Employers join mass turnout at national strike

Hundreds of thousands of protesters, including employers, took part in a national 48-hour strike organised by the Greek General Confederation of Labour (GSEE) and the Confederation of Civil Servants (ADEDY) on 19 and 20 October. The strikers, from both public and private sectors, were protesting against a draft law by the Ministry of Finance. It includes cuts in pay, jobs and pensions, and has been brought in as part of Greek’s financial bail-out deal with the EU, IMF and ECB.

Background

The draft law was announced by the government as part of its cost-cutting agreement with what is generally referred to in Greece as the troika, the three bodies responsible for drawing up the country’s financial reform package; the IMF, EU and ECB. The law, which implements the medium-term fiscal strategy framework 2012–2015, proposes:

  • the introduction of a ‘labour reserve’ to reduce the number of public sector employees(GR1109029I);
  • the application of a uniform pay scale that will mean pay cuts for public sector employees;
  • pension cuts;
  • suspending an increase in sector-level collective agreements;
  • the abolition of the favourability principle for private sector workers’ pay:
  • the reduction of tax exemptions;
  • the reduction of the tax-free allowance;
  • the levying of extraordinary income and property taxes.

Despite the protests, thought by the press to be the biggest since Greece’s post-dictatorship era in 1974, the law was voted through on 20 October 2011.

Union demands

The Greek General Confederation of Labour (GSEE) and the Confederation of Civil Servants (ADEDY), called for the strike in a joint resolution, pointing out that the:

…dead-end neoliberal policies, imposed by the government, the troika and the leadership of the European Union, drive the country and Europe as a whole into a deeper crisis, with a dramatic impact on peoples and countries. Moreover, the implemented policy deprives the workers, the pensioners and the economy of resources and revenues, it will skyrocket unemployment and debt, and it will intensify the impasse of the society and the economy.

The unions asked for the withdrawal of the ‘anti-labour, anti-social, anti-development measures’ calling, in particular, for the rejection of:

  • the new Medium-term Stability Programme;
  • the planned regulations aimed at cancelling the expansion of sector-level agreements and the prevalence of business-level agreements;
  • the planned introduction of the labour reserve.

The unions said the reserve would lead to dismissals and unemployment. They demanded that:

…the income and the purchasing power of the workers, the real economy, the development and the employment be supported, and that the tax evaders, those who avoid paying social security contributions, the privileged ones, the guilty ones and those who plundered the public wealth and transferred their excess profits and illegal wealth abroad be called to pay the bill.

The unions also demanded that:

  • public goods, social services and jobs be protected;
  • an end be put to dismissals, to the targeting of workers and to the demolition of the welfare state;
  • development policies be promoted;
  • the income and the social cohesion be supported.

Employers’ demands

Employer organisations such as the Hellenic Confederation of Professionals, Craftsmen and Merchants (GSEVEE) and the National Confederation of Hellenic Commerce (ESEE) also took part in the strike by closing down their shops and enterprises. In a joint resolution, they also expressed their opposition to:

…the total trivialisation of salaried employment, to over-taxation, to the destruction of the fabric of society, to the annihilation of the productive middle class, to the degradation of health, education and social security as well as to the other measures that will lead to an unprecedented reduction of business activity.

The main demand of Greek SMEs is:

…the arrest of the country’s downward recessionary course that is dangerous for the economy and the society and results in the shutting down of businesses, in unemployment, impoverishment, increasing deficits and ever growing debts.

The employers’ resolution went on to say that the only way of tackling the recession was by restarting the economic and investment activity of the country’s small enterprises, which are the ‘backbone of employment’ in Europe and in Greece.

Biggest turn-out since 1974

On the first day of the strike the trade unions organised a protest march to the Parliament in Athens. On the second, when the law was due to be passed, a rally was staged outside the Ministry of Finance and the Parliament. Press reports put the numbers taking part at hundreds of thousands on both days and said that the protest march on October 19 was the biggest since the rallies that were held during the first years of the post-dictatorship era after 1974. Police, however, estimated there were 70,000 protesters. GSEE figures said the strike was supported by 100% of the workers in shipyards, oil refineries, ships and the ports, while it got support from 90% of workers in the steel industry, construction industry, and among shop-assistants, bank workers, and those who work in the Public Power Corporation (PPC) the Hellenic Post (ELTA) the Athens Water Supply and Sewerage Company (EYDAP) and telecommunications (ΟΤΕ).

In Thessaloniki, the largest rally in recent years was held, and unions claimed that more than 50,000 workers took part. Similar mass rallies were held in all Greece’s major cities (Patrai, Iraklio, Chania, Larisa, Volos, Ioannina, Alexandroupoli, Rethymno, Tripoli, Agrinio, Chios, Kerkyra, Mitilini). One protester died in the Athens protests, but initial reports suggest this may have been due existing health problems.

The percentage of support among SMEs who closed their businesses on 19 October was recorded as ranging from 70% in Athens to 100% in smaller cities.

The protest was also joined by young people, students, pupils, pensioners, unemployed persons, taxi owners and associations of professionals and scientists, such as lawyers and pharmacists. Transport workers did not strike, in order to enable the protesters to attend rallies.

The two-day protest was preceded by various forms of strike action at sector level in the private and the public sector, which included sit-ins in ministries, in the offices of local government authorities and at landfill sites (which halted rubbish collections). There were also stoppages by transport workers and taxi owners.

Commentary

Government officials say the law had to be passed because of commitments made to the troika and in order to avoid economic default.

Nevertheless, the massive turnout of workers and employers clearly highlighted the amount of opposition to the government’s policies of austerity and crisis management, as well as to the action taken on wages, employment, industrial relations, pensions, and taxation. This was later underlined on 28 October, Greece’s Independence Day, when protests in more than 60 cities led to the cancellation of the traditional military parades.

Penny Georgiadou, Labour Institute of Greek General Confederation of Labour (INE/GSEE)

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