Greek working class – a rumbling volcano

The level of antiwar mobilisations of the Greek workers and youth over the past few weeks, including several general strikes, is an indication of a deeper and more wide-ranging process that is developing in Greece. As the PASOK government faces defeat in next year's elections, Fred Weston looks at what is happening in the Greek trade unions, the youth and the left parties in general.

The developments in Greece over the recent period, as in all countries, has been dominated by the war in Iraq and the slowing down of the world economy. World GDP growth in 2002 was a mere 0.8% and is slowing further this year. The war will do nothing to ameliorate this situation.

Thus the antiwar movement has been unfolding at the same time as the Greek economy has been slowing down. There has been a coming together of the general anger of the Greek workers and youth at the worsening social and economic conditions and the deep felt opposition to the manoeuvres of US imperialism in the Middle East.

Greece depends heavily on the world economy. Therefore its economy is slowing down rapidly. The government had based its last budget on expected growth of 3.8% per year, but now experts have already said they are expecting no more than 3.4%, and they keep revising their predictions downwards. Already some independent analysts are saying it will be less than 3%.

Recent figures all indicate the downward trend. Consumer spending has been slowing, from 12% growth in January to 6% in February. Tourism has been hit badly. There have been 50% cancellations of bookings in the recent period. Income from tourism represents 25% of Greek GDP, and this year they are expecting a fall of 40% in income from this sector, therefore these developments will have serious consequences on overall growth.

The government’s inflation target was 2.8%, but in January it had already reached the figure of 3.4% and now stands at 4.3%, and this in spite of the New Year sales when prices are cut. This sharp upturn in the rate of inflation could reduce the growth rate by around 1%.

The situation on the Greek stock exchange is an absolute catastrophe. The index presently stands at around 1500, when only two years ago it was at 6800. In March 25 large companies announced they were on the edge of bankruptcy, and the figure is growing.

In its budget for 2003 the government had raised the target of creating 300,000 new jobs. They managed to create a mere 5,000, while at the same time 40,000 were lost. Their target was to get unemployment below 10%, but they will not be able to achieve this.

Weakness of the Greek economy

Competitiveness of Greek industry is falling. While the prices of imported goods have gone up by 0.5%, the prices of exports have gone up by 4.5%. That is because the rate of inflation in Greece is double that of the average in the European Union.

The debts of private companies are increasing rapidly due to their inability to cover their daily running costs. Thus credit to private companies and tourist agencies has been increasing, while borrowing by individuals has gone down as ordinary people try and cut back their spending and pay off their debts. Thus private debt has reached the figure of 32.5bn Euros, or 22% of GDP, while at the same time an estimated 400,000 Greeks are no longer able even to pay the interest on their debts (this out of an overall population of 10.6 million).

The costs of production are going up in spite of the very low labour costs in Greece. The average hourly cost of labour (including national insurance contributions, etc.) is about 10 Euros. Compare this to 26.4 in Germany, 23.8 in Britain, and 14.2 in Spain. Only Portugal comes behind Greece, with 8.10 Euros. (By the way, these figures actually explode the myth about so-called convergence of the economies of the European Union.)

The difficulties of the Greek economy, in spite of such cheap labour costs, serve to highlight the weakness of its industry. In fact the real productive economy is in serious decline. This is masked at the moment by the spending on the forthcoming Olympic games and on funds received from the European Union. This spending on public works has a stimulating effect on the economy in the short term. It has in fact allowed the government to maintain the illusion that all is fine on the economic front. But this is a temporary phenomenon. It does not change the fundamental weaknesses of the Greek economy, and therefore all this public spending will emerge later as an increase in the public debt and further aggravate the situation. This will be made worse by the fact that revenue from taxation has gone down because of the general slowing down of the economy.

Anger of working class

Although the economy has been growing in the past period this does not mean that the workers have anything to be happy about. This is because, while on the one hand the government has been reporting relatively high rates of growth, this has gone hand in hand with attacks on social welfare, such as pensions and education, and privatisations.

