Greece: striking back

Issue: 128

Panos Garganas

Greece has been at the heart of the struggle over austerity in Europe. Panos Garganas is editor of the weekly paper Workers’ Solidarity and a leading member of the Sosialistiko Ergatiko Komma (SEK, Socialist Workers Party), Greek sister organisation of the British SWP. He talked to Alex Callinicos in Athens on 8 September, the day that a fivehour strike by railway and public transport workers shut the city down, announcing the resumption of hostilities between the Greek working class and the social democratic government of George Papandreou after the summer break.

First of all, I want to ask you about how severe the economic crisis is in Greece. Recently there was a shocking statistic that April to June 2010 was the seventh successive quarter that Greece has experienced a contraction of output.

It is getting worse—this is clear from the latest results. The predictions at the beginning of the year were for a contraction, but they were hoping it would be anything between 1 and 2 percent. Now it’s heading for between 4 and 5 percent. The tourist industry is badly hit. Construction in August was at the lowest point in 15 years. These are areas on which the Greek economy depends, so obviously the crisis is getting worse in terms of the recession.

And it may get worse also in terms of the fiscal crisis, although the government are proudly announcing that they have cut the deficit by 40 percent in the first seven months of the year. But there are doubts whether this will continue, because they’ve been very tough in the area of cuts, but they’re doing badly in the area of state revenue. The recession is hitting their plans. They were hoping for more money through raising value added tax from 19 to 23 percent, but that’s not working in the recession. So both in terms of economic activity and in terms of the fiscal crisis, things are getting worse.

Just to follow up on that, even if the fiscal measures aren’t working from the government’s perspective, what sort of impact are they having on people’s working conditions, their income, and so on?

First of all, they’re having a bad impact on unemployment because no people are getting state jobs—there’s a ban. There are also short-term contract workers whose contracts are not being renewed. Government policy is pushing unemployment up directly through what’s happening at the state level and indirectly because of the recession its measures are intensifying. So unemployment is heading for a figure of over one million, which is huge for a country the size of Greece. The whole population is 11 million, so one million unemployed is gigantic.

What would you say the government’s strategy is? How it does hope politically to deal with the resistance and get through and satisfy the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, and how strong is its position?

Well, the government is hoping that the package of measures it voted through parliament will be the end of the story and that it will not have to go through a new round of attacks at the general level, as it has done in the past six months. In the past six months it has voted through the agreement with the IMF and a number of cuts in hospitals and so on. So it’s hoping that this is out of the way and that what will follow is confrontations with particular sectors. It’s hoping there will be no more general strikes, because it says it’s put behind it the measures that provoke the whole of the working class, like social security “reform”, pension “reform”, and so on.

What it has in mind is that it will be able to isolate sectors—for example, power workers, bank workers, who are opposed to privatisations that have to be carried through. At that level the government has no choice—this portion of the plan agreed with the IMF and the EU has to be implemented in the coming months. So in political terms it is hoping it will not provoke any generalised response and it will be able to handle individual strikes in sectors that will come under the hammer in the coming months.

Some hope! The government is weaker politically as a result of what has happened in the first half of the year. It knows it has provoked the strongest response from the working class since the junta collapsed in 1974 and that is a fact that has created a lot of discontent in Pasok, the ruling party. The government has just been reshuffled and there’s been an attempt to bring back into the government old hands of Pasok so that they can cool down the feelings of revolt.

But it is very doubtful whether this operation will work. There are elections coming up on 7 November. They concern local authorities but there has been a new set-up where the country has been divided into 13 regions, so the elections for the leaders of the regions are practically national elections, like general elections. The government is very worried that people’s anger will be expressed in a hammering for Pasok that will weaken the government even further.

There’s clearly been a formidable response by the Greek working class movement to the austerity measures—six general strikes in as many months during the first half of 2010. But how would you assess in more depth the response, both at the rank and file level where, as you’ve already said, there’s considerable combativity, and also in terms of the trade union leadership, given that the most powerful wing of the union bureaucracy is aligned to Pasok, the ruling party?

During the summer and coming into the autumn, there has been a debate going on: did we achieve anything by having all those general strikes? Some people say the government has been able to push through what it wanted, so it was all in vain. This argument is something that is affecting people, that is pushing people back. But at the same time, there are developments in the opposite direction.

