Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Whatever Happened to the Struggles-Interview for PR

How do you assess the results of the last six months of strikes and protests against the government/IMF cuts packages? Has the government been forced to modify, delay or abandon any elements of the austerity drive?

The demonstrations led to a mass explosion of workers’ anger. The general strike on 5 May for the first time led to conflict between the base of the KKE (Greek Communist Party) and its followers who were carrying PAME flags (their trade union body). This was the high point which was cut short by the government’s provocation against the Marfin Bank workers.[1]

In reality the only people who are hoping for some sort of solution are the international banks who have received many times over the amount of capital they have loaned. To understand how Greek debt has accumulated one must remember that six months ago Greece re-paid a loan which it had received during the revolution of 1821!

The Greek government is taking out loans to pay back previous ones and as a result the foreign debt now stands at €325bn and about another €50bn will be added to this in 2010. Meanwhile, public debt amounts to 120% of GDP and instead of getting smaller will rise to around 150% by the end of 2010.

The government will be obliged to proceed to take even harder and more vicious austerity measures. It won’t abandon or change its policies. It is not intimidated by a series of 24-hour strikes and demonstrations; in essence a number of street parades at a safe distance from the centres of power.

Why did the trade unions fail to intensify the protests beyond one-day strikes as the summer progressed? Wouldn’t an indefinite strike of transport and the public sector have brought the government down? Was it that the rank and file were not prepared for the sacrifices of an extended strike, or were the leaders of the trade unions too fearful?

The reasons for the failure are political. The Greek TUC leaders who are generally known as “godfather workers’ leaders” are political appointments which lead to their top chiefs eventually entering Parliament or some other type of state subsidized NGO. With such a career path mapped out they never want to rock the boat. The other union leaders associated with the KKE, under the umbrella known as PAME, split from the Greek TUC more than a decade ago and refuse to march together with the TUC. Despite the numbers on the demos and general strikes, no unified action was ever achieved in any general strike. We arrived at the ridiculous situation after the 5 May strikes whereby the KKE refused to go near the centre of the city and marched to the tourist spots of the Akropolis in order to disperse.

After calling their own supporters “fascists” for attempting to storm Parliament, the KKE held a mass rally on 15 May where at least 200,000 gathered and where the usual Stalinist policy of escalating the fight in the not too distant future was announced; but the actual outcome was division, disorganization and dissolution. On the one hand they refuse to strive to overthrow capitalism; on the other, they refuse to call for Greece to leave the EU – and so provoke an Argentinia-style default – since they argue that capitalism will still dominate the country.

In practice therefore their policy is to strengthen the position of the KKE and their unions and little else; they have done everything in their power to keep the workers’ movement divided and disunited. The rank and file showed its militancy at the 5 May demo when thousands occupied the steps of Parliament to demand that the “thieves were prosecuted” and that the “politicians are forced to pay”. With this action the rank and file instinctively realized that the traditional one day token strikes were leading nowhere.

Without a united workers’ response – joint demos, joint disruption of capitalist functioning (as happened during the lorry drivers’ strike) – the 24-hour parades only have the effect of demoralising large groups of workers as the crisis of leadership becomes a crisis for the whole of the class. They could at least have organised a blockade of the IMF offices in Athens or called for the surrounding of Parliament to not allow the MPs to leave, or even for camps to be set up outside Parliament, something that would rally the people to the cause.

Instead the forces of the left demoralised and disorganised the resistance, by assuming that the methods of yesteryear (a general strike every so often followed by a march) would guarantee some type of crumbling of the will of the politicians.

How do you assess the economic situation going into next year? Recovery or further recession and worse?

In the April-June period this year Germany experienced a strong recovery but Greece’s recession deepened. Tourism is down at least 15% from last year. Building construction (which represents 25% of GDP) has gone into freefall down by at least 33%. Unemployment according to INE-GSEE (Greek TUC’s Labour Economic Institute) is scheduled to hit the one million mark by December 2010, that is, about 20% of the workforce. Thousands of shops which are not part of large chains are closing daily – an estimated 17% so far of 3,500 outlets. The centre of Athens is starting to resemble a post-industrial war zone.

There is much petty crime, drugs are traded openly in broad daylight and at night the centre turns into an area where there are very many street prostitutes.

The IMF packages aim to speed up the sackings of workers to aid in the continued privatisations that have been announced in the train companies and the national electricity system which to date have remained under state ownership.

The full liberalisation of a whole host of middle class professions: hauliers, black cab drivers, pharmacists, solicitors, lawyers etc. aims to allow big companies to take over these sectors and turn the staff into salaried employees. That way they can increase productivity, and profits with lower costs possible to the consumer and other businesses.

