Greece: Bus workers’ strike called off after victory for pro-government union factions

Sectarian tactics of Communist Party leadership prevents united Left success

Last week, workers’ at ETHEL – OASA (Athens’ ‘blue buses’) decided to hold repeated 24-hour strikes until Tuesday 31 January, and then to convene a new general meeting to decide on the further action. This was in response to pay cuts and as the New Democracy-led government carried out repression of striking Metro workers, imposing martial law to force Metro workers back to the workplace or to face jail. Riot police moved against Metro workers, last Friday, violently taking over Athens’ main Metro depot and strikes in solidarity with Metro workers were ruled “illegal”.

The bus workers’ union, with around 5000 members, the largest in public transport, last week decided on repeated 24-hour strikes, the closure of bus depots, for workers to occupy the depots, the formation of picket lines at each depot and for a march of workers and a solidarity rally with Metro workers.

In response, the government threatened to ‘requisition’ the bus service and if bus workers refused to work they were threatened with arrest and prosecution. The government claimed it can take this action under 2007 legislation which states that during ‘severe national crisis’ the State can make such ‘orders’. But many legal experts and others say these powers are illegal and unconstitutional.

Despite the majority of bus workers being prepared to resist these government threats and to continue industrial action, a general meeting on Tuesday 29 January ended with a vote to end strike action – a victory for the pro-government (New Democracy and PASOK) union factions.

Below we carry an edited translation of an article by Eleni Mitsou, from the Xekinima (CWI Greece) website, which explains how the right was able to win at the bus workers’ meeting and what activists need to do next.

A general meeting (Assembly) of workers at ETHEL – OASA (“blue buses” in Athens), held on Tuesday 29 January, ended with a victory for the pro-government (New Democracy and PASOK) union factions.

This development could have been avoided if the militant factions had agreed a joint proposal, as those workers who wanted to continue strike action were greater in number.

758 employees voted in favour of the proposal of the government union factions which essentially meant to stop the strikes but 1014 voted to continue strikes. However the left was split on the issue, the vote was divided, thus allowing the right (PASOK and ND union factions) to win.

Five day strike

During the 5-day bus strike, participation on picket lines was the largest seen the industry since 1992. Many workers decided to fight to the end because they felt they could not go on with wage reduction that means they are unable to feed their families. It was also a question of dignity. How could they face their children if they did not resist? “What will I tell my children?” said one of the drivers who took the floor during Tuesday’s meeting.

Many of the bus workers were aware that their struggle was for the whole community. Their fight could keep alive the spark that was ignited by the strike of Metro workers, spreading to other sectors, leading to a resurgence of the movement, in general.

“When I walk alone at night in the wilderness I’m afraid. If we get together, we give courage to each other,” a bus worker explained, speaking at the assembly and calling for the strike to continue despite the government ruling it and all other transport strikes as “illegal”.

The most powerful weapon against the government’s attacks is mass action by workers. “This is the main thing” explained Apostolis Kasimeris, a Xekinima member and a member of the executive committee of the bus workers’ Union. “They cannot send 6,000 workers to prison. They cannot fire us all. And we are not alone. The Metro workers may resume protests, the dock workers are out, the sailors are planning strike action, and farmers are already taking to the streets …”

Contrary to the call for militant action against government threats, the pro-PASOK trade union leader, N. Petropoulos, said: " The union cannot take responsibility if the government decides to order you to go to work …I do not take responsibility … It is a personal matter of everyone . "

Role of the mass media

The mass media – television, daily newspapers and the “official” online news agencies – recycled false news continually, seeking to break the morale of the bus strikers.

For example, the media constantly announced the suspension of strikes by different sectors of transport workers. They announced an end of a tram workers’ strike but did not report that the decision to end the strike was taken by a majority of the union leadership against the will of the workers, who built spontaneous strike committees and kept one of the three depots completely closed, while stopping at least half of the trolleys in the other two depots departing. .

The climax of the pro-bosses’ media campaign was to claim that the bus strike was over, last Tuesday, a full day before the general meeting on 29 January where the future of the strike was to be decided.

The 29 January bus workers’ general meeting

The bus workers’ general meeting on 29 January was the largest since 1992, when bus workers fought an historic and heroic battle against privatisation. The right wing union factions proposed a 24-hour strike on Thursday 31 January followed by another general meeting on 14 February – a full 15 days later, when the mood to struggle could have dissipated!