So now that the signs of a slowdown are clearly visible the workers are getting the worst of both worlds – attacks on social spending and loss of jobs. So as the economy slides closer to recession, we also see the molecular processes taking place within the Greek labour movement. The general strikes of 2001 had already marked a turning point in the situation. (See: June 2002 General Strike in Greece -Workers' growing militancyMay 2001 Greek General Strike - a lesson for the workers of all Europe and  Massive General Strike Shakes Greek Government... While Spain prepares to follow)

What had provoked that movement was an attempt to increase the cost of national insurance contributions for the workers and to cut the levels of pensions. Due to the enormous reaction of the workers the government was forced to water down its measures. And so the PASOK government retreated and was forced to accept a watered compromise. This explains why the movement did not continue at the same level as previously.

However, two massive general strikes over a short period of time did leave their mark on the movement. They were followed by a series of strikes in the public sector involving teachers, both in primary and secondary education. The refuse collectors have been on strike. There were also strikes by hospital workers, including the doctors. The ambulance workers have been involved in a dispute, as have also the government workers. The workers in the state run oil refineries have also been out on strike in an attempt to stop plans to privatize the industry.

We also witnessed an important development, a whole series of strikes involving previously unorganised sections. Layers that previously had not been organized, let alone on strike, have been setting up union branches and coming out on strike. An example of this was the struggle of the TEO (toll gate workers), who not only went out on strike, but also forced the bosses to back off and make important concessions. Temporary workers have now been given permanent contracts. Even the workers of the Pizza Hut chain have been on strike.

What is most significant is that more and more workers have been getting actively involved in trade union activity. In the past few weeks elections have been taking place in many of the unions and around 100,000 more workers voted in them than last time. This is an indication of the changes taking place.

New layer joining the trade unions

Another very important phenomenon has been the emergence of a new layer of trade union activists. Young workers are getting involved and new more militant shop stewards are being elected. This indicates that the movement is maturing and preparing for a new wave struggles in the coming period.

Some people on the left, however, have drawn the wrong conclusions from what they have experienced since the big general strikes of 2001. Because last year saw fewer strikes they have concluded that the movement is going backwards.

What they do not understand is that the movement cannot be expected to go up in a straight line of ever-increasing levels of strikes. Temporary lulls are inevitable. And the number of strikes in and of itself is not the only indicator of working class anger and militancy.

As we have explained we have not yet seen another general mobilisation on the same  level as that of 2001, apart from the very important recent antiwar mobilisations. There was the June 2002 general strike which interrupted this process and revealed a growing militancy of the Greek workers, but it was not like the 2001 general strikes. After June 2002  we saw strikes in some sectors but many of them have been isolated.

There are some factors that can explain this. Firstly, in industry we have the effects of the slowdown that make strike activity difficult. There was also anxiety about the approaching war. Workers were waiting to see what would be the effects. As we said above, there is also the important fact that the PASOK government mad a semi U-turn on pensions. The workers saw that as a partial victory and therefore did not see a reason to come out again. It is also true that the trade union leaders have played a key role. Ever since the 2001 movement they have been attempting to pull back the movement.

Furthermore there is the important question of divisions in the trade union movement. Each time there is an important rally there are two or three competing demonstrations. The KKE (the Communist Party) and the other left groups insist on organising their own rallies in opposition to the official ones, and this is a problem for the movement.

An indication of the real situation is that while the trade union leaders have not organised major strikes on local specific issues, they have called general protests, such as on the war. When they call these protests the response is enormous. As has been shown in a series of general strikes that have taken place since the war started.

This shows that the union leaders are attempting to cover for their lack of a fight on issues directly concerning the Greek workers, by putting up a militant stance on the war. But what this reveals is that they will not be able to hold back the movement for much longer. The GSEE (Greek TUC) had actually proposed an immediate mobilisation of the workers of Europe to the European Confederation of Trade Unions before the war started. This reflects the huge opposition to the war among the Greek workers and also shows how little room for manoeuvre the union leaders have at this stage.

