Unions take to the streets, again, to protest EU and IMF demands

For the third time this year, by our count, Greece went on strike on Thursday, 8 December. This time the target was planned labour reforms aimed at making strike action by workers harder and mass sackings by employers easier, along with further austerity cuts. The measures had been demanded by international creditors from the European Union (EU) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in the course of their current stalled bailout review — the second such review in an indefinite series of bailouts designed to keep the Greek economy afloat, and the Greek people in thrall to global capitalism.

Greece wants the review to be concluded rapidly. A parliamentary vote on the latest austerity budget was expected on the weekend following the strike. If all goes according to the government’s plan, this will qualify the country for further debt relief and inclusion in the bond-buying programme of the European Central Bank (ECB). Inclusion would allow Greece to regain access to financial markets before 2018, when the current bailout expires.

However before the latest strike, the Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras of Syriza, said that Athens could not accept “irrational” demands. [UPDATE: The 2017 budget was passed by the Greek government on Saturday, 11 December, by 152 votes in a parliament of 300 seats. Tsipras called it “a budget of optimism, growth and economic recovery”. The government said that the Greek economy had achieved a primary surplus equal to 1.1 percent of GDP in FY2015/16, outperforming its target for the year by 0.6 percent, despite a projected decline in GDP of 0.3 percent. In other words, the Greek economy is contracting but not as fast as its debt is shrinking. Debt-to-GDP remains the highest in the euro zone.]

The 24-hour general strike was called by the General Confederation of Greek Workers (GSEE/ΓΣΕΕ) — the Greek trade union centre which is affiliated to the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) — and the Civil Servants Confederation (ADEDY/ΑΔΕΔY) which is affiliated to the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC). Between them, these two organizations represent around 750,000 workers in both the private and public sectors. More than one in five eligible workers in Greece belong to unions (according to the OECD’s latest figures), making union density considerably greater than the OECD average of 17 percent.

The strike affected shipping, city transportation and local government offices. A report from Agence France Presse (AFP) comments that “civil servants, bank staff, merchant seamen, railway workers and state-employed doctors were among professionals taking part in the … stoppage.”

According to AFP, the police estimated that 15,000 workers, pensioners and students took part in a protest march in Athens, and another 5,000 in Thessaloniki. The demonstrators chanted “They just want our consent to take us to the bottom!” and carried banners saying “We won’t compromise!” and “We want jobs”.

“The burden we carry is already unbearable,” a statement issued by the GSEE said. GSEE seemed to agree with Tsipras in describing the creditors’ demands as “irrational”. Official data released by the Greek statistics agency ELSTAT on 8 December revealed a slight fall in September’s unemployment figures which nevertheless  remained high at over 23 percent, although the number of jobs increased by 60,500 compared to the previous year. The unions say hidden unemployment is far higher.

Greece signed up to a third international bailout in July 2015 after difficult negotiations that came perilously close to forcing the country out of the euro zone. Since then, protests and general strikes have continued, but the mood is increasingly pessimistic.

On the Monday preceding the strike, the euro zone granted Greece short-term debt relief, which the Syriza-led government welcomed as a success. The government needs successes since its popularity has been falling for months after it accepted the last austerity measures imposed by the EU and the IMF.

But this short-term measure did not impress most Greeks. Thousands of jobs have been lost and incomes have declined by an average of around a third since 2009, when the crisis began. According to EU figures, after three bailouts Greece’s debt is close to 315 billion euros, or around 180 percent of this year’s gross domestic product (GDP).

The euro zone finance ministers also said on the Monday that the current bailout review should be speeded up. The Greek parliament continued to debate tax rises and spending cuts as part of next year’s budget, which projects growth of 2.7 percent and a surplus equal to two percent of GDP — excluding the cost of servicing the country’s large debt.

The proposed new budget includes provisions to plug a projected fiscal gap in 2018, when the current bailout programme expires. This will involve raising one billion euros of extra taxation on cars, fixed telephone services, pay TV, fuel, tobacco, coffee and beer; cutting public spending by nearly six billion euros on salaries and pensions; and a substantial privatisation programme.

But the unions have firmly rejected plans to raise over two billion euros in 2017 from privatisations, including over one billion euros from a sell-off of Greece’s regional airports and a similar amount from a sell-off by Greece’s main electricity utility, Public Power Corp (PPC), of a 24 percent stake in its power grid, ADMIE, to China’s State Grid.

A full agreement on the bailout review is also hampered by proposed changes to labour law, and by the fact that the EU and the IMF have rejected the Greek government’s wish to revive collective bargaining between employers and unions, which was one of the key promises in the deal to get agreement on the bailout in 2015. The Greek government also rejected EU and IMF demands for more austerity measures beyond 2018.

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras remains optimistic that a deal can be reached by the end of 2016, and that inclusion of Greek bonds in the ECB’s bond-buying programme can be arranged by March 2017. This would help Greece re-enter the financial markets, for the first time since 2014, and should reduce its dependence on bailout loans, which provide temporary relief at the cost of increasing long-term debt.

Yet it’s difficult to see how the Greek people could be anything but pessimistic. AFP’s report quoted an interview with a woman named Evi, who said: “These (austerity) policies worsen our living standards every day.” Evi is a Communist, but the view is shared by those from the opposite end of the political spectrum, like Nikos Spanopoulos, a factory worker interviewed by the Reuters news agency, who said: “This leftist government was elected for the better, but from what I see … they are going to take everything including our underwear.”

Back in March 2015, UNI Europa, the European section of  the global Union Network International, issued a statement of solidarity with Greece: “UNI Europa and its Greek affiliates are calling for overcoming the humanitarian crisis and the near-complete breakdown of workers’ rights in Greece.”  It seems that this breakdown has only been slightly delayed.

More details

AFP, “Thousands demonstrate in Greece over new budget cuts”, Yahoo, 8 December 2016.

Greek public sector workers strike against EU/IMF reforms”, Reuters, 24 November 2016.

“Greeks strike against austerity before budget vote, bailout review”, Reuters, 8 December 2016.

OECD, Trade Union Density table, 2016.

UNI Europa – Statement on Solidarity with Greece (on the GSEE website).

Photos: AFP Photo/Louisa Gouliamaki, AFP Photo/Sakis Mitrolidis

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Gary Herman

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