Promoted by David Beale, 36 Pleasant View, Withnell, Chorley PR6 8SE on behalf of Martin Powell-Davies of TUSC.

Sunday 12 June 2011

Austerity and Anger in Greece

Apostolis Kasimeris, one of the leaders of the OASA bus workers’ union in Athens, gave this speech to the National Shop Stewards Network Conference in London on June 11 2011: 
Dear brothers and sisters,
I want to thank you for your invitation and to stress how important it is for me to be able to speak to British workers – workers who have provided excellent examples of determined class struggles. In particular, struggles like those of the Miners and against the Poll Tax have inspired many of us abroad.
Over the last two years, the Greek working class has faced a massive attack on its living standards and rights. It has been an unprecedented attack, worse even than that faced by the British working class at the time of Thatcher.
The Social-Democrat government of PASOK, together with the EU and the IMF, have cut the basic net wage from 670 € to 520 €. Our salaries are lower but the cost of living in Greece is no lower than that in Britain. Prices for food and clothing are the same. Petrol now costs 1.7 euros a litre. Neither do we have any rent subsidies or low-cost council housing for the low-paid and unemployed.
In the public sector, where wages are supposed to be better than the private sector, we have seen our wages cut by 30% on average over the last two years. Their plans are to cut them by a further 35% over the next two years. Before the intervention of the EU and the IMF, the take-home pay of a teacher with 10 years’ experience would only have been around 1300 euros a month. But now pay has been slashed to perhaps just 1000 euros.
At the same time they plan to sack 150,000 public-sector workers over the next 4 years. This is when official unemployment has already reached 800,000 - 16% of the labour force. But real levels of unemployment are about 1 ½ times the official estimates.
They have made huge expenditure cuts on education, health and social services. In our public hospitals, a third of beds have been cut – 13,000 out of 35,000. Many universities are forced to close down for certain periods of time because they cannot pay electricity bills, or in order to save on other costs.
What is the Government’s answer to this desperate crisis?
They are now planning to sell-off all our public utilities – electricity, water, railways, the docks.
They want to smash collective bargaining and change the law to make it easier to sack workers.
They are raising taxes – both direct and indirect. VAT has gone up by 4% - to 23%.
Pensions have been massively cut. The retirement age has been raised to 67. But, even then, you can only get a full pension if you have completed 40 years of work with paid social insurance.
I will give you an example to explain the terrible results of these attacks. Two months ago, Athens council workers occupied the city hall for 26 days, fighting for their jobs. Among them was a contract worker aged 72 who had no option but to continue working as he had not completed the working time needed to qualify for a full pension. Even if he manages to work on for long enough, his pension will only be 400 euros!
The attack of the IMF, EU and European Central Bank has no end. After a year of savage attacks they have now concluded that the huge cuts are still not deep enough. They are imposing a second ‘memorandum’ demanding further attacks on Greek workers.
Why is all this happening? Supposedly, in order to pay for the sovereign debt. This debt was created by the piling up of annual deficits. But who created these deficits? Various EU economic ‘experts’ claim that the debts were created because Greek workers were lazy and corrupt; because “we lived beyond our means”. But who has been living beyond their means? The one million Greek workers, nearly 25% of the labour force, who earn just 600 to 700 euros a month? The pensioners, 65% of whom earn less than 600 euros? The unemployed, who are only paid unemployment benefit of around 400 euros for 12 months before it stops altogether? 
We have been facing repeated waves of austerity for the past 25 years. Austerity policies began back in 1985, in order, supposedly, to raise the competitiveness of the Greek economy. And the result is this new wave of barbaric attacks, worse than all the previous years of austerity put together.
The people who are lazy and corrupt, liars and thieves, are those in power, the ruling elite together with their friends the big capitalists, not Greek workers and pensioners!
They created the deficits, they created the debts. The governments did this consciously, particularly over the past two decades, by transferring wealth to the rich and to big capital, by using the state budget as a conveyor belt.
How was this done? Let me give you a simple example. In the mid ‘90s taxation on corporate profits was 45%. Today it is 20%. But even this 20% is only about 10% in reality. The capitalists receive ludicrous donations, “incentives”, and all sorts of hand-outs so that they can claim back about half of the taxes they have paid.
Government revenue was thus continuously undermined. This led to deficits, which in turn led to loans to cover them. But they want us to pay for them.
Here’s another example of how they are trying to make workers pay for their crisis. Since the start of the banking crisis in 2008, Greek governments, both PASOK and “New Democracy”, have provided the Greek bankers with hot cash or “guarantees” to a total of 108 billion euros. This equals about one-third of the total sovereign debt.
Where do Governments find such huge sums when they are on the verge of bankruptcy? They borrow them – from the EU, the ECB and the IMF.  Then they squeeze it out of the Greek working class.
But take a note of the following. They have handed out 108 billion euros in cash or guarantees to the Greek banks when the total value of the Greek banking system on the Greek stock exchange is only about 15 billion euros. In short, the Greek government could have easily bought the whole banking sector, seven times over! But no! Why? Because if they did, they would be admitting that the private sector is hopeless, that capitalism is catastrophic, and that the bankers are parasites.
Now workers are told that, if the Government don’t get loans from the EU and the IMF – under the harsh terms imposed by the EU and the IMF – they won’t have money to pay for wages and pensions. Again, this is lies.
The only reason that they need new loans is to pay back the previous loans. For example, over the ten years between 2000 and 2009, the Greek governments received loans totalling 485 billion euros. Over the same period they paid back the lenders 450 billion euros. So, in 10 years, only 35 billion euros went into the economy. The vast majority just went back to the lenders, into the pockets of the bankers who make loans to the Greek state, into the pockets of the Greek, German, French Swiss, and British bankers. These parasites borrow money from the ECB at 1 – 1 ½ % interest rates and lend it to the Greek state at interest rates of between 5 and 7 %!
According to a recent poll, one year after the first IMF – EU memorandum was applied,
34% of Greek households live below the poverty line,
50% will not have sufficient heating next winter,
45% do not feed themselves properly,
29% are not in a position to pay their utility bills
So it is not a surprise that there is massive anger in Greek society. This is reflected in struggles.
At the moment, there are strikes taking place on a daily basis. There is a demonstration in the centre of Athens nearly every day – often two or three.
But these struggles have not been able to achieve victories. This is because Union leaderships have not been carrying out struggles with the intention of winning them. That’s because the overwhelming majority of union leaderships are under the control of the two political parties which alternate in power in Government, PASOK and New Democracy.
These union leaders call strikes but without a clear timescale, and without any clear plan – just to let off steam. For example, when the government recently announced the closure of nearly 2000 schools, the response of the Teachers’ Union was to call two 24hr strikes - but without any  serious plan to continue action in order to stop the closures.
What is worse is that these Unions never coordinate the struggles between them. Every sector fights it out on its own. But, in the present period, no sector on its own can defeat the government, the EU and the IMF – who all work together. The trade union leaders know this very well.
The position taken by the national leaderships of the TU movement – the TUC, in both the private and in the public sector, has been particularly scandalous. Compared to what is happening in the rest of Europe, seven 24-hour general strikes last year and three this year, may seem huge. But, given the traditions of the Greek working class and, above all, compared to the scale of the attacks the Greek working class is facing, this is far from being enough.

