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Striking Greeks

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Issue 1719

Striking Greeks

By Kevin Ovenden

THE BIGGEST general strike in Greece for eight years brought private and public sector workplaces grinding to a halt on Tuesday of last week. It was the highpoint, so far, of growing resistance by workers in Greece to IMF-style neo-liberal policies that threaten everything they have fought for in the past.

Workers from all industries, unions and localities united around the same demands-an end to privatisation, for a 35 hour week, and redistribution of wealth from rich to poor. “Globalisation is the heart of the problem,” said Stellatos Makis, president of the hospital workers’ union at Jannio Hospital in Athens. “They are demanding more work and privatisation while profits are rising.”

Lekas Spiros, a bank worker for Mastercard in Athens, said, “Our contract says we work eight hours a day. But every day the hours get longer-ten, 11 or more. We really cannot take any more, and that feeling is not just in Greece but around the world. The Seattle and Prague anti-capitalist protests should grow on a national and international level and spark strikes like this. We have to build outside the formal mechanisms of the main political parties. They are all concerned with looking after the capitalists.”

Other strikers used similar language about the threat of globalisation and the “American model” of long hours and flexible working. The strikers’ militancy and the scope of their demands are a major step forward from the limited set-piece battles trade union leaders have called in recent years.

The last big general strikes were in the early 1990s and helped to bring down the Tory government of the New Democracy party. PASOK, which is similar to the Labour Party in Britain, won the general election of 1992 and has been in government since.

Prime minister Costas Simitis models himself on Tony Blair. He talks of “modernising Greece”, which means unleashing market forces. That has created profound disillusionment among workers, especially among PASOK supporters. The party has 200,000 members, equivalent to 1.2 million members in Britain.

Simitis’s “neo-liberal” economic policies are aimed at further driving up the profitability of Greek big business. The government wants the “jungle of privatisation”, as one strikers’ banner put it, and is floating a huge attack on pensions and benefits.

“It wants private companies in public hospitals, profit before people,” Eleni, a Jannio Hospital receptionist, told Socialist Worker. Doctors, nurses and other health workers brought pamphlets against the IMF and gathered for a rally inside the hospital as if the management did not exist as last week’s strike began.

The government’s wide ranging attacks have already provoked action before last week by bank workers and telecom workers. PASOK’s connections with big business have also led to a series of scandals, fuelling workers’ anger.

The most recent involved revelations of the government’s links to Minoan Flying Dolphin, the ship owners responsible for the tragic sinking of the Express Samina ferry last month.

The accumulated bitterness among workers forced union leaders to call last week’s strike. The most impressive response was in the private sector. Its unions are led by PASOK members and have been less likely than public sector trade unions to take action in recent years.

But the list of striking workplaces read out at last week’s rally in Athens sounded like a roll call of Greek big business: the Larko nickel mines, 100 percent on strike; Olympic Airways, 90 percent; the Salonika textile mills, 100 percent…

Workers’ response to the government’s attacks means the Tory New Democracy party has enormous difficulty capitalising on discontent with PASOK. No one knows how the revolt in Greece will now continue. But workers have had a taste of their strength and are continuing to look to the left for answers.

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