"Triple-oppressed workers – immigrants, women and low-paid – show way forward"
The cleaning workers at the public Athens bus company, finished a 15-day strike over pay and working conditions on Friday 20 May. The workers, working six hours shifts during the night, were not paid for months by the subcontractor they were officially working for. Combined with very difficult working conditions, this lead to a unique strike by a group of workers who were not unionised. Thanks to the intervention of members of the bus drivers’ union and political activists from Xekinima (CWI Greece) the workers are now in the process of setting up their own union.
The strike ended (Friday 20/5) in what seemed to be a victory for the workers. The contractor, Link Up, was forced to sign an official document that enabled the bus company (OSY) to pay the workers directly. This was greeted as a victory for the workers who, after that, put an end to their strike. The following interview with Apostolis Kasimeris, a member of Xekinima and of the Executive Board of the bus drivers’ union, was taken made on Sunday 22 May, when the mood was one of victory. Since then however a new situation has developed.
OSY, the public bus company, never paid the cleaning workers, despite the agreement signed by Link Up. The excuse the management used was the fact that Link Up owes loans to the banks and thus the monthly payments by OSY to Link Up are only “pledged” as a “guarantee”. So, they claim, there is a deadlock and there is nothing they can do about it.
This is a lie. To start with, to claim that the government can do nothing, when faced with a situation in which a gangster-contractor is grabbing public money to clean the public buses but does not pay the workforce, thus breaking a central condition of the contract, is a scandal, in itself. The truth is that the OSY management can use the law, if they want, to break the contract with Link Up (as the latter is violating the contract) and pay the cleaners directly. This is entirely within the law (Law 3863/2010).
The issue is therefore directly political: the OSY management can kick out the contractor and directly pay the cleaners! It can, according to the same law (3863/2010), not just pay the cleaners what the contractor owes them, but can employ them directly!
If the OSY management does not go ahead with this, it is only because they do not want to have the precedent of a victorious workers’ struggle during this government!
This position taken by the new Executive Boards of Public Companies, appointed by SYRIZA, the ruling party, is an absolute disgrace. It is an indication of the speed with which this government, which claims to be on the left, is degenerating.
Today, Sunday 29 May, the bus cleaners are on their third day of strike, in the third round of this courageous and determined struggle. Both the OSY management and the contractor tried to approach the cleaners, with promises and threats, to convince them not to come out again. In vain. The workers have had enough. Their initial disappointment has now turned to anger. Their moto is: We had enough of promises. No more. We have nothing to lose.
Cleaners at five out of the seven main bus depots in Athens are today out on strike and it may spread further.
The following interview with comrade Apostolis Kasimeris does not deal with these recent developments, however it provides the background to the strike, which initially seemed to have been victorious, as explained above.
Solidarity letters from trade unionists and activists internationally can be very useful for the cleaners’ struggle. In view of the fact that the cleaners do not have an email address, we request from comrades and readers to send messages to Xekinina, which will then be delivered to the workers and be publicised. The email address is: email@example.com
Xekinima (CWI Greece) Reporters
Q: Apostolis, can you explain to us how the strike was started?
Apostolis: For months we have reached out to the cleaning workers to try and find out how they were treated by their boss. But it was very difficult to get into real conversations with them. The manager had created a terror regime on the workplace, threatening to sack anyone daring to complain about unpaid wages or working conditions. It meant that the workers were very afraid to talk to us about their problems when we contacted them. I could see from their body language that something was wrong, they looked very nervous when talking to me.
The first strike started on 26th of January. I received a phone call from one of the cleaners and I immediately drove there. When I arrived, all the workers were standing outside of the garage. Their supervisor had just told all of them to leave and that they would lose their job, because they had dared to ask to be paid the wages they were owed. At that time, they had not received a wage for five months. In reality, he would not really sack the workers but tried to terrorize them, to frighten them. I suggested the workers to go on strike at that moment, which they did. On the third day of the industrial action the manager tried, for the first time, to break the strike. He organized workers from other garages to come to this garage to clean the busses. This did not succeed because a strong picket of the cleaners and their sympathisers blocked the entry to the garage.