Working people understand the treacherous role of the Greek TUC leadership and are boiling with anger. Last year, on the day of a general strike, the TUC leader Panagopoulos tried to make a speech at the workers’ rally but was physically attacked by strikers. He was chased through the crowds, but no trade unionist stepped in to defend him. Since then, he has only been seen in public accompanied by six bodyguards.
It isn’t just that the trade union leaders don’t respond to the needs of the situation – it is also that they systematically sabotage the development of the struggles.
Take the example of my Union, the Bus Workers’ Union of Athens and Piraeus, which has about 6,000 members. When the government began its attack against us last December, the leadership of the Union, under the control of PASOK and ND, tried to justify why they were not calling for militant strike action. Their excuse was to blame workers, saying that they were not willing to fight.
But, when the brutal cuts were announced, they were forced to call for strike action so as not to be completely exposed. Strike action took place over a period of about 3 months. But the leadership was not really determined, there was no plan of action, no escalation, and above all there was absolutely no attempt to coordinate the struggle with other sections of the wider public sector that were also under attack.
Towards the end of February, the majority in the leadership decided that it was time to call off the action. They launched a blatant coup d’état against the Union. They refused to call executive committee meetings, they refused to go the meetings called by other members of the Union executive, and they hid, so that a mass-meeting of the bus-workers would not be called. They knew that if it had been, it would have voted in favour of continuing the struggle.
They then went ahead with a fake ‘referendum’ planned to formalise the decision to stop the strikes. It wasn’t only against the Unions’ constitution, it was also against the law, since they forged the signatures of other members of the Executive Committee, in order to achieve the necessary majority required to call a referendum. All this was done in order to disappoint, to demoralise, to break the will of the bus workers to fight.
There had been three months of struggle. Our action inevitably caused a lot of disruption to the people of Athens and Piraeus who used public transport. But, despite this, they were on our side. Right up to the end of our dispute, 60% of people were in favour of the strike, despite all the massive government propaganda conducted through the mass media. They tried to present the bus workers as evil people determined to make ordinary people suffer so as not to lose our privileges. The public support showed their understanding of the situation and their class solidarity.
For these Trade Union leaders there is only one word: traitors. If my sector had been the only sector which had been sabotaged and betrayed, the damage would not be too great. But this is what they do everywhere.
Despite defeats like ours, the Greek working class will continue to fight. It has no other choice because the attacks that we face will continue and they will be immense.
The last development in the struggles of Greek society has been the movement of the “enraged”. They have followed the example of the Spanish ‘Indignados’ and inspired by the revolutions in the Arab world. Last Sunday, without any exaggeration, 500,000 assembled in the central square in Athens. This was perhaps the biggest gathering of people since 1981.
Greek society is at boiling-point. But in order for this anger to find a way forward and for our struggles to win, we have to do everything we can to rebuild our Trade Union movement.
Trade union organisations must pass into the hands of the rank and file. To be democratically controlled by the membership, the struggles must be in the hands of the movement itself.
At the same time we need to rebuild the political organisations of the working class, because today’s mass left parties have lost the plot. They have shown themselves to be absolutely and entirely inadequate for the tasks of this period. This is one of the reasons why in the most recent polls abstention has reached the unprecedented level for Greece of 50.9%, with support for the mass left parties stagnant.
These are the tasks that we have ahead of us. For these we shall fight in the next period with all our strength.
But there is another task that we must never forget. This is internationalism. This is not a struggle of the Greeks alone, but also of the Portuguese, the Spanish, the Irish, the British and more, because we are all being attacked at the same time.
All over Europe, big capital is united against us, but the working class is not able to put up a united resistance. This is the fault of the leadership. Our strength is immense but it is not put into action. We have to make sure that workers begin to realise their strength and fight together, in united struggles, across the continent.
Let me finish with a message of solidarity for all those taking action on June 30. Get out on the picket lines, on the streets and demonstrations, and show Cameron that, united in action, working people will defeat their attacks.

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