Greece: waves from the student struggle

Issue: 115

Nikos Loudos

The right wing government in Greece is likely to call an early general election this autumn following a year of resistance by workers and students. A wave of student struggle began in May 2006 and continued through to April 2007, forming the focus for a wider workers’ movement which has blunted the government’s neoliberal offensive.

Costas Karamanlis’s New Democracy government was elected in May 2004 and represented the great hope of Greek capitalists eager to axe workers’ rights, especially in the state sector; privatise sections of the economy; cut health and education expenditure; and, in particular, attack pension rights. Governments formed by the social democratic Pasok party from 1996 to 2004 had opened way for these attacks, with party leader Costas Simitis managing to draw Pasok’s cadres and leading trade unionists behind a Blairite agenda of “modernisation”.

Two general strikes in 2001 derailed Pasok’s attacks, and New Democracy came to power promoting a “centre-right” profile. It even claimed to be on the left of Pasok over certain policies, distancing itself from the most hated government of recent decades—the Thatcherite Mitsotakis government, which collapsed after a wave of strikes in 1993. Nevertheless it set out to complete the assault begun by Pasok. One of New Democracy’s greatest assets was the new Pasok leader, George Papandreou, who was committed to neoliberalism but also able to win the support of previously marginalised cadres of “old Pasok”. Papandreou echoed the new government’s rhetoric regarding the need to put aside old divisions of left and right, and replace “politics” with “management”. He also defended closer US-Greek relations, clearing the way for Karamanlis’s Bush-friendly foreign policy.

For the first two years after its election the New Democracy government kept the pace of change slow. Eventually it chose education as the key battleground, betting on the dominance of the right wing DAP student front, and the weakness and divisions in the student movement. Education minister Marietta Giannakou presented a bill that aimed to privatise large sections of higher education.

The resistance to this bill was unprecedented. The universities staff union Posdep was the first to take action against it in March 2006, and at this point a small number of student unions went into occupation in solidarity. This proved the leaven for a wider movement. By May over 60,000 students were involved in gatherings to debate and decide on action. Mass demonstrations were held in Athens every fortnight. On 25 May, after one of the national demonstrations in Athens, a university hall was packed by students who formed a national body to coordinate the occupations. They agreed to go for non-stop occupations in all universities and colleges. At another hall nearby Posdep decided on an all-out strike beginning on
1 June and called for greater coordination with the students.

The student movement was led by the far left and the anti-capitalist movement—reformist groups such as the Communist youth organisation were opposed to the occupations. The movement also had to overcome a tradition within the student left of treating teachers as “class enemies”.

These, and many other obstacles, were swept aside by the May-June 2006 movement. After many years students, seen in Greece as examples of a growing “social conservatism”, were fighting, and the growing demonstrations were becoming a focus for every worker opposed to neoliberalism. The unions called a successful one‑day general strike in solidarity with the students. Bank employees, hospital workers, doctors and others mingled with demonstrating students. There was a large contingent of primary school teachers, who had just voted to stage a five-day strike when the schools returned from the summer break, with an aggressive demand for 1,400 euros a month as an entry salary. The motion passed at their conference cited the students’ struggle as an example to be followed.

Mainstream newspapers noted that the government was haunted by the “ghost of France”—a reference to the victory of the French students’ movement against the CPE labour law attacking young workers. Fearing that the student struggle could fuel a far wider workers’ revolt, the government pulled back and promised further discussion on the bill.

The primary school teachers’ strike had an even more unexpected climax. It began on 18 September, and even the most militant participants were sure that the strike, led by what many considered the most passive education union, would last just five days. In fact it lasted six weeks. The first week’s strike was 90 percent solid, and strike committees were formed in order to organise the strike from below. They began winning support from neighbourhoods and from secondary education teachers. Weekly demonstrations in Athens and around Greece drew together thousands of teachers and their supporters, especially students and civil servants who also staged three 24-hour strikes.

By mid-October another movement emerged, this time among secondary schools students. Students at over 1,000 secondary schools occupied. They were fighting against a law by the same education minister, Giannakou, which sought to limit the number of students gaining entry to college.

The political turmoil brought about an unexpected result. Article 16 of the Greek constitution specifies that universities must be owned and financed by the state, not by private individuals. An amendment to this article was due to be voted on in October 2006. Pasok’s leadership had promised to join New Democracy in voting in favour of an amendment to allow university privatisation. Pasok’s votes were crucial because constitutional amendments require support from 180 out of the 300 MPs. In the face of the revolt by students and teachers, Pasok leader Papandreou brokered a deal to postpone the vote until January 2007. The result of this move was to allow the struggle to continue for several months.

The impact of the primary school teachers’ strike was immense, but the outcome was not a happy one. The government offered a bonus of just 105 euros a month. This reflected weaknesses in the movement. First, the secondary teachers’ union never wholeheartedly joined the strike by primary teachers, merely staging two 48-hour strikes as a show of “symbolic support”. The Greek equivalent of the TUC called only a single four-hour strike.

Second, the university students staged only a handful of occupations in support of the teachers, mainly in universities with active groups of Greek Socialist Workers Party members. The common sense, even among many radical left students, was that the students should rest after the May‑June 2006 struggle and prepare for the time when Giannakou’s bill would come back.

Third, inside the primary school teachers’ movement the strike committees never managed to coordinate on a sufficient level to take the initiative in leading the dispute. This left the strikers helpless when they were faced with two major political challenges. There was a coordinated right wing attack on the school occupations, with charges of criminality, rape and drug abuse directed against school students. The occupations started to retreat, with the Communist Party, which has the largest organised base among the school students, calling for an end to the movement. Then there were municipal elections on 15 and 22 October 2006. The absence of left alternative slates of candidates able to express the ongoing struggle made it easy for New Democracy to claim victory, despite a strong showing by the radical left. The strike leadership, which was tied to Pasok, used the election results to argue that there was no political mood for a continuation of the strike.

After the teachers’ strike was called off the momentum shifted back into the universities in the run-up to the crucial vote on the constitutional amendment. Some universities occupied before Christmas and, in the couple of weeks that followed, over 300 universities and colleges followed suit. Posdep, the universities staff union, resumed its all-out strike.

The government sought to apply a “strategy of tension”. Riot police began attacking demonstrations, with the ministers using the anarchists’ actions to blackmail students, saying they were “either with us or with the ‘black block’ terrorists”. But by this time the pressure on the Communist youth movement to join the struggle was overwhelming, and now it, Pasok and the radical left voted together in the universities. On 2 February Papandreou announced in parliament that Pasok was withdrawing its support for the constitutional amendment. This was a triumph for the movement, a second victory, bigger than that of June 2006.

An internal current in Pasok played a role in this U-turn. This was the first occasion on which an organised force inside Pasok challenged a right wing policy of the leadership by getting involved in the movement. For the first time since the years following the fall of the Greek junta in the 1970s, militants of the left, students, trade unionists and members of Pasok came together in neighbourhood and workplace committees—numbering about 1,000 across Greece—to organise a common battle. The divisions and confusion on the left have not been overcome, but the committees began to give a sense of the dynamics of common struggle.