What does Greece look like at the grassroots?

April 23, 2015

Greece's government, led by the radical left party SYRIZA, is resorting to more and more desperate measures to avoid a looming default--while the blackmailers of the European ruling elite continue to turn up the pressure.

One month after SYRIZA won parliamentary elections and formed a new government, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis agreed to a four-month renewal of the Greek financial bailout engineered by the Troika of the European Union (EU), European Central Bank (ECB) and International Monetary Fund (IMF). The February agreement was a wholesale retreat from SYRIZA's commitment since its founding congress to reverse the drastic austerity measures imposed on Greece in return for the bailout.

But even this wasn't enough for Europe's rulers. They have rejected the Tsipras-Varoufakis proposals for continuing the so-called Memorandums that imposed austerity and kept Greek government scrambling on the edge of bankruptcy and a possible exit from the euro currency, with unknown dire consequences for Greece and the world. Even the initial measures promised by SYRIZA as first steps to help the people hit hardest by the crisis have been blocked in important ways.

In an article written for the left-wing magazine Viento Sur, Sotiris Martalis stepped back from the day-to-day debates to underline the historic significance of the January 25 election that put SYRIZA in power, evaluate the state of the labor and social movements in Greece, and look at the terrain of the struggle ahead. Martalis is a member of the Internationalist Workers Left (DEA), one of the co-founding organizations of SYRIZA a decade ago. He is a supporter of the Left Platform within SYRIZA and a member of the party's Central Committee.

The Importance of SYRIZA's Victory

IT IS important to recognize the electoral success of SYRIZA on January 25 as a victory of the left. This took place in a country where, in the last 100 years, there have been two dictatorships and a civil war, from which the left suffered terrible defeats. This is the first major political victory for the radical left in that time, and it has naturally increased self-confidence and created hopes and expectations among the working class and society at large.

It should be noted that the victory was the result of the determined struggles of the movement against austerity policies. Between 2010 and 2012, there were more than 30 general strikes, three of them 48 hours long; occupations of public buildings, including the Finance and Interior Ministries; the movement of Greek indignados to occupy public squares; the "won't pay" movement that refused to pay tolls and fees for government services; and other fights.

These struggles succeeded in overthrowing two governments, led by George Papandreou and Lucas Papademos, but they failed to overturn the ruling class's austerity agenda, and so the movement shifted its hopes to achieving this by means of elections.

Greek workers on the march in Thessaloniki
Greek workers on the march in Thessaloniki

These struggles of workers and popular movements declined after 2012, but they didn't disappear. Sectoral strikes and locally based social struggles were a part of daily life for the next years. Workers for the closed-down state television and radio station ERT, cleaners for the Ministry of Finance, laid-off school guards and dockworkers were some of the groups engaged in long struggles, involving occupations of buildings and public spaces, violent clashes with police, arrests and legal battles.

The cleaners for the Ministry of Finance, laid off when their jobs were privatized, were a symbol of the continuing battles against austerity. Their fight to win their jobs back has lasted more than a year.

If we want to answer why SYRIZA was the alternative chosen by workers and popular masses, and not the Communist Party (KKE), which started out with twice as much electoral support as SYRIZA, there are three reasons: SYRIZA participated in and supported the mass movements and struggles, unlike the KKE, which operated in a completely sectarian manner; SYRIZA continued throughout to call for unity in action and unity on the left, in particular with the forces of the Communist Party and the anti-capitalist coalition ANTARSYA; and SYRIZA put forward as a political alternative the formation of a government of the left.

During the most recent period, dating back to September 2014, the commitments made by Alexis Tsipras at the Thessaloniki International Trade Fair gave a huge boost in SYRIZA's support. This program of initial measures to be implemented immediately by a new government included restoring the minimum wage to 751 euros a month; re-establishing the exemption on income taxes on the first 12.000 euros earned; restoring collective bargaining agreements; abolition of the unjust ENFIA real estate tax; and other means of addressing the immediate humanitarian crisis.

