General Strike In Greece
by Antonis Davanellos
International Socialist Review, June / July 2001
On April 26, 2001, a gigantic general strike shook Greece.
Responding to the call of the General Confederation of Greek Workers
(GSEE)-which represents private-sector workers and the union of
public-sector workers (ADEDY)-factories, services, banks, hospitals,
and transportation went dead. In Athens, a demonstration of more
than 120,000 workers took over the center of the city, and more
than 500,000 workers participated in rallies around the country.
The strike, led by the most militant sections of the working class,
energized even its weakest sections (journalists, musicians, etc.),
who turned out in force for the first time in many years.
This was the workers' answer to attempts by the social democratic
government of PASOK (Panhellenic Socialist Movement) to reform
the social welfare system by reducing pensions, raising the retirement
age, and opening up the way to private insurance companies. A
day before the strike, the government saw the storm coming and
recalled the measures, inviting the unions to dialogue "from
ground zero." But it was too late. Even though the leadership
of the unions belongs- by overwhelming majority-to PASOK, it did
not retreat, resulting in the groundbreaking strike of April 26.
A week before the strike, the newspaper of International Workers
Left (DEA, the ISO's sister organization in Greece) ran a front-page
headline that read: "They won't get through- Nothing is going
to be the same after the strike for the insurance system."
And, indeed, the situation in Greece is unfolding rapidly and
reflects significant developments in the working class. The breach
between the workers, who are the social base of the social democracy,
and the party that is supposed to represent them, PASOK, opens
up enormous opportunities for the left. Inside PASOK, the 'workers'
reactions have triggered a wave of disagreements and confrontations,
creating a chaotic situation that has driven Prime Minister Costas
Simitis (a Tony Blair-type "modernizer") into isolation.
Seemingly omnipotent until the strike began, today the prime
minister who guided the Greek economy into the Economic and Monetary
Unification in the European Union (ONE), can count on the open
support of only a small group of extreme modernizers connected
with banking and big capitalist interests. The Greek press is
already publishing editorials urging Simitis to leave office,
become a European Union commissioner, or run for the decorative
post of President of Democracy. Many worry that the crisis in
PASOK will facilitate the rise of the right-wing party New Democracy
(ND), a neoliberal party that demands swifter attacks on the working
class. The ND platform is based on emphatic demands for privatization
and so-called flexible labor relations, which effectively do away
with stable working hours and daily overtime pay.
But more observant analysts point out that the crisis in PASOK
stems from an attack from the left not the right. They also pose
the question: How could a right-wing party without support in
the unions succeed in meeting working-class demands when PASOK,
a social democratic party that until yesterday seemed to control
the majority of the unions, failed?
The developments in Greece offer valuable lessons for all
revolutionary socialists, who are faced with the duty of staving
off neoliberal policies, enacted in the majority of European countries
by social democratic governments. These developments show once
again how workers' struggles initiated to protect basic rights
can lead to a period of political crisis. In Greece today, all
appearances suggest that this period of crisis will be an extended
one, and one of extraordinary importance for the left.
Reformers without reforms
Greece is a country where the distinction between right and
left has deep roots. The explanation lies in the history of the
bloody Civil War of 1945-49, and the military dictatorship of
1967-74. In 1981, PASOK won the election in a climate that resembled
a festival of the people. Then-Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou
governed until 1989, for the most part supporting the bourgeoisie,
but also promoting some democratic reforms that gave him a progressive
veneer. The slogan "People don't forget what right means"
was PASOK's answer to any criticism from the left. In 1989, Papandreou's
government collapsed amid a wave of corruption scandals and after
repeatedly disappointing his labor and popular base with his pro-business
economic policies. The ND government that succeeded him judged
that the balance of class forces in Greece had been turned in
favor of the bosses and attempted a brutal neoliberal attack,
based on the standards of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.
That government was swept away within two and a half years
in a prolonged wave of harsh strikes and large demonstrations.
Through all its years in government, from 1993 until today, PASOK
has fixated on the goal of getting Greece in ONE, which means
that it has been dedicated to an austerity program of privatization,
flexible labor relations, restrictive income policies, and cuts
in social spending.
The policies of modernization were met with great resistance
in Greece. One after the other, large sections of workers participated
in strikes in opposition to the government. But the high level
of support for PASOK in the trade unions allowed Simitis to isolate
these struggles, confront them one section at a time, and cause
them to splinter. The results were defeats or bitter compromises,
painful for large sections of the working class (including teachers,
bank workers, and shipyard workers). Simitis was able to carry
out his attacks under relatively favorable economic circumstances.
From 1991 to 1996, the average real annual increase in gross domestic
product (GDP) was 1.4 percent. In 1997, it was 3.5 percent; in
1998, 3.5 percent; in 1999, 3.4 percent; and for 2000, it is expected
to be announced at 4.1 percent. That gave the government some
wiggle room, allowing them to present to the central trade union
bureaucracy a policy that could be called "neoliberalism
with human face."
