Athens demonstrators' banner, with photos of Greek PM George Papandreou and
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, reads "Us or them -- Struggle for our
lives". May 20, 2010, national 24-hour general
strike. Photo: EPA/ORESTIS PANAGIOTOU.
By Dimitris Fasfalis
June 7, 2010 -- Socialist Voice -- Workers in Greece today stand in the forefront of the converging
European class struggles against big capital’s attempt to make working
people pay the costs of its crisis.
Mobilisations against this austerity drive are spreading across
Europe. In France, strikes and demonstrations were held on May 27 and a
day of action is planned for June 24. In Portugal, 300,000 working
people demonstrated in the streets of Lisbon on May 30 to express their
rejection of the socialist government’s austerity plan. In Spain, public
sector employees took to the streets on June 2. In Italy, a national
demonstration was held in Rome on June 5, with strikes and other actions
planned up to June 14. In Britain, unions and left-wing
organisations are organising a day of demonstrations on June 22. In
Romania public employees took to the streets on June 4.
The ongoing resistance in Greece shows labour activists and militants
of the anti-capitalist left that their struggles can create new paths
forward in determining the outcome of the present economic crisis. The
latest 24-hour general strike in Greece, held on May 20, registered a
success of the labour movement in overcoming the propaganda campaign of
the mass media and the slanders coming from the PASOK (Pan-Hellenic
Socialist) government. More than 50,000 people took to the streets in
Athens and demonstrations were held in the country’s major urban
centres. Public school teachers took part massively in the Athens
demonstration. The participation in the strike was very high in the
public sector but less so in the private. The major trade union
federations also organised a day of meetings on June 5. This fight is
far from over.
The May 5 general strike
The general strike and demonstrations on May 5 were an overwhelming
success. Launched by the General Confederation of Workers in Greece
(GSEE) and the state employees’ trade union (ADEDY), the appeal to cease
work for 24 hours was observed massively by both public- and
private-sector workers. Demonstrations were held in all the major cities
across Greece except Larissa: in Tripoli and Patra in the Peloponnese,
in Ioannina and Igoumenitsa in Epirus, in Herakleion (Crete), and also
in Salonika, the metropolis of northern Greece, where thousands of
demonstrators took to the streets.
It is in Athens, however, where the largest demonstrations were seen.
The streets of central Athens were taken over by a human flood of some
250,000 citizens. Its components reflected the working class of the
Greek metropolis in all its diversity: workers of the private sector,
such as those of the Skaramanga shipyards of the Piraeus, workers of the
public utilities and the state, such as those of the electricity
company (DEI), the teachers and the nurses of the public health system,
unemployed and retired workers, immigrant and undocumented workers,
university and high school students. The slogans coming from the ranks
of the demonstration all expressed the people’s refusal to pay the costs
of the capitalist crisis triggered by global finance: “No to the
anti-workers tempest”, “No to flexibility, yes to the 35-hour workweek”,
“Workers, arise! They’re taking everything we got”, “We paid their
profits, we will not pay their crisis”.
Thirty-year-old Johanna demonstrated to “say no to the IMF. They want
to make us believe that they had to come here [to “rescue” state
finances], but I do not believe it in the least. Who would accept such
A profound feeling of injustice is driving the crowd’s protests.
Yannis, a thirty-year-old professor, explained to l’Humanité reporter:
Everyone feels that there is no justice. The money is
there but they do not want to go and get it… I do not see another way
out: they offered us only one option.
The stakes of the movement against the Iinternational Monetary Fund/European Union/PASOK
government austerity plan were explained by Ilias Vretakou,
vice-president of the ADEDY union:
We’re sending from Athens a message of struggle and
resistance to workers of all the European countries, against the
barbarism of capital markets, governments and the European Union. The
government, the IMF and the European Union have decided to drive the
workers, and Greek society, to the most savage social barbarism that we
have ever known. They’re levelling workers and society down to the
bottom. They’re stealing our wages, they’re stealing our pensions,
they’re stealing our social rights, they’re stealing our right to life.
They’re imposing the law of the jungle in work relations,… reducing the
wage rate for extra hours. They make it possible for employers to lay
off an older employee and hire, with the same money, three or four young
workers under precarious conditions.
This speech drew enthusiastic applause from the crowd that had just
booed away the GSEE leader Panagopoulos, criticised by rank-and-file
unionists for reluctance to fight the austerity measures in February.
Among the other speakers, Claus Matecki (of the German Confederation of Trade Unions, Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund -- DGB) and
Paul Fourier (of the French General Confederation of Labour) also
aroused vivid applause, especially when the latter declared: “Today,
we’re all Greeks! Thank you and good luck.”
