The Greek workers who struck and marched last week are our sisters and brothers in a crucial battle. At stake is who will pay for the crisis, and who will meet the bill for the bailout of the bankers.
The Greek banners caught the spirit of revolt – “No to the capitalist parasites, wealth belongs to the workers”, and “The workers’ answer is war on the capitalists”. Several read, “We are not Ireland, we will resist”.
The Irish government, aided by compliant union leaders, is imposing a 20 percent wage cut in the public sector, tax increases and welfare cuts.
Greek workers are determined to fight. They called their demonstrations a “river of fury”.
One large banner carried by finance ministry workers proclaimed, “Workers will cancel the plans of the government and the European Union (EU) carried through with the collusion of the union leaders and the media.”
Trade unionists, students, pensioners, unorganised workers and unemployed people gathered in the centre of Athens from 4am to prepare for the protests. Later in the day a Times newspaper reporter noted, “Tens of thousands of strikers chanted ‘Traitors! Traitors!’ in front of the Greek parliament.”
This is an early confrontation in what will be a long war – in Greece, throughout Europe, and across the world.
Bosses and politicians want Greek workers to swallow huge pay cuts, a rise of between two and seven years in the age at which they get their pension, hundreds of thousands of job losses in the public sector and severe attacks on public services.
The pressure is coming simultaneously from three sources – the government, the international bankers and the EU.
The Pasok (Labour-type) government of prime minister George Papandreou was elected on a promise to protect workers from the worst aspect of the crisis. But it is forcing through bitter cuts.
Reformist politicians, because they will not confront the system, are powerless when the crisis is this deep.
The bankers say the Greek economy will be starved of funds and shunned from credit unless the public sector is slashed and workers forced to accept big cuts in their living standards.
Already the government has to offer interest rates of 6 or 7 percent to persuade bankers to buy its bonds so that it can cover debt interest payments. That’s 3 percent more than the German government has to pay.
If the bankers decide the Greek government is not prosecuting war against the workers sufficiently strongly then the bonds will not find buyers, and the government will not be able to pay its debts.
The EU leaders, backed by the “expertise” of the International Monetary Fund, have made it clear that the cuts must go through – whatever the Greek people or their government decide.
At times of crisis, democracy goes out the window. The EU will act as the bailiff, collecting the debts, while those who really owe the money slip away with their loot intact.
EU economic commissioner Olli Rehn said last week, “The critical lesson from this crisis is that we urgently need deeper and broader surveillance of economic policies.”
He added that the European Commission “will soon come forward with proposals to further strengthen the coordination and surveillance of national economic policies within the euro area.”
Some British political leaders congratulate themselves that they have avoided the Greek road because they are not in the euro. But they are like mediaeval leaders who believed bonfires would keep away the plague.
The Guardian asked recently, “Where will the next currency explosion occur? Might it be in Britain where the scale of budget deficits could threaten an eventual credit re-rating and lead to massive currency speculation against sterling?”
The Telegraph added, “The PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain) are old hat. The new acronym on trading floors for possible dominoes if Greece should fall is STUPID (Spain, Turkey, UK, Portugal, Italy, Dubai).”
Economic historian Niall Ferguson, in a Financial Times column headlined “A Greek Crisis is Coming to America,” wrote, “For the world’s biggest economy, the US, the day of reckoning still seems reassuringly remote.
“The worse things get in the eurozone, the more the US dollar rallies as nervous investors park their cash in the ‘safe haven’ of American government debt.
“This effect may persist for some months. Yet even a casual look at the fiscal position of the federal government (not to mention the states) makes a nonsense of the phrase ‘safe haven’. US government debt is a safe haven the way Pearl Harbour was a safe haven in 1941.”
Politicians may hope that a stabilisation plan agreed between the European Union and the Greek government will stem the immediate crisis.
But increasingly people are nursing a different kind of hope – that resistance in Greece can spread to show a way out of the crisis where the rich pay.
Greek activists speak out
‘We have agreed on an all-out strike to stop the government measures from being passed.
We believe that if they push the cuts through in our sector, all workers’ wages will be cut.
And on top of that, the government is raising the retirement age.
It’s unacceptable that the cost of living also goes up so we work until we’re 80 and die before we even touch our pensions.
All across the EU the message from governments is that public spending and wages must be slashed but that capital’s profits don’t get touched.’
Makis Daskalopoulos, worker at the General Secretariat for Information Systems
‘We’re fighting back, despite the rain, the police special forces and the tear gas. The government says we must be patient so it can impose stability measures. We say disobedience! We won’t let them take back the rights we fought for with blood.’
Giorgos Panagakis, unemployed nurse
‘People are outraged. Their blood is boiling! Now there is a mood to escalate the strikes. We shouldn’t pay for the crisis, the ones who caused it should pay.’
Vagia Gouma, public sector worker at the ministry for the environment, physical planning and public works
Interviews in Greece by Giorgios Pittas. Translations by Despina Mavrou