The next day the police came to try and break up the picket. They threatened to arrest me but they did not succeed because of the strength of the picket and because we were not doing anything illegal. Actually some of the police, when they realized what was at issue, took the side of the cleaning workers.
Q: Is it a common for workers in the private sector not to get paid?
Apostolis: Yes, it is very common for workers not to get paid, definitely for migrant workers and workers working for subcontractors. Amongst the bus cleaners, half of them were migrant workers and most of the workers had no idea about their rights. The boss made them to believe that the migrant workers had to hand over their work permit to him. They had been moving from one bad-paying contract job to another and had never had any experience with a union.
The strike that started in this one garage involved 15 workers, by the time of the strike, now in May, about 55 workers were involved. In January, when the 15 workers struck for 10 days, they received each a sum of about 3,000 euro for the months they had not been paid or been paid to little. It was this victory that inspired workers in three other garages (out of four, in total) to go on strike in May.
Q: What have the Syriza government and the trade unions done about this practice in the private sector where employers do not pay their workers on time or do not pay them at all?
Apostolis: The government is not really doing anything about this situation. In the hospitals they passed a law that allows the hospitals to directly employ cleaning staff. But, in reality, this has not changed much in their work conditions, because the hospital managers are not treating them any better than the subcontractors did.
The union leaderships are controlled by the political parties. The leaders get their “orders” from their political parties, PASOK, New Democracy and Syriza. These directives are always with the aim to contain action by the workers, to avoid confrontations, strikes etc.
The cleaners’ strike has been one of the toughest in the cleaning sector, lasting for two weeks, with pickets from 7 in the evening till 3 in the morning in order to guard the garages and making sure the busses were not cleaned by others. For two weeks the busses were not cleaned and this meant they vehicles began to look dirty and smelled. The boss did not try new attempts to break the strike but the bus company did. They asked non-cleaning staff in the garages to clean the busses, which did not happen.
In the agreement that the cleaners’ struggle imposed on Link Up we forced a clause in which the bus company withholds money from the subcontractor to ensure agreed amounts are paid to the cleaners.
The workers have no confidence anymore in the management of the subcontractor and are asking the minister of interior affairs that in the future they are employed directly by the bus company. For years, the cleaners were receiving only 450 euro instead of the 680 euro they should have received. The managers demanded the workers sign a receipt that declared they had received 680 euro. But since the capital controls were put in place in the summer of 2015, the cleaners’ salaries were transferred to their bank accounts and we can prove they did not receive the correct amount. So the workers will receive wages for the period since the summer of 2015, the difference between 450 and 680, will receive all the back-pay and bonuses, for Christmas and holidays, which they should have received.
The significance of this strike victory is really big because many of these workers were triply-oppressed as immigrants, women and low-paid workers. What they have gone through can be compared to slaves in a slave-ship breaking their chains, coming on deck and noticing how bright the sun is shining.
These workers’ struggle has given an example to other workers. They have also shamed the trade union leaders that are in a position to lead workers in struggle but who have not done anything.
But everything is under potential threat. Greece has still one of the best protection laws for trade unionists. We get time off work to do our trade union job and are protected by law.
Q: What was the role of Xekinima in this strike?
The members of Xekinima were present everyday at the picket, at every garage, to assure enough people were preseny, to support the morale of the strikers and to help organize. We assisted them in the process to set up their own union and told them about their rights. No one else had done this in the past, including the KKE (Greek Communist Party). The KKE has serious forces amongst the bus drivers. They are present in every garage but have ignored the whole situation. When the strike began, the KKE asked the cleaners to join the union controlled by the KKE. When the workers decided not to do this, the KKE did not bother about the strike anymore. This is a very narrow, sectarian method that puts the interest of their party above the interest of the working class.
The working class in Greece, including bus workers, have gone through several defeats in the recent past. So this victory is important because it was won after workers at their workplace started to organize on a rank and file level and to fight for their rights. It should encourage other workers to take to the road of struggle, drawing the lessons from the cleaning workers.
Thank you Apostolis and congratulations with the inspirational struggle and victory.