Greece: “This destruction of workers’ lives serves the bankers”

“We must all keep going…we have no other way to survive than to fight-back”

On Saturday 13 September, ControCorrente (CWI Italy) held a successful public meeting in Genoa, entitled, ‘From struggle to politics: Trade unions and movements are not enough – We need a new political representation of workers, young people, those who struggle!’

Apostolis, a bus driver in Athens, Greece, who is an elected representative of his transport union and a member of Xekinima (CWI Greece), was invited to address the Genoa meeting on the situation facing working people in Greece and prospects for the Left. Apostolis Kasimeris’s speech is set out below.

Other speakers at the Genoa meeting included, Bruno Manganaro (FIOM, metal workers’ union), Maurizio Rimassa (USB – Trade Union of the Base), Valerya Parkhomenko (ControCorrente, Bologna) and Marco Veruggio (ControCorrente national spokesperson).

I would like to express solidarity greetings from Greek workers and, in particular, the bus drivers of Athens.

Since 2010, the Greek government and the Troika (which is the IMF, the EU and the ECB) have launched a vicious attack against the workers, the unemplyoed and the poor in Greece.

The following facts and figures indicate the scale of the social catastrophe that Greek workers and society are facing.

Unemployment has officially reached 27%. In reality, it is even higher. Youth unemployment is officially at 60% and there is mass emigration of youth.

Out of the 1,303,000 officially unemployed (in reality, over 1.5 million) only 85,000 receive unemployment benefit, which is usually a paltry 360 € a month.

State education, pension provisions and public health have faced vicious cuts. For example, 50% of hospital beds have been lost. The government is handing the whole of the public health service into the hands of a private company, which is intended to be based on profit. This new company will have shares, freely sold and bought on the market. This means that the health service will be in the hands of the private hospitals and the pharmaceutical companies. A handful of big capitalist corporations will decide on the health of 11 million Greek people, with profit being their only criterion.

Democratic rights are under assault and the minimum wage has been cut, essentially to 400 euros a month. Trade union rights are under attack. Elected union officials are being sacked, although this is still, formally, illegal.

Permanent employment is now a thing of the past. All new jobs go to “hired” workers from private agencies. There is no “permanent” employment, even in the public sector, where about 300,000 workers (close to 1/3 of the total) were sacked in recent years due to the dictats of the Troika.

This destruction of the lives of workers, the unemployed, rural workers and small farmers, pensioners and youth serves only one purpose: to save the bankers and to pay back the national debt to the lenders.

Instead of falling, the debt sky-rocketed. When the Troika arrived in Athens in late 2009/early 2010, the national debt stood at 129% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) according to the Troika. After four years of endless attacks, the debt stands at 174% of the GDP.

Six waves of attacks

I would like to give you a more detailed picture about public transport, which is my field. Since 2010 we have had six ’waves’ of attacks against the public transport companies and its employees. The state subsidy to the public transport companies has, in these years, been reduced by 70%.

Athens public transport union representative, Apostolis Kasimeris

As a consequence our salaries were reduced by 55%-60%. Most of us cannot cope anymore with the basic monthly expenses. I have workmates who unable to pay their mortgages and are in danger of facing foreclosures.

In 2009, we had 1,700 buses in service in Athens and now we only have 1,170.

Dozens of bus routes were ended and the bus schedules are less frequent. On Saturdays, only half of the buses are in service and on Sundays only one third. Athens is a large city, some 600km2 in size, so you can understand that the fall in buses services and weekend schedules means that public transport in Athens is collapsing.

Because of the reduction of the state subvention, the bus company does not have the funds needed to order spare parts for buses. Many of the buses are out of order because of the lack of spare parts. Some are being put in service despite malfunctioning.

A standard public transport fare in Athens in 2008 was 0.80€ and now it has risen to 1.20€, with the length of time each for each journey allowed reduced. Public transport fares have risen by about 30%, since 2010, leading, of course, to a big reduction in the number of people who use public transport.

In addition, since 2010, around 2,000 bus drivers have been forced either into early retirement or have been transferred to other posts in public services.

Recently the government announced that lay-offs will take place in public transport, next year. The government and Troika are trying to get rid of as many of the older public transport employees, as possible, to make public transport attractive to big private companies.

