Socialist Worker

Eyewitness in Athens - workers and anti-capitalists discuss fighting austerity

by Dave Sewell in Athens
Issue No. 2437

Inside the ERT studio

An Antarsya poster in the occupied ERT studio (Pic: Guy Smallman)

The general election in Greece tomorrow, Sunday, will decide who forms the next Greek government. But it won’t settle the question of who runs Greece. Yet some of the struggles that led to the snap election have posed this bigger question sharply.

The anti-capitalist coalition Antarsya hopes to use the election to raise this question again.

The past five years have seen power workers refuse to cut off electricity to poor people. They’ve seen health workers occupy parts of hospitals and make a mockery of charges the government tried to impose by treating people for free.

The government announced cuts again and again but strikes mean they still haven't been implemented.

Nowhere is this struggle more evident than in the government’s own buildings. All have been occupied by their workers over the last five years. The Greek equivalent of Whitehall has been decked out with trade union banners - and the effects can still be seen today.

Corridors leading to ministers' offices at the Ministry of Development and Competitiveness have more revolutionary posters up than many British student unions.

The ministry workers’ union secretary Costas Pittas is a member of the Greek Socialist Workers Party (SEK) and supporter of Antarsya. He told Socialist Worker, “The important thing is what happens after the election. 

“Lots of workers here have had wage cuts of 35 percent or more. As an engineer I’ve lost 48 percent. The public sector needs more workers but in this building 85 people have lost their jobs, replaced only by young workers on insecure contracts.

“We had a union meeting two weeks ago about how to get the sacked workers back and the new ones on permanent wages. And the discussion was all about how to get this by February.”

The radical left party expected to win the election, Syriza, faces what pundits call an “impossible triangle”. It wants to stay in office, stop the austerity being imposed by the European Central Bank (ECB), and stay in the euro that the ECB is in charge of. 

To try and reconcile these aims, it has steadily watered down its plans.

But Costas said, “Many people voting for Syriza are to the left of Syriza. They want to get back their wages, their jobs, their healthcare. 

"Antarsya has the most concrete plan for how to do this. It would cancel the debt, nationalise banks under workers’ control, break with the euro, bring back jobs and ban sackings.”

Antarsya candidate and Athens councillor Petros Constantinou toured the building yesterday, Friday.

One of those convinced was Dimitris Kapnissis. He told Socialist Worker, “Mine is an anti-capitalist vote. We need to get rid of the whole system. I want to see a real change, and I want to see that immediately.”

Sofia Kolyva was more sceptical. “I’ll be voting for Syriza,” she said. "I think it’s urgent they repeal all the laws passed by this government—they are unjust laws and a left government could get rid of them.”

But she added, “The most important thing is for things to change in a progressive direction where people’s demands are being realised. And Antarsya will play a crucial role in the future.”

Sofia isn’t the only one to see things this way. Around 100,000 voters last year backed Syriza in the European election but Antarsya in local elections.

In the ministry 52 people came to an Antarsya meeting on Tuesday—more than 10 percent of the workforce. 

Petros said, “It’s the deepest discussion we’ve had in a pre-election period. It’s amazing how much our agenda—of cancelling the debt now—is at the heart of political debate.”

Perhaps the most potent symbol of workers taking matters into their own hands is in the media. The government tried to shut down state broadcaster ERT in 2013, leaving only private channels on a private network. 

Yet workers have made sure is still on the air 20 months after the blackout.

Its Athens headquarters is a union building opposite their old workplace, where riot police evicted them after five months of occupation. All the other sites are still occupied. They get by through solidarity donations, unpaid bills the government daren’t shut them down over, and its workers' labour.

It broadcasts to 68 percent of Greece, with audience shares that can reach as high as 50 percent.

For camera operator Elli, “This is about democracy. The closure of ERT was completely arbitrary. They sent us letters saying we were sacked with no names on, just numbers, and passed it through parliament afterwards. 

"And it’s about who controls the information that’s broadcast—the people or private monopoly firms? People understand this and that’s why they support us.”

Reporter Nikos joined the occupied station in solidarity. He told Socialist Worker, “Through workers control, we have become the voice of all those who resist the memorandum that has made the last five years hell.

“I hope we will overthrow this government, and we will win.”

Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras condemned the closure of ERT, but more recently has refused to commit to reinstating the service and its workforce. 

While broadcasters in Britain were faffing over whether or not to include the Greens in their pre-election debates, ERT workers invited Petros to debate a leading Syriza member. 

He made the case against capitalism and for workers’ action against it to an audience of hundreds of thousands, possibly millions. This argument will be crucial in shaping the struggles ahead.


Panagiotis Kalfagiannis, leader of the Prospert media workers union, spoke to Socialist Worker in the worker-run ERT studio

“The fact that today we face elections may be because of what happened at ERT in June 2013. The government hasn’t had enough support since our fight pushed one of the three coalition parties to leave. And our continued fight since then has helped push the government to this point.

Panagiotis Kalfagiannis, leader of the Prospert media workers union

Panagiotis Kalfagiannis, leader of the Prospert media workers union


 

When the government closed ERT, it was trying to control information in order to inflict on Greece what is demanded by capitalism and by German chancellor Angela Merkel. The private media don’t talk about this. 

We knew straight away that this would only by the first case of mass sackings. The same has now happened to cleaners, school workers and the cement industry. We considered it a duty to take the lead, to encourage others to join the fight against these measures.

So we decided to run the channel ourselves. And since we started this experiment, many social and political groups have stood with us. It is because of their solidarity that we have been able to keep broadcasting for 20 months.

There were thousands of people protesting outside, and we’ve held 120 solidarity concerts. Our struggle meant the Communist Party, Syriza youth sections and Antarsya were united for the first time. Even the opposition in parliament had to support us.

The majority of Greek society not only expects but demands that a new left government will correct they injustices inflicted by the last government. It must bring back jobs and services, free information and democracy.

Syriza must keep its promises. It must listen to the people—and stop the behaviour we’ve seen from some of its leading members who are more interested in government positions.

People now have hope, and Syriza can’t stop them believing in it. Instead it must be the catalyst for change all over Europe. And if not we will keep fighting. This is the home of democracy—and that means the people will have the last word.”


Petros Constantinou, Antarsya councillor and candidate

“The movement defeated this government, and we need to continue that dynamic after the election. We need to fight for the return of jobs, and guarantee that austerity and the memorandum that imposed it is finished.

We need to cancel the debt and nationalise the banks—and to do that we must break with the euro.

There are other important fronts, such as the fight against racism and fascism. We need to close the camps where migrants are detained and bring back citizenship for the children of migrants.

We want democratic rights. Dismantle the hated special forces, and end police attacks on protest. We need to oppose imperialist wars and the Greek government’s support for Israel.

For all this we need to build the movement and we need a strong anti-capitalist left.

We will need solidarity from across Europe, because of the blackmail that will come from the European Central Bank. That means we need campaigns against it in other countries. 

We must beat the Fortress Europe immigration controls that Greece’s camps are part of. And we need to make the fight against racism and fascism international, with demonstrations on Saturday 21 March.”

Thanks to Costas Vlasopoulos and Elli for translation

 


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