This apparent contradiction between a lower level of strikes over the past year or so and the massive turn out for general strikes actually reveals quite a high level of consciousness of the Greek workers. In the nine months up to February of this year there had been a fall in the number of strikes. As we have already pointed out, some observers have interpreted this as a decline in the movement and the development of a mood of pessimism among the workers. That would be a very superficial interpretation of the situation. The fact that there are few local strikes compared to one year ago might seem to some as a contradiction when at the same time there are huge general mobilizations, such as on the war.

There is nothing new in this phenomenon. We have seen it many times before in the history of the labour movement. Precisely because conditions in each local workplace are difficult (there is the developing recession, the bosses are coming down more severely on workers, etc.) the workers understand the need for a general struggle and not lots of isolated ones. This shows they have a higher, not a lower consciousness. Trotsky explained this phenomenon in his classic work, ‘Whither France’ in the 1930s.

This explains the situation we have before us in Greece. What we are now seeing is a coming together of the workers’ mobilisations against the attacks on their rights and the movement against the war, which has been phenomenal. Over a period this will bring all the various individual struggles together into one.

Among the youth especially there has been a rapid radicalisation of large layers who are now looking openly for revolutionary and Marxist ideas. On the recent February 15 antiwar demonstration tens of thousands of youth, in particular school students, turned out, and this is an indication of this process. This has been repeated over and over again on all the antiwar demonstrations.

PASOK facing defeat

While all this is developing among the workers and youth the picture portrayed by the capitalists is one of a corrupt and divided ruling class. The climate is one of scandals and dirty manoeuvres and a feeling of general malaise. This is having an effect on political developments.

There are divisions within the ruling class. Greek capitalism is of a parasitic nature. It depends heavily on contracts from the state, such as in road building, new stadiums, subsidies, etc. It is far from being a “free market” orientated group of entrepreneurs! The problem is that the government cannot satisfy all of them. So one wing, the one that is getting the contracts, is still supporting the PASOK government (although these contracts won’t last for long).

In general it would be correct to say that the majority of the Greek bourgeois are now ready to jettison the PASOK government. It has proved incapable of applying the policies the bourgeois request of it, such as severe cuts in the pension system and further deregulation of labour laws, etc. Its relationship with the unions – which was an asset in the past – has now become an obstacle as far as the capitalists are concerned.

This comes at a moment in which popular support for the PASOK government is waning. It has been in government for all but three of the past twenty years, and it is closely linked to all the policies of cuts and attacks on the standard of living of the workers.

We are seeing a similar process to that which we have seen in the rest of Europe. There is no turn to the right in Greek society; on the contrary there is polarization with a marked shift to the left among important layers of society. But because of the policies of the PASOK government growing numbers of youth and workers cannot see a clear alternative and therefore prefer to abstain.

This has led to the situation where in recent polls it was revealed that the right-wing ND, New Democracy (the Greek Tories), is 8% ahead of PASOK. This in spite of the fact that over a year ago the ND suffered a split to the right of the small LAOS party, which now has about 1.5% in the polls. Also this support for ND represents more a vote against the PASOK rather than for ND.

This explains why, for example, the ND instead of playing up divisions in Greek society is trying to portray itself as a conciliatory party and defines itself as a national party of “all the people” and says that “we should forget the past”. They realise that they would not get support if they came out openly with their real intentions as a party of the Greek bosses, and state clearly that they are going to continue the attacks that the PASOK has had to retreat over. It is not a question of the ND getting stronger. It is the weakness and the policies of the PASOK government that are creating the ground for a possible victory of the ND.

The prospects of an ND government

A general election is scheduled for the spring of 2004, but there is talk that these may be called earlier this autumn. The most likely outcome is that the PASOK will lose and the ND will come to power. Then the real attacks would begin. But the ND will most likely find itself in the same situation of the Berlusconi government in Italy. It will provoke a massive reaction on the part of the workers and youth. The symptoms are already there and clear to anyone.