There are about twelve unions in the Athens public transport sector. My union is the largest, representing around 4,000 workers, mainly bus drivers. However the leaderships of the majority of these unions are controlled by PASOK, the social democratic party, along with right wing New Democracy, both of which are the governing parties. Every time there is need for industrial action, transport workers have to fight both the government and their union leaderships. To call for industrial action, the union leaderships need to come under immense pressure and, even then, they often deny workers their basic union rights, such as the right to a general assembly to collectively decide and plan struggles. In addition, they stop strikes as soon as they can, using all kinds of pretexts and undemocratic procedures. They always try to make workers feel that industrial action is meaningless and that the workers cannot make the government back down.

This is not just the case in the public transport unions. It is also the case in nearly all the major Greek trade unions. And it is through these corrupt and treacherous union leaderships that the government and the Troika were able to defeat, so far, the Greek workers’ movement.

Hard battles

We fought some very hard battles. On a number of occasions, we managed to win a majority in general assemblies and to put in motion important industrial action, like a six day strike, in January 2013, when as well as striking we occupied all public transport garages. The union leadership used many tricks and maneuvers to break the strike, while, at the same time, the government threatened to implement "martial law". We lost that battle. This shows clearly that to hold strikes that have a real chance of winning, we need to further build our forces and to win more positions in the unions.

There is turmoil in the rank and file of some unions and attempts to change the situation. But this has not yet been reflected in the general situation in unions. The two main parties of the Left in Greece, SYRIZA (Coalition of the Radical Left), and the KKE (Greek Communist Party) are not being very helpful in our struggles.

SYRIZA is always declaring solidarity when we are taking strike action. However declaring solidarity is not enough.

The two big Left parties are far behind the needs of Greek society, in terms of workers’ demands, organizing struggles and proposals. We call for the Left to collaborate and for united action but, at the same time, we understand that we have to rebuild the Left on new foundations.

SYRIZA will, most probably, be the main force to constitute a Left coalition government after Greece’s next general elections. However SYRIZA does not put forward the necessary radical Left programme that is demanded by the situation. SYRIZA has not learned the lessons from Italy, about the wrong course followed by Rifondazione Communista and the destruction of the Italian Left, and is about to make similar mistakes.

‘Negotiate’ or bold socialist policies?

Instead of clearly and boldly refusing to pay the debt to the bankers and the Troika, instead of nationalising the banks and the key industries in Greece, under the democratic control of society (workers’ control and management) so as to plan the economy and put it on a course of real growth, the SYRIZA leaders claim that they will “negotiate” with the Troika and force it to go back on its demands and austerity policies. We say that this is impossible. The SYRIZA leadership has illusions if they think that just ‘negotiations’ will force the Troika to accept the end of the austerity.

However, support for SYRIZA in the coming elections is necessary to get rid of the present government of thieves, crooks, and corrupt officials, who act in the interests of the bankers. A SYRIZA led government will enable the anti-austerity and opposition movements, and the entire working class, to have a breathing space and to go on the offensive. They will demand that at least a portion of what they have lost over the past four and half years is restored to them.

A Left coalition government will give us time to organize our struggles more effectively to build new forces of the Left, in collaboration with the left rank and file of SYRIZA. This can push SYRIZA to the left and create an alternative Left political formation, determined to go all the way in our struggle against the ruling class and for a truly socialist society, which is the only way working people can lead respectable, human lives.

For common industrial struggles

This struggle is not just a national struggle. International workers’ solidarity is extremely important for the morale of those sectors in which Greek workers are in struggle. Workers in Europe, and around the world, have similar problems and are resisting. We must try to learn from each-others’ struggles and experiences. The governments and the bosses do exactly that. And we must go one step further. At some point, we must start organizing common industrial actions and struggles. For example, public transport strikes against privatisation, lay-offs and wage cuts across the whole of southern European.

The governments and the bosses carry out the same policies, in all countries. We, the workers, must find a way to respond to these policies uniformly, in all the countries where they are implemented.

I know we have some way to go before we are able to organize such struggles. But this must be our goal. If we organize our forces to that extent, they will not be able to defeat us again.

I would like to send to you solidarity greetings from me and my work colleagues. We are following your struggles closely. We must all be patient, have courage and keep going. A temporary defeat should not stop us – all of us, whichever country we live in – from organizing more industrial action. We have no other way to survive than to fight-back. We need to organise long term struggles and industrial action.

Fight to bring down the parties that rule us in the service of the interests of big capital and profit! Fight for a socialist society, a socialist southern Europe and a socialist federation of Europe, in the service of the working masses of the continent, on a free, democratic and equal basis.

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September 2014