One has also to take into account that in Greece social security payments for the unemployed only last one year and in order to qualify one has to have worked a full two years. After that there is nothing.

The consequent fall in consumer spending and the increase in taxes (e.g an across-the-board VAT rise to 23%), the rise of official inflation to 5.6%, coupled with the short term increase in interest rates on government bonds (8%) and the three-year imposition of zero wage increases in both the private and government sector, point in one direction only: a collapse of GDP and therefore the tax base of the government.

This is guaranteed as it is impossible for Greece to export its way out of the crisis while it is a member of the Eurozone and paying the punitive rates of interest to foreign bond holders. In the first six months of 2010 there has been a 4% fall in GDP so if this continues through to the next six months we could be looking at around a 10% fall.

When will the major social effects of lower pensions, benefits and pay really bite? Will this force people back onto the streets?

The demonstrations this year occurred essentially prior to the measures being taken in order to forestall them. As such one can say the struggle was generalised before the crisis really started to bite across the board. One cannot predict what is going to happen next or when a new strike will provide a spark for a generalised anti-IMF insurrection. But no one, including the mass media, is predicting calm waters ahead; instead, everyone is waiting for a storm.

The wage freeze, cuts in pensions and mass sackings in the public sector, the looting of the population, the collapse of social welfare and the stopping of public works, does not only make people despair but it intensifies the crisis of the market and make the recession tip over into a full blown depression.

When people are condemned to a level of poverty in which thousands upon thousands will go hungry, the state threatens to sink itself. Where is the government going to generate the increased tax revenue it requires to fulfill the demands of foreign creditors?

Can you say something about the role of education sector, the role of students during the last wave of strikes? What role will students play in the September/October period in relaunching generalised struggles?

Mostly adults were on the demos against the IMF. Students and university students, whilst taking part, haven’t been involved in their own occupations against the IMF measures. Very many joined either the Greek TUC or KKE-PAME organized demos.

Due to the pension attacks about 12,000 teachers in primary and secondary education have asked to receive their pensions and quit their job. This has created a shortage of 20,000 teachers when schools open again in September. The government has announced it will only recruit another 3,000 leaving a massive shortfall which will be covered by compulsory overtime of between 5-10 hours for each teacher. And this is happening alongside reductions of between €1,000-€3,000 a year for every teacher.

The enforced transfer between primary and secondary schools or vice-versa to cover shortages is also one of the Presidential measures passed. Women teachers will be hit by the retirement age being raised to 65. So the attacks on women and students are among the most brutal of the IMF-government measures.

So when the summer holidays are over students will return to schools without many teachers, with an increase in the remaining teachers’ workload and with the latter having a big hole in their pay packet. Taking into account that youth unemployment has already reached about 40% for all young people between 18-25, a whole generation are never going to have a reasonable chance of a job so probably see no point in studying.

Have any parts of the far left grown in the course of the strikes and demonstrations? Has Pasok suffered a major loss of support?

Many workers who had either voted for PASOK or the other big parties rallied to the KKE during the demonstrations. The demonstration of 5 May was definitely the biggest ever since the fall of the military in 1974. There must have been more than 800,000 present – the centre of Athens was jammed, people could not march anywhere as the roads were full. After the IMF measures PASOK politicians have had difficulty going to restaurants or appear in any public place.

Middle class professionals confront them in almost daily tirades such as, “give back the stolen money” and “pay our restaurant bills”. Almost always the police are called to “restore order” after various things are thrown at the politicians such as ashtrays, salt and pepper pots etc. But only 3 PASOK MPs have jumped ship.

The only real growth that occurred in the left was thousands joining the KKE contingents on the demonstrations, but this was before being called “fascists”. This slander has provoked internal conflict, leading already to splits in one section of the official left (Synaspismos-Syriza, the ex-Eurostalinists). But this growth had more the character of participating in the demonstrations as opposed to people actually becoming members. Yet the large number who occupied the steps of Parliament chanting “thieves, scumbags, politicians” shows that they are ripe to go further than the existing political and trade-union leaderships will sanction.

The indefinite Greek hauliers’ strike which crippled the economy for seven days at the end of July was a spark that was about to light a more general fire. Twice in mass general assemblies truckers voted to continue their strike. No parties of the left either called for or led solidarity demos in support of the hauliers. The hauliers’ union – behind the backs of its members – called off the strike for fear of it leading to a full blown national crisis in the middle of the summer season. The KKE sent a representative who gave a typical trade union bureaucrats speech of supporting the strike on paper but in practice it did nothing to aid them.

[1] This was the incident where three bank workers died when their bank was set on fire during a demonstration in May

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