Cleaners sacked by Greece's previous government returned to work at the ministry of finance in Athens last week.
“We won,“ cleaner Despina Kostopolou told Socialist Worker. “We got our jobs back—and on better conditions than before we were fired.”
Several groups of laid off workers hounded the Tory-left coalition throughout its last two years in office. The cleaners had a particular impact, setting up camp outside their old workplace and confronting ministers and officials who went inside to plot austerity measures.
They were finally reinstated by the new government formed by left party Syriza after the election this January.
Despina said, “The change in government was crucial. We won because we took to the streets—but if the old parties were still in office we'd still be there”.
The cleaners have collectively called for a no vote in this Sunday's referendum on a new austerity agreement proposed by the European Union (EU) and International Monetary Fund. Despina said, “We voted for it unanimously. There is no future with the yes vote.
“People cannot stand any more of this situation. A big no vote will be the best way to show we are not afraid—and make the other side afraid instead.”
A number of leading cleaners in the campaign joined Syriza—and are determined not to let the gains they have won be reversed.
“I think the whole point of all this has been an attempt to get rid of the left government,” Despina said. “It's completely political. And whatever the vote is, it's very important the government isn't made to resign.”
Just out of town in the port of Piraeus, dockers' union secretary Giorgos Gogos told Socialist Worker all the workers there would be voting no too.
“It will show that we didn't want austerity, it was imposed on us,” he said.
The union was preparing a statement condemning the main private sector union federation GSEE's decision to call for yes vote.
Like the cleaners, the dockers had to fight bitterly under the last government. It was trying to privatise the port.
“We are talking about a fire sale—selling the port off at far less than its value, adding up to virtually nothing compared to the national debt,” said Giorgos. “And this is a port with a real social role. It is the only link to the mainland for people in most of the Aegean islands.
The dockers have held strikes, demonstrations, and even an occupation of the cargo terminal over the course of their own ten year battle. And subcontracted workers on worse conditions on the piers that have been privatised have struck to demand collective bargaining.
But the dockers’ fight continues under Syriza.
Giorgos said, “The new government said it was going to stop the privatisation, and of course we were very happy. So we were very disappointed when they revealed they were going ahead after all. The majority of the workers voted for Syriza.”
Giorgos himself is a member of Syriza. But he said, “Privatisation is wrong whatever party is in power, and we are going to keep mobilising against it.”
They struck in May, and a speaking tour over the summer is laying the ground for more walkouts in September when bidding for the port opens.
Workers at both Piraeus port and Athens ministry see the referendum as a crucial point in their struggles. The cleaners' civil service colleagues made this clear when they became among the first of many workplaces to drop a banner saying no from their windows.
Cleaner Giorgia Ekonomou first talked to Socialist Worker at the camp outside the ministry in January.
Now she says, “The Greek issue is an issue for all of Europe. You have the same questions in Britain—a vote on the EU, and politicians who want cuts, cuts cuts. Everyone in Europe will have the same problems we have some time down the line.”