Ruling class prepares to crush the Greek working class

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 232 April/May 2013

Presenting the Bank of Greece’s annual report at the end of February, its chair George Provopoulos declared that ‘we ought to intensify efforts, to quicken our pace to cover the final stretch... Extreme and unreasonable demands from social groups do not contribute towards this goal.’ ‘Unreasonable’ demands are those which seek to defend the living standards of the working class. Humanitarian organisations attest to the explosion of child poverty in Greece, meaning malnutrition and hunger for the children living with the 31% of families below the official poverty line. But it is the bankers’ report that gets to the heart of the matter – the capitalists’ pockets.

In the last two years average wages have fallen by 20.6% and labour costs by 18.5%. By 2014 they are set to fall a further 17.6%. Workers’ hours are reduced and casualised, salaries remain unpaid for weeks and months. Only a third of the 1.6 million employed in the private sector are able to work eight hours a day. Unemployment is moving towards a general rate of 30% and is already at 61.7% for those under 24. With an estimated 4.5 million people jobless or economically inactive, only 225,000, (5%) receive unemployment benefit as there is now no long-term support.

The Bank of Greece’s report preceded the arrival in early March of representatives of the troika of the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank. Their inspectors are permanently embedded in the ministries of the Greek government and supervise adherence to agreed targets on cost cutting. They hand down directives for the Greek parliament to turn into legislation. The ruling government coalition attempted to promote reactionary nationalism by portraying these measures as foreign impositions. In fact the troika’s projection of a 15% cut in overall costs was exceeded by the Greek government setting labour costs even lower for 2012-2014.

It is not all success though, as the troika has expressed concerns over delays in civil service ‘streamlining’. They want 25,000 jobs to go by June this year with an overall reduction of 150,000 by 2015. This jobs carve-up has provoked some opposition from the union-linked Democratic Left and Pasok members of the government coalition. Their own supporters now face the grim prospect of being drafted into lower-paid ‘mobility schemes’ or permanent unemployment. While the troika holds the purse strings any delay in implementing the signed-off measures in the Memorandum of November 2012 threatens the monthly tranches of billions of euros to sustain the Greek banks. €2.8bn are due in March and €6bn in April. This explains the Bank of Greece’s concern not to fail over this final stretch.

The purpose of this shock therapy is to reduce labour costs and restore profitability for the capitalists. By driving down wages and massively cutting state spending on welfare, costs are reduced for the capitalist class. The existence of millions of jobless workers as a reserve army of labour forces those in work to accept even lower wages and worse conditions.

The troika has planned that the state-run Urban Rail Transport will slash its wage bill by 25%, from €97.7m in 2012 to €74.6m this year. Monthly salaries will be cut from €2,500 to €2,038. The transport workers have fought back. Metro workers went on an indefinite stoppage from 17 January. Nine days into their action, the Greek government declared martial law to enforce the end of the strike. On 25 January 300 riot police stormed the Sepolia metro depot in western Athens. Under the Greek government’s ‘Civil Mobilisation Law’ the striking workers were effectively drafted into the army and ordered to return to work or face up to five years in prison. Spontaneous protests in response to this measure and the use of the riot police led to hundreds of workers marching in solidarity to the depot. Sympathy strikes of other transport workers took place but the government extended the civil mobilisation to a further 2,500 rail, tram and bus workers which made such solidarity actions illegal.

Ferry workers took action some days later against wage cuts and lay-offs, but on 5 February, they too were called up under the government’s civil mobilisation decree. The following day, police stormed and occupied the Central Port of Piraeus in Athens to facilitate the introduction of scab workers. Under these pressures, SELMA, the metro workers’ union and PNO, the ferry workers’ union, called off their actions. A proposed 24-hour protest strike was called off by some union confederations while others called for solidarity strikes across the region of Attica which includes Athens and Piraeus. Thousands responded to this and marched on the Maritime Ministry.

Despite the effective strike ban, February and March have seen the continuation of a range of protests, strikes and other forms of resistance to austerity. This culminated in a widely observed and militant 24-hour general strike on 20 February. Farmers have blocked roads to highlight their falling incomes while oil workers stormed a hotel where a meeting to hand over contracts to private firms was due to take place. Transport, energy, postal and dock workers have joined doctors and hospital staff in protest at wage cuts of 20-25%. Refuse workers, media workers, archaeologists and students have joined pensioners protesting that they cannot pay the new emergency taxes and bills or afford medicines. Disabled people gathered at the Finance Ministry to challenge cuts to salaries and benefits. This movement now faces the savage reality of increased government repression and violence.

Growing sections of the government coalition are courting the fascists and extreme nationalists. 84 out of 125 New Democracy deputies were joined by Golden Dawn representatives in supporting a motion to exclude naturalised Greeks from membership of the military and police. Journalists have found evidence of funding of Golden Dawn by wealthy shipping magnates, property tycoons, lawyers and bankers. The concept of a right-wing coalition founded on these reactionary forces and commanding a parliamentary majority is being openly discussed.

Following the near-victory of Syriza – the Coalition of the Radical Left – in the June 2012 general election, banners proclaiming ‘The fear has changed sides’ showed the rising confidence of the Greek working class. The ruling class is now determined to alter that balance of fear back to its advantage. Interviewed in the New Statesman, former Greek diplomat Leonidas Chrysanthopoulos revealed that the Greek government and army were discussing how to deal with the social unrest.

Alexis Tsipras, leader of Syriza’s 71 MPs, visited the IMF’s New York HQ in late January and addressed the Brookings Institute to state: ‘that the austerity policy is a failure...Syriza will keep Greece in the eurozone’. He appealed for consideration of another negotiated reduction of Greek debt, a further haircut such as has already been applied to banks and private lenders. His remarks were given currency by a senior IMF figure, Domenico Lombardi, who approved of Syriza’s shift to ‘...a more balanced, politically mature position’.

As Syriza moves towards a critical conference to found a unified organisation this spring, the voices of opposition to any dilution of the demand for absolute repudiation of the debt will be heard. The impending congress of the Greek Communist Party – KKE – in April will hear calls for left unity in elections. Progress for the Greek working class lies in fighting for the greatest principled unity of all: the unemployed, immigrants, organised labour, students and youth, around the rejection of capitalist legality and violence, the smashing of fascist organisation and uncompromising repudiation of the debt.

Michael MacGregor