The State of the Movement Today

The first moves made by the new government after January 25 and its first legislative initiatives created a climate of hope and expectations. These included initial measures to cope with Greece's humanitarian crisis; the promised reinstatement of laid-off civil servants like the Finance Ministry cleaners; and the restoration of collective bargaining agreements, which had been abolished under the previous governments. These first measures strengthened the hopes of the popular masses.

So there is a wait-and-see attitude among many people to find out what SYRIZA will accomplish. What we hear all the time in workplaces and communities is: "If SYRIZA can follow through on 30 percent of what they promised, I'll be happy."

The determination of these struggles is creating the conditions to move forward. One example is the 595 fired cleaners from the Finance Ministry, who started their fight in September 2013. Despite the promise of the new government that their jobs would be reinstated, they decided to continue their occupation on the street in front of the Ministry of Finance building, until their return is carried out.

This is indicative of a more general attitude--on the one hand, people like the cleaners support the government and SYRIZA, which supported them and struggled alongside them. But on the other hand, they want to continue the occupation until they have their jobs back.

There is a similar dynamic in the struggle of the fired school guards, as well as the workers for ERT, which was closed by the former right-wing government of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras in June 2013. The fired worked occupied the central ERT building in Athens and broadcast their own programming until November 2013, when the Samaras government was able to recapture it.

The workers have continued ever since to broadcast from local ERT stations, including Thessaloniki, and they also have a national online station. These stations are continuing to broadcast now, even though the law to reopening ERT and reinstate all fired workers has been introduced in parliament.

The Union Movement

The structure of the trade union movement in Greece is different from many countries in Europe. There are two confederations, one for private-sector workers and one for public-sector workers. There are federations in each sector or government section, and there are primary unions.

The difference is that all workers belong to the same union, regardless of their political views. For example, teachers in the elementary schools of a region all belong to one primary union, all these primary unions belong to a federation of teachers, and this federation belongs to the confederation of workers in the public sector. So in each union, there are different wings, supporting the policy of the right, of social democracy, of SYRIZA, of the Communist Party, and so on.

Trade union density is very low in the private sector, about 15 percent--while it is quite high in the public sector, at 55 percent.

The pressure on labor and the trade union movement during the last five years of economic crisis has been enormous. Around 30 percent of the country's workforce is unemployed, and among those who work, many haven't been paid. According to data from the private-sector confederation, 850,000 workers haven't received a salary in between one month and one year.

Nevertheless, there are the first signs of a new response among unions. The public-sector confederation, for example, has taken action to call for the elimination of Memorandums and applicable laws; debt relief, which is a condition for the survival of the country and the people; regaining control of public enterprises of strategic importance; the nationalization-socialization of the banking system; elimination of anti-labor measures and pension cuts and restrictions passed under the Memorandums and before that; immediate reinstatement of all workers who were laid off; and more. The confederation has also called the primary unions to hold general assemblies and to organize gatherings and rallies.

The debate within the unions has taken on an interesting dimension since the victory of SYRIZA. Forces loyal to the right wing, to social democracy, to the KKE and ANTARSYA are uniting around a maximalist demand on the new government, which is creating strange alliances against supporters of META, which is aligned with SYRIZA. So in many unions, instead of the first priority being to stop the layoffs and reinstate those who lost their jobs, there is a call for unions to demand a return to 2009 salaries, which would mean a wage increase of 30 percent.

The supporters of META are trying to rebuild the strength of the union movement in these circumstances. The calls that the confederation has made, mentioned above, were put forward in a proposal from META. However, the debate about how META can continue to struggle to assert the demands of unions under a government led by the party it is aligned with remains open and ongoing in all meetings of META supporters.

Public Health Care

The last five years of the crisis and Memorandums have decimated the staff of the public health care and welfare systems, which now operate at unsafe levels. In the past four years, 15,000 health care workers have retired, and not a single person has been hired to replace them. There are 25,000 vacant positions in all--one in every three in the public health system--even in new agencies that were set up and staffed under the Memorandum commitments.

