New dimension to the resistance of the Greek masses
The Christmas period was unusually cold by Greek standards. Despite this, there were hundreds of thousands of people, many with wide smiles on their faces, travelling out from and then back into the main cities, such as Athens, Salonica and Patras. They had a good reason for this.
On so-called ‘highways’ or ‘national roads’ in Greece (which resemble country roads in some of the more economically developed countries of Northern Europe) travellers have to pay tolls. Between Athens and Salonica, for example, a distance of a little more than 500 km, there are 10 toll points. The total cost of the toll for this journey is €23 one way and €46 return.
Greek roads are probably the most expensive in Europe to travel on (there is also an annual road tax which starts at €150 per year for the smallest cars) and certainly the worst. For a medium income working class family (the poorest ones would not dream of the possibility) travelling a distance of 500km to visit their families during their Christmas vacation costs around € 200 as petrol now costs € 1.60 a litre.
But Greek workers found a way to get around these problems: they get out of their cars and push toll barriers aside! Small communities living near the highways began the protest. This refusal to pay tolls developed gradually in the course of last year. It started from some small communities and towns, whose inhabitants had to cross, on a nearly daily basis, a nearby national road to go to work and for other daily activities, and had to pay €4 or €5 to make the journey and to return. Most of them were farmers.
They formed committees, often with the support or even involvement of local mayors or councilors. They asked the (private) companies that control the tolls to allow for their free transport. The companies said they would look at their demand, which they never did. So, in the end, these committees began to organise to just raise the barriers themselves and to cross the tolls.
Truck drivers join in
This acquired a new dynamic when truck drivers joined in. The truck drivers, most of whom are owners of their trucks, or working for small companies, and who are deeply in debt, (payin back the loans with which they bought their tracks) were hit hard by the government policies of deep austerity of ‘Mr GAP’ (as the prime minister George A. Papandreou is called by many people — not an endearment!) since last September. The government, following the directives of the EU and IMF, decided to completely deregulate the trade. This, in practice, means that the major European transport companies will take over the small owners in the Greek market — thus destroying the livelihoods of many.
The truck drivers did not protest against the deregulation of their trade, as such. All they wanted was time to allow them to pay back their loans. They asked the government to be generous, as many of them are aged 50, 60 or more. Some criced on TV, asking for a gradual deregualation and not an immediate one, to give them a few years. They lobbied outside parliament, in Syntagma Square, Athens, for one week. But the government treated them in the way it has been treating the working class movement: with no mercy!
The truck drivers left Syntagma Square after a vote in parliament on deregulation, defeated and desperate, but also bitter and full of hatred for the rulers of the country. Their next step was to refuse to pay the tolls. A truck pays an average of €7 each time it passes a toll post. Thus, if a truck driver has to travel between Salonica and Athens, they have to pay about €140 in tolls! It was easier for truck drivers to get the toll barrier out of their way than for car drivers — the truck drivers do not have to stop and get out of the truck, they just push the barrier with the front of their vehicles.
Over one million cars cross without paying
Gradually, the forces of the Left began to join the protest, trying to push the movement forward. The breakthrough, however, came over Christmas, when Greek people traditionally leave the cities to go to the countryside to celebrate the holiday with their families. There were over 1 million cases of refusal to pay, something between 15% and 20% of the total vehicles, according to the press. Drivers stopped and pushed aside the barriers, letting 3, 5, or 10 cars get through. The same was done in another lane. Drivers passing through the barriers made a ‘V’ for victory sign and pressed their car horns, while the barrier alarms rang.
By New Year’s Day, it was clear that there was a new movement underway. Theoretically, the (private) construction companies which control and receive the toll payment at the poll posts, can impose fines on those who pass without paying (20 times the original toll) and if this is not paid, they can appeal to the courts and prosecute the “unlawful” citizens. They can sue them all… sue, in other words, one million people and probably more, as this movement is spreading with speed! The construction companies have already chosen the hard line and sent the first fines: to 20 people. These 20 people however, did not do the companies the favor of paying the fines and thus they were sued. The courts fixed the first trials… for the end of 2011. With this speed, it would take a few decades to get everyone non paying tolls through the courts. Of course, the state can change the laws, speed up the procedures etc, but once a non-payment movement takes on a mass and permanent character, it cannot be defeated, particularly if people refuse to obey the courts’ decisions.
An all-out campaign by Xekinima
Xekinima, the Greek section of the CWI, identified the importance of this campaign immediately and brought out leaflets etc on it, in tens of thousands of copies, from the first week of January. We also made full use of the internet, to raise the importance of this movement and to call for its further development and expansion. Xekinima explained that the non-payment campaign can acquire a massive social dynamic and actually defeat this Pasok government, drawing historical parallels with the water charges in Ireland, in the late 1990s, and particularly citing the example of the mass anti-poll tax campaign in Britain, that defeated Margaret Thatcher.
