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General strike shakes Greece
"IT'S THE return of the working class! It was the biggest strike for many years in Greece, at least the biggest since the fall of the military junta in 1974." That's how Panos Garganas, editor of Socialist Worker's sister paper in Greece, describes a magnificent one-day general strike last week. It forced the New Labour style Greek government to stall over major attacks on workers' pensions.
"We've had many days of action in recent years, but this was a real general strike, with workers shutting down factories and workplaces," says Panos. Strikes paralysed much of the country, with bus, rail, port and airline workers all joining the protest. Teachers, shipyard workers, textile workers, civil servants, bank workers, TV and newspaper workers, and even Greek Orthodox priests-who are technically civil servants-also struck.
The revolt was sparked by a pensions "reform" plan put forward by the Greek government, run by the PASOK Labour-type party, whose leader and prime minister, Costas Simitis, models himself on Tony Blair.
The plan aimed to increase the retirement age for workers, cut some pensions, and do away with a number of special pensions for certain groups. The attack was in part inspired by pressure from the European Union, which wants the Greek government to impose such cuts as part of its membership of the euro single currency.
The assault sparked fury among Greek workers. It saw even trade union leaders who hold prominent office in the governing party forced to call action. Leaders of the main GSEE trade union federation and the ADEDY public sector workers' union rejected the pension plan and called last week's strikes. "The most important thing was that workplaces where people hadn't been on strike for 15 or 20 years were shut down. In workplaces where the union hardly existed workers struck and joined the demonstrations," says Panos.
"It's hard to put numbers on it but there were perhaps two million workers on strike." That is an astonishing figure in a country with a total population just over ten million people.
"In Athens there were some 200,000 workers on the demonstration, perhaps more, and there were very big numbers on demonstrations in other cities too," says Panos. "The numbers on the marches are impressive-there was no transport running at all. Everyone who came had to travel on union coaches or make their own way there on bicycles or something." The pensions attack has sparked a crisis inside PASOK.
Some 66 members of the party's executive wrote last week to prime minister Simitis demanding special meetings of PASOK's ruling bodies. They said they were worried that there was a growing "gulf between PASOK and its social base". The government announced it was freezing its pension plans, and said it wanted "dialogue" on the eve of last week's strike.
"But despite that the union leaders are calling more action," says Panos. "No one trusts that the government won't just come back later with a similar plans, so the union leaders want the government to adopt a union plan for pensions. The unions felt they had to call some action because of the feeling below. But the response was bigger than they expected. Now they can't just walk away from it. That's why they have called more action."
A massive protest took place on May Day and another general strike has been called for 17 May. "Such a huge explosion of workers' anger can benefit the left," argues Panos. "We in the Socialist Workers Party were very visible in last week's marches. We had slogans like 'Pensions before Profit' and 'People before profit'. We had lively contingents and many people joined in with our slogans. We also carried a huge banner saying 'Globalise Resistance: Genoa 2001' which went down very well. There is strong support for protesting against the G8 summit in Genoa in July. "The next few weeks are going to be very exciting here in Greece."