Greek Workers: ‘We Won’t Pay for Your Crisis’

Wall Street breathed a sigh of relief when the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and European governments agreed to “bail out”—that is, lend money to—the government of Greece last month. Investors were worried that panic in banking circles would spread across southern Europe, reviving the worldwide economic crisis.

But the IMF’s loans come, as usual, with strings attached: painful austerity measures for the citizens of Greece. Insisting that workers shouldn’t pay for the crisis, Greek unions have called four 24-hour general strikes this year, with more planned.

Labor Notes spoke with Sotires Martalis, a high school physics teacher in Athens. Martalis is on the national council of ADEDY, the public employees union federation in Greece.


Labor Notes: What’s behind the Greek government’s budget deficit?

Sotires Martalis: One reason is that the banks lost a lot of money in the housing crisis, and the previous government, the right wing, gave them 28 billion euros to bail them out. Now the government wants workers to pay for that.

Of course, the government says the debt exists because workers are too rich.

LN: How does the government want workers to pay for its debts?

SM: It started with a scare campaign: “The country will go bankrupt, everyone will lose everything, together we must save the country.” That means, of course, “You must pay the bill.”

At the beginning, workers froze, like a rabbit when it sees a snake. But then the rank-and-file members pressured the union leaders, and some unions decided to strike December 17, 2009. That pushed the federations to call the first general strike, in February.

CUTTING PAY, RAISING TAXES

During all this there were elections for a new government last October. The Social Democrats won by promising a rise in salaries. But they did the opposite. They gave another 10 billion euros to the banks and cut pay for public employees by about 8 percent.

They also raised the value-added tax on gasoline, cigarettes, drinks, from 19 percent to 21 percent. They said these measures would solve the problem. But they didn’t. A month later, the government put higher taxes on everything that people need: food, gasoline, clothes.

If you include all the pay cuts and tax increases, workers have lost about 15 percent in total.

Now a third wave of attacks is planned for the end of June, on pensions. You can retire now after 35 years of work or at age 65. They want to change that to 40 years or age 67, and that no one can retire before 60. Today most people get about 70 percent of their former pay as a pension; the government wants to cut that to 50 percent.

All the governments took money from our pension funds and lost it in the stock market, and now they say they can’t pay the pensions we were promised.

LN: What are the unions doing?

SM: The majority of the union leaders belong to the party, the Social Democrats (PASOK), that was elected last October. They want to negotiate with the government, to accept cuts but to make them not so unjust, to have more transparency against corruption.

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But the rank and file is so angry. Their main idea is “we don’t pay for your crisis, not even one euro. Take the money from the rich.” So the leaders of the federations have had to support and call strikes.

We’ve had four general strikes since the beginning of the year, and one sector or another is on strike every week. The transit workers have struck twice, the ship workers, the magazine and newspaper workers.

THIEVES

The biggest general strike was May 5. In Athens it was 200,000 or 300,000 people, the march took hours to pass. They were shouting at the Parliament, “Thieves! Thieves!”

Unfortunately, someone threw Molotov cocktails into a bank and three bank workers died there; the doors were locked and they couldn’t get out. Naturally, the government tried to use this against all the protesters.

Now the labor movement is debating another general strike, of 24 or 48 hours, for the end of June, when these pension cuts are planned.

LN: How big are the unions?

SM: The public sector confederation has 300,000 members (out of 500,000 public employees); the private sector one is 500,000 (out of 2 million). The public workers are more militant because they’re not afraid of losing their jobs—we still have the constitutional right not to be laid off—although the government wants to change that.

Instead there’s a hiring freeze and they’re adding more work. Teachers, for example, have had their teaching hours raised from 21 hours a week to 26.

LN: Are the unions the only ones protesting?

SM: These strikes don’t come from nowhere. A year and a half ago, the government and the companies wanted to change the constitution to create private universities—right now all are public. For three months, every Thursday, hundreds of thousands of students all over Greece demonstrated and fought with the police. The country was paralyzed every Thursday. In every neighborhood there were groups giving solidarity to the students. And they won.

HISTORY OF PROTEST

In December 2008 a policeman killed a 15-year-old student. The demonstrations were huge—there were riots in many cities. From all the schools the students went to the police stations throwing stones—and when high school students struck, their teachers struck, too.

So the question—who is leading?—is not so simple. In December 2009 the union leaders didn’t want to strike—the pressure to strike came from below.

People’s minds have changed quickly. At the beginning of the crisis, there was a poll: “Must we take measures to end the crisis?” Sixty percent said yes. Now the corporate types don’t take polls anymore. A left poll came up with 60 percent against the cuts.

LN: What can U.S. workers learn?

SM: I believe Greece is an experiment for the international banks, the IMF. Greece has strong unions that fight. If they can cut pensions and salaries in Greece, they can do it anywhere. Next will be the other countries they are calling PIIGS—Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, Spain. I understand that American workers like teachers are already facing lots of demands to cut their pensions and their pay.

Our challenge in Greece is how to make sure our unions will continue to fight. And to create committees against the austerity measures in every neighborhood to enlarge the fight.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #376, July 2010. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.