Greece’s student movement

Issue: 112

Panos Garganas

The new academic year started with a bang in Greece. Saturday 9 September saw a mass demonstration from all over the country in Salonica. Twenty thousand people, a mixture of trade unionists and students, converged on the Vellidion Conference Centre where prime minister Costas Karamanlis was presenting his policies for 2006-2007 to an elite audience of businessmen, bankers and top state officials. The police had already had a hard time controlling the area outside the Vellidion because the previous day some 3,000 angry young people, fans of the local football club PAOK, attempted to storm the conference centre in protest against the government.

On Monday 18 September primary school teachers started a five-day strike that is set to be repeated every week throughout the autumn term.

These are the after-effects of a movement that rocked the universities in Greece during May and June this year—the primary school teachers’ union took the decision for this strike in June after delegates from their annual conference joined en masse a national demonstration of university students occupying their colleges.

At the height of the movement nearly 420 out of 450 colleges were occupied. Lecturers were on all out strike and students organised the occupations with massive assemblies in every college and city-wide coordinating committees. There were mass demonstrations every week, one week locally, the next week nationally in Athens. Politically, the movement was dominated by the openly anti-capitalist far left. The main demand was for the government to drop its plans for neo-liberal reform in education.

Having failed to break the momentum of the movement with a brutal police attack on a national demo, and confronted with escalating joint action between the students and the trade unions, the government was forced to retreat. Education minister Marietta Yannakou pledged that no legislation would be rushed through parliament during the summer and a long period of public debate (‘for as long as it takes’) would follow. It was a humiliating U-turn. The students celebrated this as a ‘first victory’, kept up the occupations for another couple of weeks and promised to be back in the autumn.
Back in March, when the French students were engaged in their struggle against the CPE, there was an open debate in Greece—could it happen here too?

The Greek Tory government said no and tried to present themselves as to the left of their French counterparts. They argued that PASOK, the New Labour type opposition in Greece, was much closer to the Villepin CPE plan. Yet opinion polls at that time showed that a massive 72 percent said yes, the French example could be repeated in Greece. The debate moved on to discuss the character of the new student movement in France. Papers with the highest circulation like Ta Nea and Eleftherotypia carried articles by academics and intellectuals, veterans of 1968, who compared the new movement to May 1968. The verdict, more or less unanimous, was that this was different: May 1968 was radical; young people then wanted to change the world. The new movement was ‘conservative’; it tried to preserve ‘privileges’ secured in the past. At best, it could be called a defensive movement, and this was ‘understandable’ in view of the high level of youth unemployment and the insecurity felt by young people.

It was a patronising attitude, using a wrong, crude psychological and sociological approach. It is a mistake to try to explain and characterise a movement with abstract social blueprints. It is politics that shapes movements; it is radicalised people that take initiatives, not some automatic ‘social factors’.

Fortunately, this debate was cut short as young people in Greece inspired by the French example put their stamp on events much more forcefully than those of us who argued against the smear of ‘conservatism’.

One very visible source of radicalisation was the anti-war movement. Most of the young people going through university studies now were school students in 2003. In March of that year, as the first bombs fell in Iraq, almost every Greek city was shaken by mass demonstrations against Bush’s war. They were the biggest demos since the collapse of the junta back in 1974. School students were at the heart of the anti-war explosion, shutting down schools and converging on the city centres in their thousands. The Greek Stop The War Coalition lost count of how many schools marched with their own banners on 21 March 2003 in Athens, Salonica, Yannena and other cities.

As the occupations spread almost three years to the date, we at Workers Solidarity made a point of asking students that we interviewed what they were doing back in 2003. A huge proportion of those involved in the coordinating committees of the occupations now said they were involved in anti-war walkouts back then.

