Workers in struggle and discussions with the Greek left
Day two, Thursday, of my visit to Greece started with a presentation from workers from the organisations for Social Housing and for Social Protection to all of the GUE/NGL MEPs. What they told us really brought home the almost total dismantling of basic social infrastructure that is going on in Greece. Social Housing and Protection has traditionally been done not by the state, but by two non-profit organisations. They are paid for by an extra tax, on both workers and employers, amounting to 1.75% of income for workers. These organisations currently employ about 1,500 workers and provide almost 200,000 families with rent allowance and assistance with their mortgages as well as building social housing projects. The organisation for social protection also provides the most disadvantaged with access to cheaper holidays and cultural events.
The second memorandum does not just call for a severe cutback for these organisations. It calls for their total elimination. This means a complete disaster for the workers involved but also for those who are reliant on the services that they provide. It is also not the case that these organisations were drains on the state – in fact they had reserves in the bank of hundreds of millions of euro and were collectively owed over three billion by the state in the taxes that were specifically collected for this purpose but not handed over. Now presumably that three billion that is owed to the workers’ social organisations and which they have paid for themselves, will instead go straight to the vampire bondholders!
The workers have not just accepted this brutal attack. They have organised strike action and occupied their workplaces in the Ministry of Labour. Tomorrow (Friday), I will be visiting the occupation and learning more about the tactics they have used.
Next, we trooped onto a bus and headed out of the centre of Athens to an industrialised area where a major steel works owned by “Greek Steelworks”, is based. Here, the profit-making employer tried to take advantage of the crisis to force the workers to work longer hours for reduced salaries. In this plant outside Athens, the 400 workers resisted, engaging in strike action. The boss responded with a lock-out, seeking to shut down the factory. The result is an heroic strike that has been running for 116 days. It has become a certain focal point for workers across Greece as a symbol of the injustice perpetrated by the capitalist system and the courage and militance of the workers for resisting.
After speaking to the steel workers to express our support and wish to support them in any way possible, we headed back to Syntagma square, where the Parliament is entered. We had meetings scheduled with the KKE (Communist Party) and Syriza (Radical Left Alliance). However, before we entered this impressive building, we came across the workers from the mental health sector who had joined in a joint protest of over 2,000 with the workers from the social housing organisation. It was an illustration, which was common with almost everyone I talked to, of a generalising of the struggles and seeing the crucial necessity for a united struggle against the austerity, the government and the Troika.
Inside the parliament, as in the European Parliament, the rarefied atmosphere contrasted with the harsh conditions persisting outside. A number of us commented independently how the “members lounge” we entered seemed like an old gentleman’s club. Apparently this was populated by the many members of PASOK (so-called social democracy) and New Democracy (the traditional conservative party) who had been expelled as a result of voting against the second memorandum and lost their offices as a result!
We had discussions with MPs for the KKE and Syriza about the crisis in Greece, the perspectives for the struggle and the programme, strategy and tactics of the different policy. These forces between them have 30% support in the opinion polls and with a correct approach could provide a leadership to the struggles in Greece that would open up the prospect of defeating austerity and kicking out the government and the Troika. Such a victory would have reverberations across the continent, in particular in the so-called peripheral countries like Ireland. Even more importantly, that struggle would pose the possibility of transforming society in Greece and fighting for genuine socialism that again would spread across Europe.
Therefore the position that these forces adopt are extremely important for working people across Europe and it is imperative that we discuss with, learn from and also offer opinions on the approaches of these parties. One could write a lot about the positions of the Greek left and indeed the Socialist Party’s sister party in Greece, Xekinima, has (some of which is available in English here http://www.socialistworld.net/view/29 ). Here, it is only possible to touch on the key points in a short hand fasion and to focus on some of the critical points that are a matter of debate and discussion within the Greek left.
At this time, the KKE puts forward a very left programme. They stress the need to refuse to pay the debt and they call for Greece to leave the euro and the EU. But they do not pretend that those measures alone make for an easy solution, they make clear that it has to be linked to the development of “people’s power”, by which they mean socialism – with the nationalisation of the key sectors of the economy and the democratic planning of the economy to redevelop it. One weakness, in my opinion, is that this is posed in a somewhat ultimatistic fashion – people’s power or nothing – which is true in the final analysis – but I think there the need for socialist change needs to be explained more concretely with transitional demands that link the current struggles that exist against austerity to the need to transform society. It also, in line with the stalinist tradition they come from, does not sufficiently stress the need to spread that socialist change to other countries across Europe.
However, the most significant problem in my opinion is not with the KKE’s programme but with their extremely sectarian method. It is a reality that on most occasions, the KKE and its militant union organisation, PAME, organise seperate demonstrations to the main union federation. In this way, they split the opposition movement, with the excuse of the rotten policies of the leadership of the main union. Their criticisms of the right-wing leadership of the union are correct, but it would make more sense to protest alongside the base of those unions and make those criticisms to them. The other defence of the separate demonstrations is the need to protect their demonstrations with active stewarding from provocateurs and insurrectionist anarchists who set buildings like banks on fire bringing the police’s force down on the heads of all they are close to. While the criticism of others very weak stewarding is valid, I don’t think it justifies not joining the one demonstration, as a well organised and stewarded block.
With a united list in the next elections of the KKE and Syriza, there is a real possibility that this could get a majority of the seats in the Parliament. However, the KKE refuses to countenance forming any united list or doing joint activities with Syriza, giving the reason of Syriza’s extremely weak programme and its commitment to the euro and the EU, within the straitjacket of which it is obviously not possible to implement socialist policies in the interests of the majority. But in that case, why not propose a united list to Syriza on the basis of a socialist programme which is spelt out and use that to put pressure on Syriza’s leadership from its base?
When we met Syriza, it re-enforced the view I already had that it has in many aspects the opposite problems to the KKE. While it is a broad and open organisation, with different tendencies free to operate and express their ideas and many of their members work in a non-sectarian fashion, its programme in general is extremely weak, a problem that is particularly acute given the severity of the crisis.
For example, Instead of calling for a refusal to pay the debt, it calls for a selective moratorium. It also sows illusions in the nature of the EU, calling for this EU to be made better as opposed to realising that the EU we have is doing what it is set up for – it is an organisation for the capitalists across Europe and it is now demonstrating its vicious character. It is necessary to replace the Europe of the bosses with a socialist Europe of the workers constructed in a very different and democratic fashion. Most importantly, Syriza does not agitate for and popularise the need for a rupture with the system of capitalism and the development of a socialist society. Instead, it limits itself to asking for reforms such as a renegotiation of the memorandum, which in the context of the rule of the Troika represents a pious hope really.
These discussions took place over the course of the trip and will continue both in Greece and in the Left group in the Parliament. After the discussions, we held a press conference in the Parliament. The difficult relations on the left in Greece were highlighted by the fact that the KKE refused to participate because of Syriza’s presence on the platform! Nevertheless, it was a good opportunity for the delegation to detail its opposition to the savage austerity that we have witnessed so far and express our solidarity with the Greek people struggling against it.