Nevertheless, the continuous pressure on working-class living
standards increased class polarization, piling up anger and indignation
in the working class. After Greece's admittance to ONE, which
seemed an impossible dream to Greek capitalists at the beginning
of the 1990s, the ruling class saw its future coming up roses.
The developments in the Balkans and the relative improvement in
relations with Turkey opened up room for Greece to claim the role
of a leading local power. The news that the 2004 Olympic Games
are to be held in Athens triggered an explosion of land and public
works speculations. An annual increase of 4.5 percent in GDP is
predicted for the next five years. One side effect of this "progress"
was an outbreak of competition among large capitalist groups trying
to determine who would benefit the most from the new opportunities,
adding to the political pressures on the government.
But crisis appeared in earnest when signs of international
financial deterioration called all of these ambitious capitalist
dreams into question. A ruling-class consensus formed demanding
an acceleration of structural changes to the economy, a roundabout
way of calling for new attacks on workers. Under these pressures,
Simitis, who had promised a loosening up of his economic policies
after ONE, announced the "second wave of modernizing."
He set a goal of swift privatization of the large public companies:
telecommunications (OTE), electric power (DEH), and Olympic Airways
(OA)-a very bitter pill for the most loyal members of PASOK.
He asked for even greater flexibility of labor relations (including
on-call working hours and the abolition of protection from firings),
but the sharpest attack was the demolition of the social welfare
system. These modernizers, drunk from the successes they'd had
against isolated strikes, believed they could provoke the entire
labor movement with impunity. The general strike of April 26 gave
them the answer they deserved. It was so militant that it has
now called into question PASOK's ability to stay in power. After
the strike, the newspaper of the International Workers Left ran
the headline, "Workers counterattack-Now we demand,"
with a main article entitled, "The time of the left."
In Greece, the political organizations to the left of social
democracy that have strong support in the unions grew out of the
breakups and recompositions of the old Stalinist Communist Party
(KKE). The KKE went through an extended period of crisis after
the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in 1989. Today, its politics
are reminiscent of the "third period" of the Stalinist
Comintern, when communist parties set up separate unions and denounced
reformist workers' organizations as fascist. It calls both leading
and rank-and-file supporters of PASOK sellouts. It has attempted
to build KKE-based red unions, without any qualms about splitting
up the labor movement.
When the level of struggle was low, the DEA had to be very
careful to resist the peculiar "reformist sectarianism"
of the KKE, which substituted initiatives of the party for the
whole of social resistance. This policy received a loud slap on
the face on April 26. And, although the KKE leadership did not
hesitate to organize a separate, "pure" May Day demonstration
a few days later, there is already evidence that some experienced
labor leaders are questioning party leadership on the crucial
matters of the unity of the class and the unions. The ex-eurocommunist
section, now going by the name "Alliance of the Left,"
has the opposite problem. It was under pressure by its right wing
to support PASOK by entering into a governing alliance with it.
But one result of the general strike was the reinforcement of
a left current searching out alliances-not with PASOK, but with
dissidents of the KKE and also with the revolutionary left. The
closing of the gap between right-wing and social democratic policies
leads workers to search for a third pole, increasing the pressure
for unity of the left. After the general strike, that pressure
has taken on enormous dimensions, since many workers are searching
for the support of a party that could politically express a workers'
fightback. In these circumstances, the DEA has focused its attention
on the tactics of the united front. We are opening up to united
action with everyone on the left-including PASOK's base-with the
aim of supporting the struggles of the movement and achieving
concrete victories for workers.
This effort not only does not conflict with but requires the
building of an independent socialist organization. Independent
socialist organization is indispensable, both in order to formulate
concrete tactics and to take part in the battle of ideas within
the left-a battle that is critical in such a period. Already,
the Alliance of the Left, the dissidents of KKE, the more serious
movement organizations, and the local section of the Fourth International
have proposed the formation of a "place of common action
and dialogue on the left," which is going to support the
strikes around the social welfare system, the defense of political
and union rights, and the organizing of Greek participation in
the international protest at Genoa (the next big antiglobalization
International protests against neoliberal globalization (Seattle,
Nice, Quebec, Genoa) have become very popular in the current circumstances.
Greek participation in Genoa is going to be big, with labor unions
weighing in significantly. A radicalization is shaping up in Greece
that takes the form of a rapid escalation of workers' struggles,
which is playing a central political role in the struggle. As
it ascends, it carries along with
it all new movements critical of capitalism. This ascendance
presents revolutionaries, in a very acute way, with all kinds
of tactical problems: the role of reformism, intervention in the
trade unions, unity and critical dialogue with the other left
currents, and so on. In these conditions, there are two likely
mistakes that have to be avoided: on the one hand, sectarianism-underestimating
the need to get involved with any form of workers' resistance;
on the other hand, liquidationism-dissolving revolutionary organizations
within loose activist collectives that do not allow for real long-term
changes in the relationship between revolutionaries and reformists.
Living through great events such as the strikes in Greece, one
realizes the importance of discussions that are developing globally
within the revolutionary left.
Antonis Davanellos is member of the editorial committee of
the Greek socialist newspaper, Workers Left. and a member of the
ISOs Greek sister organization, International Workers Left (DEA).