On Wednesday 26th April 2001, the biggest general strike for fifteen years took place in Greece. Both public and private sectors came out on strike with very big percentages of success, with many factories striking 100%. And, of course, the strike was nearly 100% in the public sector.
The demonstration in Athens was huge: 150,000-200,000 workers participated in the rally and then marched through the centre of Athens to the Parliament. It was really an impressive demonstration - almost two miles long.
In recent years, the Greek working class had succeeded in making big gains which, in a number of areas, meant a better deal for the Greek workers: the age of retirement for Greek men was lowered to 60 (less for workers involved in heavy labour), and 55-58 for women. Now, at a stroke, the right-wing "socialist" administration of Simitis wants to cancel many of these gains.
Pasok had been moving to the right
For the past ten years, the leaders of Pasok have moved steadily to the right. Like the right wing leaders everywhere, they have abandoned all pretence to stand for socialism and the working class. Under the pressure of Brussels, they have moved to "modernise" Greece: by which they mean, introduce flexibilisation of labour, privatisation, downsizing, and all the other delights of the market economy.
For a time the Greek workers accepted this reluctantly. There were some strikes, but no general movement. The trade union leaders collaborated with the government, opposing strikes and accepting all the impositions and cuts without a murmur.
But now things have begun to change. The mood of the workers has hardened. The latest law was the last straw. The attitude of the workers is: "Enough is enough!"
Under the pressure of the rank and file, the leaders of the Greek TUC have moved over to open opposition. Even such a right winger as Polyzogopoulos, who previously backed Simitis, is calling for strike action and talking about "social war".
Alarmed at this sudden turn of events, Simitis attempted to modify some of his proposals in an attempt to arrive at a compromise with the union leaders. But the mood was such that this proved insufficient to halt the strike.
Many trade unions participated for the first time in their history. For example there was a union from a big electronics factory (Intracom), people who work in security services, even people who deal with funerals. For the first time workers from the private banks participated. Even the bloc of right wing unions called DAKE joined in for the first time in their recent history.
A unified movement
For the first time, the leaders of the Communist Party, who usually call separate demonstrations, agreed to a unified protest. As a result, there were many CP workers on the demonstration, who are organised in a separate front called PAME. But for the first time in recent years, instead of being the majority they were the minority of the rally. The vast majority were people from PASKE (the union associated with PASOK) and unorganised workers. For the first time there was also a section of PASOK Youth students from the Economics faculty (which has left traditions) shouting anti-government slogans.
The right wing PASOK leaders are beginning to panic. The day before the strike the government was forced to retreat as a result of the huge pressure, announcing a temporary freeze of its proposals for the reform of the social security system. They thought that in this way the demonstration on the next day would not be a big success. But they had a nasty surprise.
What sparked off this "revolt" of the workers were the plans of the government to move towards a vicious change in the social security system - an outright attack against the workers. What they wanted was a general rise in the retirement age from 60 to 65 years, which would have the effect of reducing the level of pensions by anything between 19 and 30%. They also wanted to the abolish the right to early retirement in certain categories of very heavy jobs (building workers, miners, steelworkers, etc.).
Their argument was that the system was in danger because people are now living longer. The truth is that the bourgeois have bankrupted the system. They have spent the money paid into it by the workers (which was supposed to be for pensions) to cover other costs. Furthermore, the government did not pay their share of the money, while at the same time the capitalists were pocketing the money that they were supposed to pay into the system.
The government has been defeated
The government thought that as they had succeeded in getting away with anti-working class laws in the recent past they could now also impose this counter-reform. But this time they did not get away with it. They have already been defeated, because of the all-out reaction of the working class which has forced the trade union leaders to react . The tone of these leaders has been unusually tough. They have declared that they wouldn't negotiate on the basis of the government's proposals. They organised this first general strike which will be follow by the 1st May demonstration.
Unfortunately the Communist Party leadership has already announced a separate rally for May Day, thus splitting the movement in a criminal manner. Another 24 general strike has been announced for 17th May.
This recent general strike has had immediate effects inside the PASOK itself. Its leadership and its parliamentary group have split openly over this issue. A total of 65 of its Central Committee members and MPs have signed a protest and demanded a meeting of the CC to discuss the issue.
As we have often repeated, in spite of the apparent calm in the European labour movement, tensions have been building up below the surface. We can expect sharp turns and sudden changes in all the countries of Europe, as the recent events in Greece confirm.
Now it is Spain's turn
In a parallel development, the leaders of the Spanish General Workers' Union (UGT) has also called for a general strike. This surprise move comes after a number of years in which the leaders of the UGT (which used to be a Socialist union) and the Workers' Commissions or CCOO (which used to be linked to the Communist Party), followed a policy of pacts with the conservative government of Aznar's Popular Party.
As in Greece, the sudden change in the stance of the UGT reflects a growing discontent in the working class after years of retreat and the erosion of conditions. The leaders of the CCOO are now to the right of the UGT. Following the logic of pacts and class collaboration, they have come out against the general strike, which they consider 'inopportune". For them, militant action will always be "inopportune"! But if they continue to oppose the strike, there will be serious opposition in the ranks.
The situation in Spain and Greece is changing rapidly. There is every indication that this changing mood is taking shape all over Europe. In Britain, too, the strikes on the London Underground are indications that the mood is starting to change. Stormy times lie ahead!