They argued: “If the strike continues, the government will proceed with taking emergency measures against us then we cannot hold any more strikes”.

So, in essence, they proposed ending strikes to prevent the possibility of being unable to hold strikes!

Communist Party proposals

The KKE (Greek Communist Party) union faction (DAS) proposed for buses to run again on Wednesday, 30 January, (i.e. to end the strike, which was on its 5th day) in order “to prevent the government proceeding to take action” and for bus drivers to "communicate" with wider society. The KKE trade unionists argued bus workers should hold a 48-hour strike on Thursday 31 January and Friday 1 February, and hold a new general meeting on the second day of strike action. They also put forward a series of other demands and called for a 24-hour general strike by the KKE-linked GSEE union federation, covering the entire transport industry, if the government took action against the bus workers.

But the proposal for bus workers to return to work on Wednesday, breaking the 24-hour repeated strikes, did not actually offer any protection from the government taking action. While the call to the GSEE to take wider action was not, in itself, wrong, as it posed the GSEE’s responsibilities, it did not offer practical protection for workers from sackings, given the role of the GSEE leadership.

Anexartiti Paremvasi

‘Anexartiti Paremvasi (‘Independent Intervention’), the union faction in which Xekinima (CWI Greece) plays a leading role, called for the continuation of repeated 24-hour strikes and for a new general meeting this coming Friday. They argued that the only real protection from sackings or arrest is to build decisive mass workers’ action.

“Why have we built this union? It is for situations like the present one. Otherwise we become just a cultural association. Unions mean mass strength. So we have to use this mass strength to fight”, a spokesman for the Anexartiti Paremvasi told Tuesday’s bus workers’ assembly.

The same proposal was made by EAS (linked to ANTARSYA (anti-capitalist left)) and some other smaller union factions.

Communist faction refuses to co-operate with rest of the Left

The day before the general meeting, the Anexartiti Paremvasi (AP) tried to persuade the KKE (communist party) faction (DAS) to agree to a common left position to present to the bus workers’ assembly, and even offered a compromise proposal around which to unite the left.

However, the DAS did not accept the proposal and decided to press ahead and put its own flawed position to the meeting, justifying its position on the basis that the CP is a mass party, whereas AP and EAS represent much smaller forces.

This is why the right wing (the joint proposal from the PASOK and ND union factions) got 758 votes, the DAS got 586 and the proposal to continue the 24-hour repeated strikes got 428 votes.

The initial vote was by a show of hands but the outcome could not be decided because the meeting was so big, with many workers outside the meeting hall. So it was decided to hold the vote by ballot.

The show of hands had made clear that to defeat the right wing the whole of the left vote was required. On this basis, the AP and EAS stated that they would withdraw their proposal and would vote for the CP proposal (which at least promised more strike action that could be built on). But the union right wing bureaucracy claimed that this was against the union statutes and refused to accept the AP/EAS proposal.

Many workers were disgusted. They could see the strike breaking role of the majority of the leadership of the union. Workers could see that the left remained divided despite the critical importance of this battle. The right wing was delaying things, as much as possible, to wear down the workers. The final number of workers who took part in the voting was much smaller than those taking part in the proceedings.

So, despite the fact that a clear majority of bus workers voted for more strike action, the votes were split and the right won.

Important lessons

Many bus workers will draw important lessons from this outcome. They see how unscrupulous and openly treacherous the pro-governmental union factions are. Lessons need to be drawn from the conclusion of the bus workers’ meeting. The union must pass into the democratic control of the rank and file and away from the bureaucratic grip of the pro-government union factions.

Over the past few days, the Athens bus workers acted as a catalyst to a new wave of struggles, particularly after the “militarisation” of the Metro workers. They had the potential to unite around them the shipyards, the maritime workers, electricity, health and education workers, who are planning new strike actions, and last but not least the farmers who are also taking action. But, once again, the potential to widen this action was defeated “from the inside”. This was primarily due to the treacherous role of the pro-government unions but also because of the inability of the Left to fight in a united manner against the Right. The responsibility for this lies squarely with the sectarian splitting tactics of the KKE leadership, which have caused immeasurable damage to the struggles of the Greek working class in recent years.

But the war is not over! A battle is lost but there we will more rounds to go! If workers are prepared properly, if the correct conclusions are drawn, then we, the working class, will be the ones who will be victorious at the end of this road!

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January 2013