During the summer the government tried to confront truck owners and owner-drivers, who were out on strike, by imposing military discipline and ordering them back to work, to break up the strike. That didn’t work. The government was forced to go into dialogue with their unions to turn them back. The strong tactic was practically destroyed. And if it didn’t work for truck owners—people would say they could be easily isolated from the working class (since they are owners, they’re not even working class)—the government won’t be able to use it against, for example, power workers and other powerful sections of the working class.

Yes, the general strikes did not bring down the government, which would be the only way to avoid the measures being voted for in parliament, but they were not a failure in terms of creating a movement that provides the background for every sector that will fight in the coming months.

But the trade union bureaucracy is accepting this argument that the general strikes failed and suggesting that we should try other tactics. Sections of the left also accepted the argument and say we should now orient on the elections. And we have to argue that there’s no other way but to fight back and build a strike movement, using the general strikes of the past six months to build this movement up.

As you just said, the stakes are very high in Greece: to defeat the austerity measures really requires bringing down the government. It seems to me clear that lots of people here understand this. But then naturally that poses the question: if you’re prepared to see the government fall, what’s the alternative? There’s been some discussion on the Greek radical left about what the logic of resisting austerity is. Some people, including SEK, have argued that it’s necessary to refuse to repay the debt, to be prepared to withdraw from the euro, indeed if necessary from the European Union as such, and other people on the left say this is a nationalist regression and that it isn’t a viable strategy. So I’d be interested to know what you think about these questions.

One of the most important developments politically in Greece has been that these questions are being debated in public. This is partly because of the severity of the crisis: there was a meeting in Como a few days back where Jean-Claude Trichet, the president of the European Central Bank, had to face the question of whether Greece might get out of the euro. He replied, of course, that this is unthinkable, but the crisis itself is forcing bank governors to debate the issue.

The good development is that this debate is also happening among rank and file activists and the left. So in the last three or four months, there’s been an initiative by left-wing economists posing this alternative, that we should stop paying the debt and confront the consequences—that is, nationalise the banks and go back to a national currency, because the European authorities would not accept a step like that.

In terms of the logic of this proposal, it’s formidable. Greece pays €1 billion every week to service the debt at the level it is now. And the level will be increasing even if the IMF-EU plan works. They project that the level of the debt as a percentage of gross domestic product will go up, so the payments that the Greek state has to carry out in the coming years will go up, and they will be unbearable. So the idea that we will stop these payments and confront the consequences is very concrete. It’s becoming very popular with people who are involved in the strikes.

Practically, everywhere where we raise these questions the response is: “Yes, it’s an excellent idea, but how could we do it?” This is where the debate is heading now, I think: people will start discussing more seriously how these measures can be implemented.

Sections of the left have responded that this is isolationism. There’s been criticism that this is the wrong way for the left to go, that this is the way Latin American populists have gone, that in Europe we have an
alternative—building alliances inside the EU so that the left and the unions and any progressive movements will pressurise towards a reform of the Maastricht Treaty and the European Central Bank, for a change of policy at the EU level. This is an idea that is in the air. There’s no sign of anyone in terms of governments or political parties at the EU level moving in that direction. So promising Greek strikers that there’s going to be a reform like that is pie in the sky. People have to fight to save jobs and pensions and wages in the here and now.

And the proposal that we should stop paying the debt meets these requirements. The so-called internationalist alternative misses the boat. So this is the first thing that has to be clarified in this debate. At the second level, of course, there are political forces that think that if we stop paying the debt and withdraw from the discipline of the euro, we can have a revival of Greek capitalism. But first of all there aren’t that many people who argue along these lines. And secondly to say that we are in danger of becoming Greek nationalists if we go in that direction is overstating the dangers. If a default is forced on the Greek state, and the left argues for stopping paying the debt and for nationalising the banks and going back to the drachma and so on, it will have to confront the sections of the ruling class that may have it in mind that OK, now we can have a nice devaluation and make the workers pay. It’ll be a fight, but it’ll be the next fight we have to face.

OK, last question: Greece has in relative terms the largest radical left in Europe and one of its key sections, namely Synaspismos (the Coalition of the Left of Movements and Ecology), is in crisis. SEK is part of another grouping, ANT.AR.SY.A (Anti-capitalist Left Cooperation—the acronym means Rebellion in Greek), which has been drawing more forces towards it. What would you say are the prospects for the radical and revolutionary left in Greece and how much influence do you think they can have over the development of the struggle in this crisis?

