Greece: Athens bus cleaners win major victory

Struggle achieves public contracts for 100s cleaning workers

Eleni Mitsou (Xekinima – CWI Greece) and Apostolis Cassimere’s (Board Member of OASA – Athens Bus Workers’ Union) spoke to Tanja Niemyer and Katia Hanke about the development and final victory of the cleaners’ struggle in Athens. Both Eleni and Apostolis had been fighting alongside the public bus company (OSY) cleaners in Athens since January 2016, when the struggle against the mafia practices of the cleaning contractor started. In June, they forced a first victory against the contractor. A report on the first five months of their struggle can be found here:

A few days before the interview, the cleaners’ struggle scored another, very important victory, as the Ministry of Transport satisfied the central demand of the cleaners to kick out the contractors and engage in direct contracts with the cleaners themselves. This was introduced as a bill and voted upon on Wednesday August 4. The parties, PASOK, New Democracy, To Potami and Golden Dawn voted against. The KKE (communist party of Greece) and the Center Party abstained on the vote.

The interview was taken on the island of Naxos in the course of the summer camp organized by Antinazi Zone–YRE, in which Xekinima plays a central role. One of the highlights of this year’s summer camp was the discussion on the Athens buses cleaners’ strike.

Eleni and Apostolis, we are aware that in June the cleaners of OSY were able to score an important victory but their struggle never stopped. What did actually take place?

In June, the bus cleaners got their wages paid that were owed to them for the previous three to five months – the owed wages were different amounts according to the depot they worked. The contractor signed off on the wages being paid directly to the workers rather than to him by the public bus company. This was a first in Greece.

But as soon as this victory was announced, we found out that the management of the public bus company (OSY) was planning to fire the contractor and hire a different one, with more “obedient” workers.

This meant that the bus cleaners that were fighting for their wages and their rights since January would lose their jobs.

What was the response of the cleaners?

In response, the cleaners started a mass campaign, distributing thousands of leaflets across Athens with a daily stall in Syntagma Square and also in the working class neighborhoods of Athens.

In addition Xekinima (CWI Greece) launched a solidarity campaign distributing tens of thousands of leaflets all over Greece. The demand of the campaign was that the public bus company employs the cleaners directly and stops using private companies i.e. contractors for the job.

The manager of the public bus company, who was appointed by the SYRIZA government, and the chairperson of the bus company, who is a long standing SYRIZA cadre, refused to support the demand that the cleaners be employed directly by the bus company.

Do you mean to say that the SYRIZA appointed management was determined to get rid of the struggling workers?

Yes. It was shocking to see with what contempt they treated the workers! However, the campaign was successful in gathering a lot of attention and putting the management under huge pressure.

We demonstrated on daily, for quite extensive periods, outside the bus company headquarters, the Ministry for Transport and SYRIZA headquarters. There was a lot of media coverage – on the morning TV shows, on the news, on the radio and in newspapers.

June was a very hard month for the bus cleaners. They worked from 9pm to 3am and by 8am they were out campaigning. In addition most of them have a lot of domestic responsibilities. Many of them had only a couple of hours’ sleep every night. But they stuck to their guns and really showed their determination.

What was the outcome of this new round of struggle?

A few weeks later the Minister for Transport promised to introduce a law that would secure direct employment for bus cleaners by the bus company. This allowed us to “relax” a bit, but, of course, we were on guard. We knew the management of OSY was waiting for us round the corner.

Actually, the OSY management did indeed make two additional attempts to change the cleaning contractor. They clearly wanted to get rid of the workers who had shown such determination to fight for their rights and, of course, which had openly criticized and exposed them. But the campaign was very quick to respond.

Particularly so, the international campaign launched by the CWI. The protest letter campaign from comrades across the CWI and political and trade union activists internationally played an important role to stop this from happening on both occasions. We want to thank all comrades and working class activists who helped us with this struggle internationally.

A number of other people supported the cleaners, as well. For example, Constantina Kouneva, a member of the European Parliament and  former cleaner in the Athens metro who was attacked with acid by thugs sent by her boss in 2008 because of her trade union activity. And the Minister for Transport also came through on his word.

When was the law voted in and what does it entail?

On the 4th of August a new law was voted in which makes it possible for the bus company to hire cleaners directly. The law specifies that the people to be hired must be the people previously employed by the contractor – this is a clear reference to the striking cleaning workers.

The law guarantees a wage commensurate with a public sector worker who finished primary school (the Troika introduced a new public sector wage scale which makes your income conditional on your educational status) which is 780 euro per month for 40 hours work per week (the contractor was paying the cleaners 450 euros a month for 36 hours work per week and never paid extra as he is required by law for night work or Sunday shifts). The law applies until the end of 2017, and it is expected that it will be renewed annually.

Does it cover only the OSY cleaners?

No, the law covers cleaners and security personnel (also employed through contractors) in all public transport of Athens and all the services that belong to the ministry of transport. So through their struggle the bus cleaners won a victory for cleaners and security personnel in many more workplaces.

Through the bus cleaners struggle the issue of sub-contracting became a main issue on the political agenda. Now the government is discussing to pass a law that will allow all public services to directly employ cleaners and security personnel and gradually kick all contractors out.

What lessons can be drawn?

All this is very positive, and the struggle started by a small group of female workers in just one bus depot (Elliniko) seven months ago played a role in igniting the struggle. When they first stood up for their rights, everyone said they would just be sacked.  But through their determined struggle and the solidarity movement that was built to support them they managed to spread the strike to all seven bus depots causing a complete ban on the cleaning of the Athens buses and they brought the scandalous work practice of the sub-contracting mafia into the national news. Against the odds, they achieved a huge success.

In a period of defeat after defeat for the Greek working class, the struggle of the bus cleaners stands out as a proud victory

What are the next plans?

The bus cleaners have set up their own trade union. The plan now is to start a united struggle of cleaners for permanent contracts. As it stands the contracts will last until the end of 2017. The SYRIZA government doesn’t employ the cleaners and security personnel as public employs, accepting the ban on public service employment imposed by the Troika. This, of course, from the working class’s point of view is unacceptable. Many of the cleaning workers have been working in the same workplace passing from one contractor to the next for many years. In the public bus company there are cleaning workers who have been cleaning buses since 1991! These workers should have stable jobs and permanent contracts in the public sector.

The new law passed about the direct contracts is a very positive and important step forward for these workers because they will have a stable income, a higher income and better working conditions as nobody will steal their wages in mafia type conditions. This is a stepping stone to launch the struggle on a higher level.  They will need to keep fighting in order to get permanent contracts and the same working rights with their co-workers in the public sector. This victory gives the cleaners the time and opportunity to organise better and build a movement for permanent contracts for all cleaners.


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August 2016