Yet in this situation, the health minister in the new government stated that the ministry would only fill 1,007 positions, which had already been approved last year under the previous government. The opposition has been great enough that Tsipras was forced to change the government's position and promise that 4,500 specialized medical staff would be hired, along with abolishing the compulsory 5 euro fee for treatment at public hospitals.

All told, there are six hospitals closed in Athens and Thessaloniki, 880 clinics shut down, a total of 10,000 beds eliminated, and 25,000 positions left vacant. And for the remaining health workers, their wages are frozen, and they aren't paid for on-call duty or extra time for night hours. Many ambulance drivers have been dismissed. The situation is literally verging on collapse.

The leadership of the public hospital workers' federation POEDIN is dominated by social democrats and the right. From the start of the Memorandums, it served the government's agenda and tried in every way to stop struggles against austerity.

At first, it cultivated illusions about the implications of the Memorandum. Then it simply opposed the cuts verbally, without organizing any action. These union leaders refused to contribute in a real way to building a united front for the defense of public health facilities, and they didn't take effective measures against the closure of hospitals. They were only forced to participate in actions under pressure.

In general, they cultivated doubt and confusion within the movement and disarmed the struggle. Yet today, these forces propose only maximum demands, in order to highlight their rivalry with the government.

Supporters of SYRIZA in the health care workers' federation helped to lead the struggle for the overthrow of Memorandum policies and anti-labor measures that accompanied them. META proposed the challenge to the measures that would lead to wage cuts and layoffs. Today, it continues to struggle toward the principle that health care is a right, and not a commodity--and toward universal access to the public health system.

This can't be called into question by pointing out Greece's difficult economic situation. Meeting the social needs of the Greek population is the first test of the left, and we must show our commitment to rebuild a national health service that is open, public and free for all.


The results of Memorandum policies have been tragic for the education system. Spending on education went from 3.08 percent of gross domestic product in 2009--already among the lowest in Europe--to 2.47 percent in 2015. Around 14 percent of Greek schools--a total of 1,701 schools--have closed.

The number of teachers has fallen by 27.3 percent, and average class size grew from 25 to 30 per classroom. Teaching time for educators was also one of the highest in Europe before--it has increased by two hours a week. Like other workers, teachers have faced salaries reduced by about 35 percent in real terms and a frightening increase in taxes. The monthly net salary of a new teacher is 683 euros.

Teachers in Greece have two union federations--one for primary education (DOE) and one for secondary education (OLME)--that have a tradition of strikes, struggles and mobilizations.

After the January 25 elections, OLME held general meetings in all of its primary unions and called for a day of nationwide action and a rally around the theme of reversing the cuts in education and rehiring all teachers who were laid off. There were organizing meetings of federations and primary unions in both primary and secondary education institutions, plus meetings of associations of parents and students, to organize demonstrations and other activities, including feeding, caring for and transporting students in the current crisis conditions. There were more general meetings in primary unions when the plans for education were made public by the Ministry of Education.

This is another area where we can recognize the same general climate. Among all these people, there is a waiting period and tolerance for the new government to see what it can accomplish, but also preparations for mobilization.

The Anti-Fascist Movement

The rise of Golden Dawn during the years of crisis has led to the emergence of a larger anti-fascist movement.

The Nazis of Golden Dawn went from 0.3 percent (19,624 votes) in the parliamentary elections of 2009; to 6.9 percent (425,900 votes) in the 2012 parliamentary elections, putting them in sixth place among the political parties; to 9.4 percent (536,910 votes) in the European elections of May 2014; to 6.3 percent (388,387 votes) in the last parliamentary elections in January 2015, which put them in third place.

The decline from 2012 of 37,500 votes may seem small, but it is significant that the drop was concentrated in urban centers, particularly in working-class neighborhoods. Golden Dawn's rise to third place is a product of the weakness of other parties like To Potami and especially PASOK, the former ruling party. Golden Dawn's lower vote totals also came in an election where the main conservative party, New Democracy, lost votes, which is telling.