The present situation has had an effect on the activities of the PASOK. It would not be an exaggeration to say that there has been an almost complete collapse of rank and file activity in the branches of the party. This is not surprising considering its policies in government over the past few years. The active base of the PASOK is concentrating its activities on the trade union front and this is logical for it is there that it can express its opposition to the present policies of the party.

However, in spite of this lack of activity at rank and file level, there is a big conflict opening up at the top of the party. Faced with the perspective of losing the elections, which means fewer seats in parliament and also losing control of the ministries, a struggle has broken out within the bureaucracy of the party.

This party apparatus is under pressure from two sides, the workers and the bosses. The bosses are demanding more severe measures, but the PASOK leadership is also looking to the elections and does not want to do anything that would further jeopardise their electoral prospects.

Faced with this steady fall in its electoral support the PASOK government has been trying to improve its image by attempting to exploit some recent developments to its own advantage but this has failed. For instance, it launched the case against the November 17 terrorist group, hoping to show that it is the government of law and order, but this is not having any effect.

The government had also tried to exploit the Cyprus question to its advantage. The idea was that a successful solution to this issue would have been seen as being to the credit of the government. They had been hoping that an agreement with Turkey could have been reached and that the island could have been "reunited" under UN auspices. [See: Cyprus: the only solution is through the unity and the common struggle of the Greek and Turkish Cypriot workers].

However, the problems with Turkey are more complicated than that. The European Union has been consistently keeping Turkey at arm's length. They have excluded it from the next batch of new members. One wing of the Turkish ruling class would like to enter the EU, but there is also a strong anti-EU wing which is looking to the East and is not prepared to make the concessions the EU is demanding of it. Turkey was expected to give up on northern Cyprus without really getting anything in exchange. The result has been the collapse of the proposed Annan Plan, which would have reunited Cyprus on a federal basis and thus would have allowed the whole island to enter the EU. The whole issue has backfired on the PASOK government, and this is seen as another of its failures.

The Communist Part and the Synaspismos

As we said, PASOK support is clearly in decline. This is a consequence of years of being in power and carrying openly pro-bourgeois policies. A large layer of the youth have been alienated from the party, and also a significant layer of the active trade union members have also become disillusioned. This has created a situation where the most advanced youth and workers have been looking around for an alternative. But the two main left parties, the KKE (Greek Communist Party) and the Synaspismos (which derives from a previous split in the KKE) have been unable to exploit this situation.

The KKE has adopted an openly sectarian position. It insists on calling separate actions, through its trade union front, the PAME. This has been a consistent feature throughout the antiwar movement for instance, where it has attempted to call its own separate demonstrations. But it combines this sectarianism with opportunist policies, for instance at times making agreements with the conservative New Democracy (ND) and this alienates many PASOK supporters.

This paralysis of the KKE can be seen in its electoral support. Opinion polls put its support at between 5 and 7 per cent. Its previous result was 6 per cent. In the recent local elections the KKE vote actually went down. This shows that it is proving incapable of picking up what the PASOK is losing. There is also a large turnover in its membership, which shows that while it has the potential to attract new members it cannot hold them for long as these soon see through the party rhetoric. This is preparing the ground for an inevitable crisis inside the Communist party, where a layer of its members will be looking for genuine Communist ideas and will question their leadership.

The Synaspismos is in a similar situation. Its leaders are supporting what amounts to a slightly more left version of the policies of the PASOK. Opinion polls put it at 3.5 per cent. If this result were confirmed in the general elections the party would be facing a crisis, as in Greece a party needs to get at least 4 per cent to get anyone into parliament. As a consequence of this already we have attempts on the part of the rank and file of the party, especially its youth, to push leftwards. An interesting phenomenon in the Synaspismos vote has been that it has only gone up where the party stood on a joint platform with the PASOK, thus being seen as non-sectarian but trying to push the PASOK to the left.

This inability of the two main left alternatives to the PASOK to pick up support has led to a situation where several ultra-left groupings have picked up some support and some room for the Social Forum has also been created. However, we are still talking of quite small numbers. This is not a mass phenomenon. The Social Forum is proving incapable of building up any serious support in the working class neighbourhoods. So in the end the Social Forum amounts to simply a coalition of the Synaspismos and some of the ultra-left groups.