There’s been a concerted attack on the left throughout the past few months. Pasok in government uses the argument that the left that supports the strikes is destroying the economy. Papandreou said in parliament: you think you’re destroying Greek capitalism—in fact you’re destroying the Greek economy. And that has been the line of attack from the government and the media, and it’s putting a lot of pressure on the left.

They’re putting pressure on the Communist Party (KKE), which has considerable influence in the unions. During the general strikes KKE activists were organising the picket lines stopping the ferry boats moving out of the port of Piraeus and there was hysteria that they were keeping tourists away. The same pressures are on Synaspismos, which was under attack from 2008, when it supported the youth revolt, and the then right wing government and the media were saying that effectively you’re supporting the anarchists who are smashing bank windows and so on.

So one element that we have to keep in mind in these debates on the Greek left is that the whole of the Greek left is under pressure. There’s a huge ideological attack and the fact that we have a social democratic government means that it can be orchestrated. Sections of the left have capitulated. The right wing of Synaspismos, who have broken away, are moving in the direction of collaboration with Pasok. So in a sense this campaign has been effective—they have produced a split in Synaspismos.

The problem is that the rest of Synaspismos are not clear about how to handle this attack, this split. Rather than say that, well, these are people who have capitulated under these pressures, we have to make sure we reply effectively, they are seeking ways of minimising the significance of the split. You remember the Velvet Revolution of 1989 in Czechoslovakia? They’re thinking of a velvet divorce, which isn’t the most effective tactic, because it gives a lot of leeway for the breakaway group to keep pulling them to the right. This is what’s happening in Synaspismos. Then, because of that, there’s polarisation. There are people who want to shift to the left and the leadership is trying to contain these centrifugal forces.

The far left and the regroupment of the anti-capitalist left, ANT.AR.SY.A, are a counterweight to these tendencies, both in terms of activity, supporting sections of workers who go on strike, plus politically and ideologically—politically by raising the question of not paying the debt, which is a very powerful weapon for the left, and ideologically by explaining that the social-democratic forces have tied their fortunes with Greek capitalism. They will go down as Greek capitalism is in such a huge crisis, but the left has to make sure that it isn’t part of the shipwreck. This is what’s at stake.

I think the regroupment on the left will proceed. There are people who are breaking with Pasok, people who are breaking with Synaspismos, and they are seeking an alternative. We have not reached the stage yet where ANT.AR.SY.A is a home for these people—by no means. But the hope that this will happen in the coming period is alive.

Just on the struggle immediately ahead, there’s going to be a big demonstration in Salonica this Saturday, 11 September, as Papandreou launches his autumn plans, after the reshuffle and going into the elections, and the unions—even Pasok-supporting unions—have called for a demonstration. People are saying it’s going to be very big. It will be the launching pad for all the things we’ve been discussing. Bus workers and transport workers in Athens have initiated the autumn campaign by going on strike today. Demonstrators in Salonica will give a much bigger push.

Then we’ll see how it goes on from there. For example, we’ll see how this coordinated campaign started by rail workers and transport workers will continue. Greek Rail is bankrupt. There’s a lot of pressure from the IMF for the government to dismantle it—privatise what can be privatised and forget about the rest. Rail workers are under the hammer. So one of the confrontations of the autumn will be around rail workers and transport workers in Athens.

Power workers are also under attack, but they are much more powerful, and their union is to the left of the rail workers’ union, so the government is very careful in confronting them. But it will have to confront them. And then there’s the question of privatising the public banks, which produced a confrontation during the summer. Hellenic Postbank has a strong union. They went on strike and were very effective. So the idea that the government will be able to sell Postbank to one of the other banks, bolstering the banking sector, is in the plans of the government and will produce confrontation.

So there are many areas where there will be bitter strikes in the coming months. We’ll see whether we’ll be successful in generalising them and producing a wave of general strikes in support of these groups of workers. That’s what’s at stake—after the election, I would say. The election result will set the tone. If the government is hammered, it will have second thoughts about going into any of these confrontations. If it is successful, then it will go for them, and there’s going to be a fight.

Postscript: There is a fight already. The demo in Salonica was big (20,000 is the official police figure) and militant. Since then, rail workers have staged a very successful 24hour strike on 14 September in response to the government’s announcement of its plans for privatisation. The rail unions plan to continue with stoppages for five days in late September. It’s going to be a hot autumn in Greece.