Among the political forces of the left, the Coalition of the Radical
Left (SYRIZA) and the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) participated
massively to the protests. The social-democrats (PASOK) did not have an
organised presence, despite internal stirrings among the left-wing of
the party in face of the austerity plan implemented by the PASOK
Many among the demonstrators voted PASOK in October 2009. They are
now disappointed and angry to find out that the triumphant left that
drove out of government the right-wing corrupt government of Kostas
Karamanlis (New Democracy party) gave in, without any fight whatsoever, to the
neoliberal politics of finance capital. Dimitra, a retiree residing in
the Athens region, hoped that the PASOK victory would “make things
better". Disappointed, she’s furious when she thinks of PASOK Prime
Minister George Papandreou: “When I think that I’ve voted for this
Media coverage of the May 5 demonstrations was centred on the koukouloforoi, the “masked ones”, who physically attacked symbols of
market mass culture and finance capitalism. The Marfin bank on Stadiou
street in downtown Athens was attacked by Molotov cocktails and burned.
Three employees of the bank lost their lives in fire. The Marfin staff
were compelled to work that day despite the call to strike and were
literally locked into the bank. There was no emergency exit plan, making
their evacuation all the more difficult.
The response of the labour movement was immediate and crystal clear.
In the evening of May 5, the ADEDY president explained that these
“fascist practices aim to scare people at a time when mass struggle is
necessary to halt the measures that throw the life of Greeks into
hardship”. The following day, May 6, a mourning crowd gathered at
Syndagma Place, in front of the Bouli (Greek parliament), to denounce
the adoption of the austerity plan by the elected representatives of the
This spark of street violence is not unrelated to popular
exasperation toward the Papandreou government. The austerity plan
imposed to the Greek people by the financial markets – the leading
financial institutions, the IMF and the European Union – is a blatant
denial of national sovereignty and democracy. Furthermore, the
government has stood its ground since February and refuses to heed the
message echoing from the streets. Instead, it heightens the
authoritarianism of the austerity plan: once it has been adopted by the
National Assembly on May 6 (by the votes of the PASOK, of New
Democracy and the nationalist-racist LAOS), it will be implemented
through a series of orders from the finance ministry, leaving no room
for parliamentary interference and limiting the elected representatives
of the people to a purely formal advisory capacity.
The plan’s lack of democratic legitimacy thus opens the door, in some
components on the fringes of the social movement, for concepts of the
legitimacy of street violence (clashes with the police, burning of
various symbols of the capitalist order, etc.). The party of the
capitalist order headed by the PASOK has thus as a corollary the
violence of the koukouloforoi in the mobilisations. Quite apart from
the “masked ones”, the blatant authoritarian drive of the austerity
measures nourishes an acute anti-parliamentarian tendency within
sections of the workers’ movement. Slogans such as “Let it burn!” or
“Give the thieves to the people!” were shouted several times in the
demonstration. Dozens of demonstrators have also attempted to cut
through the security lines of parliament, before being violently pushed
off by police forces.
Looking before and after May 5
The May 5 actions registered a success because they were prepared:
the united mass mobilisation was not a spontaneous response, but rather
the result of three months of mobilisations by workers’ unions. As early
as February 24, the union movement engaged itself in fighting the
announced austerity plan, thus denying the ruling class and its
spokespersons a monopoly of information and politics. It is precisely
that criticism, carried out through actions in the streets and
workplaces, that has allowed the social movement to communicate possible
scenarios other than the one written by finance capital. Hence, the
reactionary and demobilising notion that this plan is a necessary evil
has been shaken, opening the way for a popular counterattack.
On February 24, a first general strike responded to the austerity
measures announced by the government. In Athens, 45,000 persons were in
the streets; in Salonika, there were 10,000. In the Athens
demonstration, Dimitri, a 28-year old civil engineer, explained the
reasons of the mobilisation: “We want a job, decent wages and a true
social insurance system. Our country has to respect European Union norms
which are unfair.” A second 24-hour general strike took place on
March 11 coupled with demonstrations in the country’s main cities.
The 24-hour general strikes (February 24, March 11, May 5 and May 20)
were without a doubt the most visible examples of the popular
mobilisations against austerity. But other actions, more limited in
scope, have played a crucial role in building up a momentum and ensuring
continuity in the resistance movement. Fabien Perrier, reporter of the
French Communist Party daily l’Humanité, underlined the atmosphere of
social agitation that took hold of Athens in the end of April: “In
Athens, each day, the streets are echoing the shouts of demonstrators
and of angry professional bodies.”