The main reasons for Golden Dawn's loss in popularity is the eruption of anti-fascist protests after the murder of Pavlos Fyssas, a radical and hip hop artist killed by a fascist in September 2013, along with the lifting of protections enjoyed by the organization when the prosecution of Golden Dawn for being a criminal organization began.

Under this pressure, Golden Dawn was forced to make a turn, withdrawing its violent gangs from the streets and trying to show a more "responsible" profile, though still from the extreme right. The fascists' last attempt at a nationwide mobilization on March 21 is further evidence of the group's lower level of support--the organization was only able to mobilize between 300 and 500 people.

After the election of Golden Dawn's Führer Nikolaos Michaloliakos in Athens in February 2012 and the party's rapid growth in the June 2012 parliamentary vote, the fascists were emboldened and increased their street violence, mainly against immigrants. But the anti-fascist movement grew, answering the attacks of the fascists with increasingly large rallies and demonstrations.

The murder of Fyssas was a turning point. Some 20,000 people protested in Keratsini, the area where the murder took place. There were 35 demonstrations nationwide the next day and 100 demonstrations within the next two weeks. Protests in September 2014 to mark one year since the murder took place in 31 cities around the country.

Without this movement from below, it is likely that the neo-Nazis would have continued to increase their attacks and their numbers. Because of the lower level of activities of the fascists, the anti-fascist movement has not been as prominent. But this will change after the start of the trial of Golden Dawn on April 20.

Of the hundreds of cases of Golden Dawn members attacking immigrants, anti-fascist activists and others, only three are being investigated in relation to the charge that Golden Dawn is a criminal organization--the murder of Pavlos Fyssas, the attempted murder of Egyptian fishermen near Athens in June 2012, and an attack on members of the Communist Party in Perama, in September 2013. A total of 70 Golden Dawn members were put on trial, including the neo-Nazis' representatives in the last parliament.

The outcome of the trial is not a foregone conclusion. At least half the leadership of Golden Dawn was released from prison before the trial began--having served the maximum 18 months of detention without a trial.

The positive factor for the anti-fascist movement and the left is that the overwhelming majority of people want to see Golden Dawn found guilty and punished for its crimes, and this sentiment is especially strong in the areas that are the working-class base of the newly elected left-wing government. All parts of the left must do everything they can to mobilize this sentiment, inside the courtroom and in the mass mobilizations outside. They must also continue making the overall climate negative for Golden Dawn as the trial continues.


Youth have been an important part of the battles of the past decade, such as the 2006 struggle against the establishment of private universities made possible by changing Article 16 of the Constitution that required universities to be public. This was followed by the youth rebellion in December 2008 after the murder of 15-year-old student Alexandros Grigoropoulos by two police officers. The mass street protests and clashes with police continued for months, along with occupations of schools and universities and demonstrations at police stations.

Living conditions for young people have worsened considerably during the last five years of the Memorandums. Youth now face continuing high unemployment, temporary and contract labor when there are jobs, police repression, worse conditions in school, privatization of the education sectors, tuition fees imposed for postgraduate courses at public universities and more.

These dire conditions did not produce a mass youth movement. Young people were, of course, involved in the struggles of the last five years, especially the occupation movement that took over public squares in 2011. But the movement of the squares was more decentralized and didn't produce ongoing organization.


The shift to the left expressed in the January parliamentary elections was the result of the struggles of the working class and social movements. The electoral victory of SYRIZA was the political expression of these struggles.

It is understandable that many people would have a wait-and-see attitude toward the new government, along with high hopes and expectations for measures that will stop the austerity and reverse its effects. But the ongoing issues facing working people and the lack of action under a new government faced with the blackmail of the lenders is leading to growing discontent that could soon reach the point of bursting out--as the simmering discontent about the health system shows.

The re-emergence of labor movement struggles will not only organize the force that can pose an alternative for workers and the popular masses, but it will point a direction for the SYRIZA-led government to survive in the face of the blackmail and extortion.

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