Xekinima called for the urgent expansion of this non-payment movement to include public transport tickets, which will be raised by 40% from 1 February onwards, and the need to link this to the strikes of the public transport workers, which are continuing. Xekinima explains in that if this mass movement is successful, it can then be expanded to water and electricity charges, where massive price increases are also taking place. These utilities are also on the fast track to privatisation. The general slogan used by Xekinima is, “We can’t pay — we won’t pay: tolls, public transport tickets…”. A mass non-payment movement, once it develops, has the potential to involve, at a later stage, the demand to refuse to pay the national ‘sovereign debt’ to the big bankers.
The whole of the Left joins in
By the 3rd week of January, nearly the whole of the Greek Left began to get involved in this campaign, despite the initial hesitations of the leaderships of the mass parties, the KKE (Communist Party) and SYRIZA. The campaign was also taken up by some of the best trade union fighters in the public transport system in Athens.
The movement is more advanced in Salonica city, where over the past three weeks, every Saturday, over 100 activists turn up in the centre of the city and divide into groups of 8 to 10 in buses, where they asking people to refuse to pay fares. On Sundays, activists go to the toll booths close to the city and push the barriers aside.
In Athens, the campaign on public transport is underway, after a with a bit of a delay, partly due to the size of the city. An all-Athens non-payment co-ordinating committee was created and local committees are springing up. Xekinima calls for the setting up of committees of action or “non-payment committees” in every neighbourhood, every work place and every school and university. It calls for the whole of the Left to get involved in this campaign, to set up committees everywhere, and to link these committees in networks, on a local, city and national level.
The response of the public to the calls not to pay public transport tickets has been very good. By a huge majority people respond positively positively, refuse to pay and many ask how they can get involved in the campaign. The entire Left is now involved in the campaign — including the communist party (KKE). On 1 February, price rises of 40% on fares were imposed. This was a day of mass action in all major cities — when people were asked to get on buses and not to pay fares on the pay machines, and to block the fare machines at the entrance of Metro stations.
A continuation of the same struggle
This movement comes after about one year of fighting back to stop the assault against living standards carried out by the bosses, the Greek Pasok government and the EU and IMF. Seven general strikes took place in the course of 2010, with even more by public sector workers. But this was not enough to stop the austerity package assault.
Xekinima explained from the beginning of this resistance the need for a much more sustained strike movement, that would combine continuous rolling strikes of different sectors, with repeated 24-hours and 48-hour general strikes, culminating in repeated 3-day general strikes, so as to cause paralysis to the whole economy and the state, to force Pasok to back down. No government could survive against such a movement. But the trade union leaderships were not willing to push the struggle to such limits because this would raise the perspective of the fall of the government and of the alternative power of the working class and the poor. This situation led many workers to fell angry and frustrated, not only with the government, but also with the trade union leaders. Therefore the non-payment movement, for many people, comes like a light at the end of a long tunnel. It gives hope to many people that this is a way to fight back. It cannot replace the need for a mass strike movement, but it can link itself to such action, push industrial action and assist in its development.
The main advantage and the dynamic in this movement is that it is outside the control of the national union bureaucracies. It is a movement of mass disobedience. It is beginning to inspire hundreds of thousands, particularly the youth. We believe that if it is developed along militant lines, linking with workplaces and rank and file trade unionists — along the lines proposed by Xekinima above — there is no doubt that it will have a big affect on consciousness in general, and will be reflected inside the organisations of the working class, both trade union and political.
A section of the public transport workers has already adopted the demands of the non-payment movement. Although they say they cannot openly support and take part in it under present conditions and at this stage of the campaign, as they are liable to be sacked for “subversive action” against the company, these workers give the non payment campaign tacit support. They speak at local non payment committees about the need for a common struggle of workers and commuters etc. An understanding is beginning to develop that workers in the public transport company and the people who use public transport for their daily movements (ie the rest of the working class, pensioners, etc) have common interests, and can and need to fight together for a common cause, wider than just the issue of high ticket prices on public transport.
What are the next steps?
The main task now is to spread this non payment movement. The extent to which this happens will be important in raising the confidence and morale of the whole working class, which fell last year after the inability of the mass strike movement to stop the government’s austerity policies last year.
The way to spread the non payment movement is, as outlined above, through establishing committees of non-payment, in every neighborhood, workplace and among school and university students. Once this movement sets itself up and develops roots, it could spread like fire. The Stalinist traditions of much of the Greek Left, which affect not only the KKE but most organisations on the Left (including some who call themselves ‘Trotskyist’) will be an obstacle in this process, but the movement, once it takes on big dimensions, can overcome these problems. The non payment movement is still in its initial stages but it has tremendous potential. Xekinima calls for non payment action committees to be formed everywhere, emphasising how crucial democracy is in the process of building such a movement. The movement, so far, has shown spontaneity and initiative that should be emulated. We in Xekinima call on youth, in particular, to take initiatives, to come together in groups of 8, 10, 15 or more, form committees and to go on public transport, refusing to pay fares and calling on everybody else to do the same. The government says this is “illegal”. Of course it is. But if workers abided by their laws, we would still be working in the conditions of the 19th century.