Many of these mobilisations helped to prepare for the general strike.
For instance, on March 5 mass meetings were held in many cities to
build the general strike of March 11. The meeting in Volos (a city on
the coast of Thessaly, north of Athens) brought together not only
unionists but also laid-off METKA workers, preceding a solidarity
concert of many artists. In the same manner, May 1 boosted the mass
mobilisations before the May 5 general strike. The state employees’
union (ADEDY) called state employees to strike from May 4 for the same
reason. Its call was followed, and demonstrations were held on that day.
These limited mobilisations also allowed the labour movement to
engage the battle to win over public opinion. Many actions thus
responded to the government at each turn of the crisis. Hence, when
George Papandreou held a press conference on April 25 to announce he
would trigger the European mechanism of financial support, hundreds of
demonstrators responded in the streets of downtown Athens shouting: “The
struggle of the people will destroy the IMF slaughterhouse.” Two
days later, on April 27, civil servants were striking and teachers were
camping on Syndagma Place, in front of parliament, to denounce the
bleeding suffered by the public education system. In the meantime,
Piraeus harbour was blocked by a 24-hour strike of seafarers following the
call of their union, the PNO.
Step by step, what seemed inevitable in the minds of the majority
became a question to be settled by the relationship of forces. An
opinion poll of the Greek newspaper To Vima estimated the proportion of
those against the reduction of wages at 79.5% of the population.
Within the social movement, participants are gaining in confidence, and
the idea that the outcome of the struggle is not yet settled is gaining
Despina, 27 years old, didn’t take part in the May 4
demonstrations of public employees. She underlined however to the
Humanité reporter that “those who are on the move are right: they have
understood the stakes of this movement. The civil servants are the first
[direct victims of austerity measures]; but all of Greece is going to
suffer. The unions are united, and the government is starting to
Every progressive-minded person hails Greek labour’s resistance to
the dictatorship of finance capital. The mobilisations of the past three
months have been worthy of the political legacy of the struggle against
the junta dictatorship (1967-1974) and of the earlier resistance to
Many crucial questions are yet to be settled.
First of all, the strategy followed by the union leadership is open
to question. In face of a government which refuses to heed the protests
of the people in the streets, and moreover compels parliament to
implement measures dictated from big business, isn’t there a risk that
repeated 24-hour strikes could become proof of the movement’s
powerlessness to change the course of events? The labour movement in
France suffered a demoralising setback in the spring of last year after
three rounds of 24-hour general strikes. The outcome of events is not
yet decided in Greece.
But time could be on labour’s side, provided that its leaders have
the necessary boldness. How long, for instance, could the PASOK
government and its European counterparts hold on in face of an unlimited
general strike led by general assemblies of the mass movement?
A second question relates to the social movement’s organisational
framework. Will it be able to unite into a single voice or platform?
Will it be able to establish a democratic and unifying organ speaking in
the name of its different components in the streets and ensuring
autonomous control of its mobilisations?
These questions seem crucial since they will determine during the
coming months the success or failure of labour’s attempt to give birth
to new possibilities and thus fight off the fatality of neoliberal
barbarism. The stakes are high: the immediate future of the social state
is being decided today in the streets of Athens.
[An earlier version of this article was published in French under
the title: “La résistance sociale en Grèce: bilan et perspectives”.
It has been translated and updated by the author, and appeared first in English at Canada's Socialist Voice. Posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission.]
 See article of Andreas Sartzekis, http://www.npa2009.org/content/grece-apres-la-greve.
 Avgi, May 6.
 L’Humanité, May 6.
 Avgi, May 6.
 The first strike against the austerity measures was launched by
the state employees’ ADEDY on February 11 while the GSEE top leadership
refused to join forces, arguing that the interests of private
sector workers were not endangered by the government’s announcements. It
is useful to underline that Panagopoulos is a member of the Panhellenic
Socialist Movement (PASOK) headed by Prime Minister Georges Papandreou.
In face of the mounting pressure from the ranks, GSEE leaders rallied
the ADEDY February 24 during the first 24-hour general strike.
L’Humanité, May 6.
 L’Humanité, May 6.
 L’Humanité, May 11.
 Avgi, May 6.
 Avgi, May 7.
 Avgi, May 6.
 L’Humanité, February 25.
 L’Humanité, April 27.
 Avgi, April 25.
 L’Humanité, May 5.
 L’Humanité, May 5.