In fact there is a lot of talk among these groups about transforming the Synaspismos into a kind of Italian Rifondazione Comunista, where different tendencies coexist. But Greece is not Italy, and what this actually represents is a desperate attempt by some of these groups to huddle together behind the banner of the Synaspismos and thus make up for their own weaknesses and inability to connect with the masses. In spite of everything the two main parties of the working class remain the PASOK and the KKE, with the Synaspismos picking up some of the old traditions of the KKE.

A general crisis within the left

What we are seeing is a crisis within all the left parties. This reflects the desire for radical change on the part of the ranks that comes up against the attempts of the leadership to hold back this process. This explains the attitude of many youth towards all the left parties. On the February 15 antiwar demonstration there were 300,000 people, the largest demonstration for many years. A large number of those present were young people, and many of these were not marching behind any organised group or party, but they flocked to anyone who seemed to be presenting a more militant stance.

This confirms what we have said before; we are not witnessing an important shift to the left among the more advanced layers. What we are seeing is a growing disillusionment with the PASOK government and a searching for left ideas. Because there is no clear point of reference this creates this confused situation of people seeking, but not finding what they are looking for. Some workers and youth will abstain in the general elections. They are disillusioned in the PASOK and the left as a whole but they will not vote for the ND. At the same time a layer of the middle classes is moving to the right, and from this the ND can emerge with a relative majority.

Thus in conditions of this kind of left-right polarization it is clear that the PASOK government is preparing its own downfall. It has already been weakened electorally, and at some stage this will lead to it being ousted from power. Although in the latest municipal elections its vote held up because the workers feared a return of the ND, recent polls reveal that the ND now has an 8-point lead over the PASOK. That means the conditions are being prepared for a return of the ND into government. However the ND will be facing a completely different situation from that which existed when the PASOK came to power. For a whole period the PASOK benefitted from the boom of capitalism. This gave a certain stability and allowed it to survive over a period. But if the ND comes to power it will do so in a period of decline and recession. All the signs are already there, as we have pointed out above.

In these conditions the ND will be forced very quickly to go onto the offensive against the working class. There is some left over work of the PASOK to complete (on pensions, workers’ rights, etc.). So the ND will be pushed into completing this task. It will also push for even more privatisations and cuts in real wages. And the recession will make this even worse.

The governor of the Bank of Greece has already made statements in which he has reiterated the need to completely change the national insurance system, to introduce “new labour relations” and has raised the need to “liberate the market”.

ND government will create new conditions

Thus the ND will come into confrontation with the Greek working class. Its policies, and even its very presence in government, will provoke a massive reaction of the workers and youth. We had a taste of this two years ago with the two general strikes we have already mentioned. Then the trade union leaders, especially the PASKE wing (which is the PASOK faction in the unions), were able to reach a compromise and also to use their special relationship with the PASOK leaders. In spite of the nature of the PASOK leaders there is still a large number of workers who would still prefer to have the PASOK in government than see the ND take its place.

The ND will not have this "special relationship". The trade union leaders will come under greater pressure to lead the struggle. The workers will see the ND as their enemy and will not accept the same degree of compromise that they are willing to concede to the PASOK government. So what we will have is a situation similar to that in Italy. Yes, the bosses will have their right-wing government, but this will have an impact on the labour movement and its organizations. In Italy, once the DS (the right wing of the old Italian Communist Party) were removed from government and Berlusconi came to power, the main trade union federation, the CGIL was forced to the left and its leader Cofferati was pushed into taking a more radical stance. This will happen also in Greece. Therefore the first movements against the future ND government will come through the Greek trade union federations, the GSEE and ADEDI, (the private and public sectors federations).

This will be expressed in a greater activity inside the unions at rank and file level. This has process has already begun. The trade unions in Greece are growing and more workers are taking part in the life of the trade unions. Once the ND is in power this will intensify and an even larger number of workers will flow into the trade unions.

