It has been the biggest working class mobilization of the last decades. It shook every single town in Greece and not only Athens. It caused a complete paralysis of everything and everywhere. There have been many general strikes in Greece during the last decade. Certainly over twenty in all. But not one of them can be compared to the last one, of April 26!
1 May 2001
The public sector, the private sector, blue collar workers, white collar workers, the mass media, including the private ones, for the first time ever, private banks for the first time, private schools for the first time ever, pensioners, peasants from nearby villages, teenagers, little kids, everybody. They all struck against the government’s plans to attack the Social Insurance System (pensions), that is to force workers pay for the deficits of the public insurance funds (pension funds), by:
- increasing pension ages,
- decreasing pensions
- cutting the contribution of the state and the bosses to the pension funds, and,
- forcing workers massively into the hands of the private insurance companies (the only people, literally, in Greece to come out openly in favour of the government’s plans).
Participation in the strike had no precedent. It can only be compared to the best moments of the movement in the ‘70’s. The same is true of the rallies. 130,000 (according to police estimates!) in Athens, tens of thousands in Salonica, Patras, Volos, Ioannina, etc. The rallies were full of joy, the workers and youth were full of confidence.
The 24 hour general strike of April 26 is a landmark for the Greek working class movement. Time will show that it will also prove to be a turning point for the perspectives of the class struggle in Greece.
Up until now, the PASOK trade unions, which represent the majority inside the GSEE (Greek TUC) were playing the role of putting the breaks on the movement. This time they could not.
The government has been forced into a panic-stricken retreat. Late in the evening, just a few hours before the general strike was due to begin they dashed to the media, terrified by what they could see coming, in order to announce that all measures were frozen. In vain — nobody believed them anyway — everybody knew it was a trick to beat and divert the strike. And then, on the following day, within hours after the general strike the Prime Minister himself publicly declared that the measures are “completely withdrawn”.
The government finds itself in a completely weak and isolated position. The working class has gained a feeling of its gigantic strength, a strength which it itself had forgotten about. As against this strength, the workers have realized that the “immovable” and “uncompromising” Simitis (Prime Minister) is nothing but a dwarf; the “czar” of the economy, minister of national economy, Papantoniou, a joker; Yiannitsis, the minister of Labour (and Social Insurance), simply non-existent; the powerful police and special forces, impotent…
The attack against the pensions was the last straw for millions of workers, who made indescribable sacrifices in the name of entering the “club of the developed ones” i.e. the European Union, only to find out that nothing changed, the attacks continued. The Pensions issue made the huge anger that was piling up in the basis of Greek society to come forcefully to the surface. Simitis and his ministers had become completely sinister against the workers. They despised them and treated them with complete arrogance after the many victories they scored against the movement in the second half of the 90’s. They defeated the teachers, the bank workers, the Olympic Airways workers, the peasants, the youth, and many other sections of the working class. They got a vicious new labour relations act and the annualisation of working hours through, in the name of fighting unemployment, which in the meantime has been steadily rising to an unprecedented 12,5%. So they felt all powerful. Their arrogance was such that they came to the point of proposing retirement age of 65 for many sections under the category of “heavy and unhealthy” professions (jobs) where the average life expectancy is 62!!
They thus completely miscalculated the immense anger piling up inside the working class and the youth, even in the petit bourgeois and professional layers. And they were caught by complete surprise.
This has been the first time that the present PASOK leadership of the GSEE has given a fighting leadership to the masses. They called the general strike only days after the govt made its plans clear. Part of the reasons for the masses’ fantastic turnout was precisely the fact that they interpreted the leadership’s call as an indication of a determined and fighting stand. On the same day of the general strike the leadership of the GSEE agreed to call a second general strike for the 17 th of May. Taking, also, into account, that the May day celebrations this year will be massive, reflecting the new mood of optimism and determination that prevails, it is clear that May will be a hot month in Greece, not only weather-wise.
The sheer size of the mass mobilisation has been sufficient to bury the government’s plans at least for the time being. However there can be no confidence in the leadership of the unions. From an objective point of view the workers’ and youth’s movement is in a position not only to finish off any attack on the pension system; it can easily go on the offensive and recover what has been taken away from it over the ’90s. But the leadership is not willing to lead such a struggle. It is the same leadership that left the teachers, the bank workers, the Olympic Airways workers, and many others, alone in their struggles to be defeated. It is the same leadership who accepted without a serious fight the vicious attack against “labour relations”. This leadership does not really want a clear defeat of this government, it is afraid of a clear victory of the workers because they know that then they won’t be able to control them afterwards.
Despite all these however, the workers and youth have scored a very significant victory. A partial one, one may say, since the leadership will not allow its completion, but nevertheless a very important victory. Every worker now knows that this govt can be defeated. And, if it can be defeated on the question of the pensions, why not on the question of privatisation as well, why not on the struggle to save the NHS from complete sell out and dissolution, why not on the imposition of a 35-hour week, wage increases, against sackings etc. This general strike and the victory that followed it will tend to encourage working class and youth struggles, and it will tend to make them more determined. In this sense it is indeed a turning point for the class struggle in Greece.
Xekinima, the Greek section of the CWI, intervened in the strike, with all its forces, in the cities of Athens, Salonica and Volos. It was clear to us from the beginning that it was going to have massive success.
Xekinima has been campaigning over the issue of pensions for the last months. In every one of the last issues of the paper there has been extensive agitation over the issue. The last issue of the paper (April) had a very extensive coverage of the issuewith the front page and a two-page special inside, devoted to the question of Social Insurance.
It was very timely. When the strike was called the April issue was nearly finished. Every copy of the paper was called back from the branches and from the hands of individual comrades. They could hardly be enough. In a short while, 176 were sold in Athens, 41 in Salonica and 20 in Volos. And there were no more papers left, anywhere.