Seafarers were ordered to return to their jobs last week by a special “civilian conscription” decree signed by Kostas Karamanlis, the Tory prime minister of Greece. This was an attempt to break a week long strike which has paralysed the country.
Islands were cut off from the rest of the country. Agricultural products were left rotting in warehouses and lorries waiting on the quaysides.
PNO, the seafarers’ trade union federation, struck on 16 February over jobs, working conditions, pay and pensions. Shipowners – a wealthy and powerful lobby in Greece - are trying to impose more “flexibility” on their crews, drive salaries and pensions down and smash the unions.
Unemployment is high in the ports. More than 3,000 seafarers were registered as unemployed at the end of January. Some 55 percent are not entitled to unemployment benefit. Living conditions are not much better for those who have a job.
Contracts are not permanent and jobs are threatened by “modernisation”. NAT, the seafarers’ pension fund, is almost bankrupt.
PNO is demanding the government ensure that people who have worked all their lives in the ships will get a pension. The shipping minister Manolis Kefalogiannis instead presented a new law to parliament which increases seafarers’ working years before retirement.
It is no surprise that the strike was so solid. PNO’s original 48-hour strike just kept going.
The bosses and the government tried in vain to find scabs. They took the case to the courts, asking them to declare it “illegal”. But instead the judge declared the strike legal.
Early last Thursday, the prime minister signed the “civilian conscription” decree. “Conscripted” workers are not allowed to abstain from their jobs—abstention is considered a major criminal offence and can be punished with months in jail.
The strikers decided to ignore the decree. In Pireus and Patra strikers clashed with the police. Thousands of workers gathered in Pireus to express their solidarity. The Labour Centre of Pireus, a powerful trade union confederation, called for a four-hour strike.
PNO decided to call off the strike last Friday. Formally the government and the bosses won. In reality even the right wing media realise that the government has been weakened by this fight.
Class polarisation has been rising in Greece. Bank workers and factory workers are engaged in struggles. The Greek TUC has called a general strike on 15 March.
Activists from all the major trade union federations of Greece recently attended a meeting called by the Stop The War Coalition to organise the anti-war protest in Athens on 18 March.
The POS union, remembered worldwide for its refusal to transport US military equipment to the former Yugoslavia during the 1999 war against Serbia, promised a special train to transport demonstrators from northern Greece to Athens.
Activists are also getting set for the European Social Forum, set for Athens on 4-7 May.