Konstatin Simitis--the Greek Tony Blair--is a worried man. Elected after the death of Andreas Papandreu less than two years ago as leader of the Greek socialist party (PASOK) under the banner of "modernisation" he had 70% of public opinion behind him. Now it has dropped to 18%. The streets of Athens (congested at the best of times) are regularly blocked with demonstrations of angry bankworkers, airline employees and teachers. In the city centre, stirring music blares out over the loudspeakers from the premises of the Ionian bank, which the government wants to privatise. The bank is occupied by the workers and covered with black flags.
The desperate crisis of Greek capitalism has been commented on in other articles. This has already led to a 14% devaluation of the drachma and Simitis seems determined to press on with Greece's application for membership of the common European currency--an utopian perspective from any point of view, but a useful excuse for launching an all-out assault on the living standards and rights of the Greek workers. Simitis began his attack on Olympic Airways, the nationalised airline, where the workers put up a spirited resistance. That struggle ended in a partial victory of the workers. The government was unable to push through all its measures. Now it is trying another tactic. By launching a campaign aimed at discrediting the airline, it hopes to depress its market value and force it to be sold at a fraction of its true price.
Next the government turned its attention on what it clearly regarded as a soft option. They announced the privatisation of the Ionian bank. At the time of writing, the workers in the bank have been on strike for more than a month against privatisation. Simitis thought that they would not get public support. This was a bad miscalculation! The sight of armed riot police attacking striking bank staff caused an outcry. Let us not forget that Greek people still remember the dictatorship of the colonels (1967-74) and are very sensitive about this kind of thing.
Originally, Simitis thought that he would be able to count on the support of the trade union leaders, a not unreasonable assumption, since the majority of the PASKE (socialist trade union) were keen supporters of his. But sadly times change. Bowing to the fury of the rank-and-file, the trade union leaders were forced to move into at least semi-opposition. The unions backed the bank strike. Furious at this, the government resorted to legal action against the strikers. Naturally, the courts declared the strike illegal. At this point, one might expect that the TUC would back off. But things have been moving inside the TUC also. Divisions have opened up inside the PASKE. A left wing has crystallised around Maria Fragiadaki and the militant building workers' leader Leonidas Kariyanis, who is also a prominent supporter of the Greek Marxist paper Sosialistiki Ekfrasi. As a result of the differences, the PASKE left put forward a separate slate at the recent elections to the Athens Trades Council--the most powerful trade union body in Greece, and got three elected, including Leonidas.
Balance of forces
Such is the balance of forces now, that the TUC was compelled to continue to support the workers at Ionian, despite the court's ruling. The result is that the PASOK government has taken the TUC to court--the first time that any government has dared to do such a thing since the black days of the Junta. After this, Simitis decided to pick on another section that seemed weak--the teachers. They passed a law which abolishes the lists according to which university graduates were appointed as teachers in schools. Until now a teacher, despite having all the qualifications, had to wait. Instead, they have introduced a new exam. There are about 120,000 graduates in Greece who are waiting for jobs in state schools. Some have been waiting for five, ten or even twenty years. Suddenly they find out that only 8,000 are going to be employed, on the basis of the new examination.
On 11th of June, one day before the examination, thousands of unemployed teachers as well as teachers working at state schools who were on strike in solidarity, marched towards the examinations centres. Hundreds of policemen and riot police were guarding the centres. The police attacked the demonstrators baton-charging them, using tonnes of tear gas and making arrests. The arrested demonstrators were beaten up savagely. They were kicked on the head and face and sprayed with tear gas even when on the ground. There were demonstrations in almost all towns all over Greece. In 14 towns there were violent clashes with the police. Most of these towns had never experienced such violent clashes before. Two examination centres were occupied by the demonstrators but the Ministry of Education announced another site for the examination. The clashes with the police continued over the four days of the examination. The examinations which took place were a farce. Candidates were allowed to use mobile phones and enter the examination centres after the questions were given. However, the government wanted to show that they were determined to go ahead with it's plan, no matter what.
This is not the end of the story. Under the pressure of the EU and the World Bank, Simitis is pressing ahead with his attacks against the rights of the workers. They have announced the introduction of a bill for the abolition of the 8-hour-working day, labour "flexibility" and privatisation of public utilities. This spells a further radicalisation of Greek society and civil war inside PASOK. Already there is a ferment of discontent, even in the parliamentary group. Splits are even opening up between the "renovators", as two prominent ministers from the Simitis camp, Vaso Papandreu (Industry) and Kostas Lalayotis (Public Works) publicly call for a change of policy. The capitalist press is becoming more critical, too.
Kathemerini, clearly worried at the radicalisation on the streets, has said that the government's victories have been Phyrric ones. Was it worth doing all this to lose so much support and provoke such a reaction in society? The answer to these questions will not be long in coming. In October there will be local elections in which the PASOK will be massacred. In the Spring of 1999 the party congress is due. It promises to be a hot Autumn, and an even hotter Spring for the Greek Tony Blair!