June 2002 General Strike in Greece: Workers' growing militancy

On Tuesday a general strike took place in Greece - following on from the two massive general strikes that shook the country in the spring of 2001, and forced the government to back down on its proposed attacks on social spending. As we said at the time, these strikes marked a watershed, a turning point. Now the new mood of militancy has been shown once again.


Striking workers in Thessaloniki

On Tuesday, June 18, another general strike took place in Greece. This follows on from the two massive general strikes that shook Greece last year.

What sparked off the anger of the Greek workers last year were the plans of the government to introduce severe cutbacks in social spending. This affected in particular the social security system. The government was proposing to raise the retirement age from 60 to 65 and to introduce measures which would have reduced pensions by 20-30%.

Last year's two general strikes forced the government to back down. The workers had had enough and were not prepared to take any more. Up until then the Greek workers had been on the retreat, with each successive year producing fewer and fewer strikes. As we explained last year, the two general strikes of April and May 2001 marked a watershed, a turning point.

Renewed confidence of the workers

The workers have now regained their confidence and are prepared to struggle. Testimony to this has been the ever-increasing number of strikes over the last year. The transport workers have been out on several occasions. They came out for today's general strike, but have extended their strike to 48 hours. In fact today there were no buses or tubes running in Athens. The ship workers (merchant navy and passenger ships) have come out. The air-traffic controllers are on a 48-hour strike. The doctors have been out also. And there have been a whole series of small strikes, such as that of the TEO (toll gate workers). The difference with the past is that most of these have ended in victories for the workers. The militancy of the Greek workers has been increasing all the time.

Last year's April 26 general stike

All this explains why the government has not attempted to introduce the same law as last year. They have had to water down their proposals. And they have also attempted to divide the workers by attacking some sections more than others. In the private sector they have made some concessions on the age of retirement and on the levels of pensions. But for a small part of the working class, the new young workers, they have actually made it worse. The idea was to divide the older workers from the younger workers. They have also made more severe cuts in the public sector, although not as severe as last year. Women, especially those with children, also come out worse off. The fact remains that most of the working class will be worse off with the new proposals.

The role of the PASKE trade union leaders

However, because it is a watered down version, the PASKE trade union leaders (those close to the PASOK, which is in the government) have tried to present the new proposals as a good law. This has affected the participation in the demonstration today, for instance. Although the GSEE (the Greek TUC which unites all federations) called today's strike, the PASKE leaders inside the GSEE voted against the strike. They did say that they would still support it, but they obviously did not mobilise their forces and this was evident on the demonstration, where most of those taking part were from PAME (the trade union linked to the Communist Party). We should add that the transport strike did not make things any easier. A lot of workers could not get to the demonstration. Nonetheless the participation was still quite low, about 10,000 workers.

The strike was called for today because this was the first day of the parliamentary debate on the new law. This in itself shows the weakness even of those who claim to oppose the PASOK government's new law. They should have been mobilising much earlier in order to put pressure on the government. Although the strike was a success, considering the size of the demonstration, and the backing of the PASKE leaders, the government will most likely go ahead with the new proposals.

What we have to understand, however, is that although this new law will be a step back for the workers, for the Greek bosses it doesn't go anywhere near far enough. The bosses are demanding much more. The PASOK government has done as much as it could. That means the usefulness of the PASOK in government for the bosses is coming to an end.

The bosses are determined to launch another attack in the future. The truth of the matter is that for many years the bosses have been fiddling the system. They often cheated by not declaring all their employees and thus paid less in social contributions than they should have done. Also the funds that had been accumulated were used to finance the private sector and a lot of this money has disappeared. There are about 2 million workers in the IKA (Institute of Social Insurance) who risk not being covered in the future. The new law says nothing about this. It says nothing about how the lost funds are to be covered. But what it does do is to open the door to the possibility of transferring the funds paid by the workers into so-called "investment funds" whereby they would be used to invest in the stock exchange with the idea of "increasing" the value of these funds. In reality it will be another gift to the capitalists. Thus things can only get worse.

PASOK government preparing its own defeat

For now, however, this is the best the right-wing leaders of the PASOK can do for the bosses. So the PASOK faces a dilemma. It has gone too far for the workers and not far enough for the bosses. This will have an impact on the next general election in Greece, which should take place in 2004. However, before then there are the municipal elections in October. All opinion polls show that the most likely outcome is a big fall in the PASOK vote and a victory for the ND (New Democracy). Rather than a shift to the right, a big abstention on the part of the workers is expected. A big defeat in the October municipal elections could bring forward the parliamentary elections where the most likely outcome would be an ND victory.

A victory of the ND would mean a new onslaught against the workers. The bosses would want to achieve with the ND what they have failed so far to achieve with the PASOK. The bosses are clearly indicating that this is what would happen. Thus the policies of the present Simitis government have served only to prepare the ground for the right wing, just like in Italy and France. If the ND get back in, the responsibility will lie firmly on the shoulders of the right-wing leaders of the PASOK.

However, there is the other side of the coin also. An attack by the ND would be seen as a provocation of the working class. And with the PASOK in opposition the pressure would mount up on the leaders of PASKE to mobilise the workers together with the PAME. What we will see is a scenario similar to the one we have recently witnessed in Italy with Berlusconi, where millions of workers have taken part in a general strike.

Last year the Greek workers broke the ice in Europe. The two general strikes were an anticipation of what was to come in the rest of Europe. Alan Woods wrote then: "The general strikes in Greece of April 26 and May 17 have important repercussions for the whole of Europe. The social earthquake that has erupted under the feet of the ruling class indicates a fundamental change in the situation." That statement has been amply confirmed by what we have seen in Italy and France, and what is now developing in Spain. The Greek workers will move again and in a decisive manner over the coming period.

Although today's demonstration was relatively small, it is important to note that new layers were present. Groups of workers who had never been on strike were demonstrating in front of the parliament building. These were young workers coming into struggle for the first time. The whole of the Greek working class is being shaken into action by the general situation they are facing. Layer after layer is becoming more and more militant. Stormy years lie ahead.