In spite of the KKE tactics, once the PASOK is in opposition, there will be an instinctive mood of the workers for unity and struggle. This will have an impact on the PASOK trade union leaders and in turn this will feed into the PASOK itself. The present right wing leaders who dominate the party will become isolated and a left wing will emerge. An inner party struggle is inevitable with the rank and file, under the pressure of the general situation, pushing the party further to the left.

Educate the vanguard

This will lead at a later stage to workers beginning to come back into the party and filling it out and strengthening it. At the moment this still remains a perspective of the future. The best and most radical youth and workers are disgusted with the present PASOK policies. But it is the task of the Marxists to educate the vanguard. From the present situation ultra-left tendencies can easily develop. It is a natural reaction. But it will not solve the problem of how the mass of the working class is to be won to genuine revolutionary ideas. The layer that is now coming into activity must understand that sectarian, ultra-left tactics and policies can never win the masses. They must learn from the experience of the movement itself, and also from the precious heritage of the great Marxists in history, such as Lenin who understood this question quite clearly. The same understanding is to be found in Marx himself, and it is sufficient to read the Communist Manifesto to see this.

We are at the early stages of what is destined to become one of the most tumultuous periods in history. This will affect all layers of society. But precisely because we are at the early stages, different layers are moving at different tempos. The most advanced layer can move ahead of the class and feel frustrated that the masses are not following them. These advanced layers will also be very surprised once the masses do move, for they will inevitably move first through the GSEE and ADEDI and then at a later stage through the PASOK and KKE, and to some degree the Synaspismos.

Although we are at an early stage, there has already been a very big movement. Greece actually anticipated the process that is now unfolding throughout Europe and the world. We explained two years ago that Greece was showing the rest of Europe what its own future would be. That has now been confirmed by events.

The current antiwar movement has confirmed the high level of anger and militancy of the Greek workers and youth. Several general strikes have been called against the war, with a massive participation and huge demonstrations. This indicates how the mass of the working class is being affected. Their willingness to struggle is unquestionable.

However, we have to strike a word of warning here. The Greek trade union leaders have been calling general strike after general strike, of two hours, four hours and in some sectors of 24 hours. They have been called over the question of the war in Iraq. There is undoubtedly massive opposition to the war in Greece. But the same trade union leaders who are calling these strikes have not been prepared to call strikes on issues closer to home, such as wages, conditions, jobs, privatisation, etc. They can afford to put up a radical antiwar stance, for they know this won't really achieve anything. The war has gone ahead anyway. This can lead to a degree of frustration and tiredness among the workers. The trade union leaders treat the labour movement as if it were a tap which you can turn on and off when you like. For them the general strike is not a step towards strengthening the movement and making it aware of its own power. On the contrary, in their hands it is a means of tiring the movement out, of letting off steam. We have seen this before in other countries, in particular Italy, where the trade union leaders had developed this into an art. The end result is that it diminishes the value of the general strike in the eyes of the workers and youth.

In spite of this it is clear that a very militant mood is developing among the workers. This can go down for a period, but will inevitably re-emerge, and on a higher and even angrier level. It is like a rumbling volcano, with the pressure building up. Occasionally surface tremors can be detected. These build up and new tremors are felt. The enormous pressure below has to come through somewhere, sometime. It is the same with the working class. It is the objective situation that is pushing the workers onto the path of struggle. There will be ebbs and flows but the general direction is upwards.

What is being prepared in Greece is a return to the conditions of the 1970s but on an even higher level. In 1974 the Greek workers brought down the hated Colonels' junta. There was a massive entry of the workers into political life. The mass organisations grew exponentially. The PASOK itself was created out of that movement. Because of that it was pushed very far to the left and there was a general challenging of the very legitimacy of the capitalist system. Today's situation cannot be compared to that... yet. But no one can question the direction it is going in. The present situation offers a golden opportunity to spread the ideas of Marxism among the workers and youth, to educate a new generation and prepare for the inevitable events that are about to unfold over the coming years.