The international movement against capitalist globalisation has been another factor in the student occupations in Greece. At the European Social Forum that took place in Athens in early May one of the biggest seminars brought together students from France, Italy and Greece to discuss the way forward. Before that students from the Greek Genoa 2001 Campaign had organised a speaking tour for a student from the occupied Tobbiac University in Paris. They estimated that around 1,000 students attended those meetings, where people had the opportunity to hear first hand how the French occupations were organised. They very quickly put these lessons into practice. Almost all of them played a key role in the general assemblies that spread the Greek occupations.

One concrete example of this influence came at the Philosophy School in Athens. There a student union executive committee dominated by Tories and CP Youth members refused to call a general assembly. An Ad Hoc Committee of Genoa 2001, the main far left student group EAAK and PASOK Youth members took the initiative in calling a mass meeting. They organised a ‘flying picket’ of lecture halls and got together a meeting of 1,500 people, the biggest student union assembly in 15 years. That got the occupation started in the Philosophy School. The idea of a ‘flying picket’ was directly copied from the French experience.

The most immediate factor leading to the student occupations in Greece, however, was the lecturers’ strike. The Federation of Teaching and Research Staff (POSDEP) has a radical background. Back in the 1970s assistants in the universities had to organise a 100-day strike to win democratic reform of a system dominated by professional prerogatives. Now these gains are under attack as neo-liberal ‘reforms’ try to ‘free’ universities from too much influence by students and staff and open them up to private ‘sponsors’. POSDEP is opposing these plans with a series of strikes.

At first the student left was suspicious of lecturers’ actions, if not openly hostile. There was a lot of government propaganda about’irresponsible’ staff using students as ‘hostages’ with their strikes to defend ‘privileged positions’. But there was also a lot of ultra-left rhetoric about lecturers having separate ‘class interests’ from the students. When the first POSDEP strikes began three years ago, the students of ‘Genoa 2001’ were alone in organising solidarity and joining the strikers’ demos.

Things have moved on since then. Other unions have led important struggles, particularly in the last year. Bank workers were on strike for a month in June 2005 fighting against neo-liberal ‘reform’ of their pension funds. It was a strike that won solidarity action from other unions and obviously had an influence on the students. It was a blow to sectarian ideas that students were on their own, isolated from ‘privileged’ groups like bank employees and lecturers, not interested in trade unions and joint action. The French example of common demonstrations organised by student occupations and trade unions fell on fertile ground. So when the students of Genoa 2001 proposed that the days of POSDEP strikes should be seen as an opportunity to start occupations in the universities, this time the idea caught on, despite opposition from the CP Youth in the colleges.

Ideas had changed, not just among the students but in the trade union movement too. With the occupations spreading in the universities and the government using the police to attack student demos, the question of trade union action became very pressing. We launched an appeal that was headed by the president of the Fertiliser Workers Union in Salonica. They have been occupying their factory against closure since the beginning of 2006. It proved a strong link, and on 21 June there was a day of joint action. By then the government had retreated, and both the Greek TUC (GSEE) and the students set their eyes on the next date: 9 September in Salonica.

At this stage it is not clear how powerful the emergence of the new student movement will be in the next academic year. But the French and Greek occupations have set a strong example. The neo-liberal attack on education is similar across Europe. Students everywhere have the same reasons to oppose these ‘reforms’. Now they have the same sources of inspiration too.

A new radical organised student movement can be a step forward for the broader anti-capitalist movement. For years we have had to face accusations of being ‘revolutionary tourists’ as we demonstrated in Prague, Genoa, Seville or Edinburgh. Many European governments have tried to drive a wedge between the trade unions and the youth element of the big international demonstrations. The radicalisation of the youth was only visible in the streets and the dominance of autonomist politics seemed to perpetuate this state of affairs. Now the students in their colleges are emerging as a new element, more collective, with their own space where they organise and take initiatives that can inspire broader layers of radicalised youth. This can add greater weight to the movement against capitalist globalisation and imperialist war. It is a perspective that seems within reach and is certainly worth fighting for.