Trade Unions and Economic Crisis: the Case of Greece

Trade Unions and Economic Crisis: the Case of Greece

By Athanasios Tsakiris

The aim of this paper is to identify the strategies and actions of the trade union movement in Greece vis-à-vis the economic crisis which is developing as a social crisis leading not only to the submission of the Greek socialist government’s economic policy to the commands of the so called Troika (IMF, European Union, European Central Bank) but also to the social reconstruction of the ruling political class. This situation intensifies the anger of the lower social classes and strata who feel alienated from the political and the party system as well as from the social organizations such as trade unions.   

In a capitalist system of production the main characteristic of each crisis is the general renegotiation of the correlation of forces between two worlds, the world of working classes and the world of capitalist classes. During the past two decades neoliberal policies followed by either socialist or conservative governments successively have resulted in the adjustment of the collaboration of forces to the detriment of the working class and poor strata.  Especially in 2010 the public debt crisis is used as a political tool for the rapid overthrow of the working class rights and benefits. These rights and benefits were gained following decades of struggle against the state’s austerity policies and greedy employers who were taking advantage of employer-friendly laws, such as L. 3239/1955 on arbitration between employers and trade unions. The political environment that prevailed between 1974 (collapse of the dictatorship) and 1985 (beginning of PASOK’s second tenure) favoured trade union action grace to the”social democratic” nature of governmental policies, mainly of the first PASOK governments.  Since 1985 all governments followed a path leading to the restructuring of the capitalist mode of production at the expense of the working classes. Workers were turned into measurable resources that are now considered expendable. This can be seen in the use of the term “human resources” instead  of “personnel” in the business language.  This model is not implemented without resistance on behalf of the working classes causing delays in the course of the Greek society’s “capitalist modernization” which experiences mini crises combined with the increases in historically low levels of private capitalist accumulation.  During this period capitalist accumulation increases at the expense of wages and salaries, new capitalist enterprises acquire older firms or establish new ones through mergers mainly in the banking sector, and many groups of companies are created through taking advantage of the privatizations of former public-owned  utilities or through the deregulation of whole industries. For example, in the telecommunications sector at least two corporate giants such as Vodafone or WIND compete with each other and the public-owned OTE (telephony and IT) and CosmOTE (mobile telephony) in a rapidly growing market since 1993. Likewise, in the energy sector the public corporation is facing private operators in traditional as well new markets of alternative energy sources. These sectors are setting the pace for the flexibilization of labor relations. In the beginning of their operation these companies did not face any problems since they were operating in non-union conditions. Except for a core of well-paid employees who enjoy high wages, benefits and pension schemes the great majority of the workers of these enterprises work under precarious employment terms. Many workers work in outsourced operations or in subcontractor companies while others work as agency workers (“rented employees). Banking, financial, post office and telecommunications sectors use thousands of precariously employed workers. Despite the general financial and economic crisis these companies benefit from the low-cost employees’ work making big profits.

Having to face a very difficult field of action the Greek unions are challenged by many sides and have to solve their own serious problems. Despite all messages coming from below, the official bodies of workers’ representation (confederations, labour centers, federations and company-level unions) never tried to contemplate the crisis by incorporating all workers in their rank regardless of the type of work contract.  This means that many workers were left out of existing unions and were driven to create and establish new unions at first outside the official network of unions.  When the crisis struck hard during the last two years the traditional unions were not ready to fight back. The new unions either in new workplaces (telecommunications, delivery services, couriers etc) or in older sectors (private tutoring schools, book sellers etc) operate having different political value systems either inscribed in the organization’s charter or inspiring their daily actions.  Many new unions have institutionalized direct democracy in their decision-making procedures and have widened their repertoires of action proceeding to strike activities as well to other non-strike actions, such as store blockades and boycotts, workplace occupations and sit-ins, petitions, and events for informing the public opinion and raising public awareness (mainly customers of a shop or users of services of telecommunications and other types of companies) regarding their causes.  

In view of the debt crisis that affects almost all sectors in the Greek economy both public sector and private sector unions had to revise their previous strategies of social dialogue and compromising politics. The Greek government’s policy was to turn to the IMF without neither searching for alternative methods for the administration of the public debt within the framework of the EU nor trying to proceed to talks for the prolongation of the debt repayment period and similar solutions. The requirements of this solution inscribed in the Memorandum imposed by the Troika were the implantation of a very strict austerity economic program, the further deregulation of labor relations, and the privatization of public enterprises (banks, energy, telecommunications, ports, etc). The majority of the unions’ officers who are mainly members and high-ranking executives of the governing party as well as those who are members of the official opposition party (Nea Dimokratia) prioritize “social dialogue” as their main strategic goal.

This strategy is regarded by many trade unionists, not only from the traditional and radical left, at least as unsuccessful due to the aggressiveness of the government’s policy and the employers’ impatience for profitability not considering the needs of their employees. An exception to the employers’ aggressiveness comes at present from the part of small and medium enterprises and their collective organizations. For example, the merchant and craftsmen unions (National Confederation of Hellenic Commerce-ESEE and General Confederation of Professionals, Craftsmen and Merchants- GSEVEE respectively) experience the burdens of the economic crisis since their profits have fallen rapidly due to the decrease of the purchasing power of workers and employees. The latter have to face lay-offs and wage losses. Prices of basic goods (food, education, health, transportation etc.) have risen and inflation stands at 5.5%. Bazaars, flea markets, and cheap Chinese products are now the “main street” characteristic features. Despite this tension between industrialists and bankers on the one side and SMEs and workers on the other the big unions and the General Confederation of Greek Workers (GSEE) signed a three-year collective labor agreement with 0% wage increases in the name of maintaining jobs. Thus, the majority of the first and second-degree unions (federations and labor centers) were left to fight against the second reform imposed by the Troika’s memorandum that is the social security bill. During the period between February and July 2010 several one-day general strikes were organized mainly by public employees’ unions (ADEDY is their confederation) and GSEE which were unsuccessful protests because they were not incorporated in a strategic plan for escalating the struggle towards the overthrow of the government’s policies.

Workers and employees were disappointed and with the exception of the huge demonstration on May 5th, the strikes were not accompanied by mass marches or occupations and other protest activities. As a result, for the time being, the main way for the majority of workers and employees to express their dissatisfaction against the government’s and the employers’ policies is through elections. On November 7 and 14 at the regional and local elections, new political formations created by former and existing members of PASOK are expected to gain a great part of PASOK’s votes on a “Down With the Memorandum” political platform. This kind of worker electoralism is a long-term historical political phenomenon in Greece, since the post-WW II period. Trade unions went through hard times during this period (lay-offs, exiles, expatriations or/and incarcerations of trade unionists, union-busting by governments and employer-driven thugs etc) leading them to seek protection by left-wing and political center parties in exchange for their submission to the party’s policy goals. Following the 1974 regime change this condition did not change. Even the conservative party (Nea Dimokratia) created its own trade union factions when it lost government power in 1981. With a few exceptions such as the new unions of precariously working people this is the prevailing order in the Greek union sector. And it is not encouraging for the workers.


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