action.

Clearly the workers’ movement in southern Cyprus has entered a new era. There were some small strikes in the previous years but it seems that after 13 December workers have a new determination to struggle.

Unity, struggle and internationalism to stop the attacks!

With the slogan, “Unity, struggle and internationalism to stop the attacks of capitalism!”, the New Internationalist Left (NEDA – the Cypriot section of the CWI), participated in the strike on 13 December and were active on the demonstration on 14 December, distributing literature which pointed out that debts and the deficits were not created by workers but by the impunity of the bosses. We have to reveal the role of the local and international capital and their representatives in causing the crisis and now in trying to make the working class pay for it!

The crisis is not the fault of foreign workers, as the far right propagates, or the so-called “lazy Greeks” or the “massive” salaries of the public sector. Massive protests and strikes are the way workers can resist the steamroller of the cuts and the austerity measures that are coming!

We need to strengthen the unity between the public and private sector. We need to strengthen workers’ links across the divided island of Cyprus. The working people of Cyprus, on both sides of the national divide, need genuine political representation – mass parties of the working class that fights against cuts, poverty and the bosses’ parties and which puts forward bold socialist policies.

New Internationalist Left (CWI Cyprus) says:

  • Not one euro to be paid to the big banks and big capital
  • Tax big capital and the large property of the church! End the tax evasion of the rich!
  • State ownership of the banks, and the financial sector and the insurance companies!
  • Put under public ownership those sectors in crisis, like tourism, and all the big companies and utilities
  • For workers’ democratic control and management of the economy
  • No to the Europe of the bosses and markets! For a Europe for the needs of the workers – not the multinationals – for a Socialist Confederation of Europe

In all corners of the planet, the ‘markets’, namely the big banks and the financial speculators, impose cuts in the public sector, carry out privatisations and attack workers’ rights and conditions, resulting in mass unemployment, semi-employment, poverty and hunger. Our power is united action. Our struggle has to have united and internationalist. We need workers’ pan-European coordination and struggle!

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