Greece's first unemployed union mobilises

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After a year of existence, in January-February 1998 Greece's first union of unemployed people began mobilising dynamically and formulating demands for improving the living and working conditions of the unemployed in north-central Euboea.

In October 1996, Greece's first union of unemployed people, known as the Union of Workers and Unemployed in the North-Central Euboea Mining Enterprises, was established. The union, which to date represents the only initiative to organise unemployed people in Greece, already has 650 members, from 22 communes and one municipality. It is based in the town of Mantoudi in Euboea Prefecture, in what is perhaps the area of Greece hit hardest by unemployment. Virtually the only industry in this area of eastern Greece is the mining and processing of magnesite, which is used as a raw material for special bricks in the steel and cement industries.

Unemployment in North Euboea

The results of a survey available from the unemployed union give an indication of the situation prevailing in the area. These data show that in north-central Euboea, in recent years unemployment among members of the active population aged 25-54 has risen as high as 77% for men and 92% for women. According to data from the same study, the age profile of the population has shown a marked upward trend during the past 10 years, and the rate of outward migration stands at 75% of the area's active population.

The dramatic rise in unemployment in the area, and what is seen as its chronic downgrading and its abandonment by the state, have led Euboea's unemployed people to form a union in order to resolve their problems through organised, coordinated actions. The union's basic, primary objectives are to:

  • record unemployment;
  • evaluate problems;
  • draw up objectives, and
  • divide them into short-term and long-term objectives.

The union's activity

After a year of operation and collective action by the union, its chair says that the state still has not responded to any of the demands or problems of unemployed people. Because of the Government's perceived indifference and inaction, the union has decided to take more drastic measures and carry out a series of mobilisations aimed at promoting the work of the union and meeting the demands of the area's unemployed people. The first of these was the rally held on 20 January 1998 in Halkida, capital of Euboea Prefecture, in which, apart from unemployed people, almost all the area's residents participated in a show of solidarity with the unemployed and their union.

On 4 February, the union began a series of contacts and meetings with the parliamentary groups of the political parties, asking them to support its demands concerning support for unemployed people and the productive development of the Euboea area. At the same time, the union has sent memoranda to the relevant Ministries, including its official proposals for the immediate meeting of its demands. In particular, the memorandum to the Ministry of Labour and Social Security includes proposals for "immediate relief of the unemployed" which can be summed up as follows:

  • the sickness benefits booklets of unemployed people should be validated, in cases where this has not been done;
  • the regulation giving unemployed people the option of early retirement should continue in force. Benefits should be transferable to another unemployed person when a beneficiary retires. In mining, the minimum age limit should be 45 years for those working underground and 55 for surface workers;
  • the number of insurance stamps an unemployed person needs to register for the second time with the Unemployment Fund should be reduced from 125 to 60, as an unemployed person is unlikely to obtain 125;
  • as long as a person remains unemployed, he or she should receive benefits equivalent to 80% of the wages of an unskilled worker; and
  • unemployed people should receive a special financial assistance grant of GDR 200,000.

The memorandum to the Ministry of Industry contains short-term as well as long-term proposals. In brief, they are as follows:

  • establishment of a single national magnesite body for the former Skalistiris, Papastratis, Bodosakis and Portolos companies and the Limni municipal mines;
  • immediate reopening of the Papastratis company under the control of the state and the Organisation for Reorganisation of Enterprises (OAE), using the Bodosakis company's revolving furnace at Drazi;
  • establishment of a forestry industry unit in north-central Euboea; and
  • expropriation by the state of the area's woodland and metal-bearing land which had been appropriated by landowners under legislation in force when the area was under Turkish rule. This expropriation should be combined with the establishment of the abovementioned forestry industry unit and national magnesite body.

From the government side, the Deputy Minister of Labour has stated that it cannot proceed to take measures that override existing legislation - such as reducing the number of insurance stamps to 60 - or actions for which it does not have the financial means, stressing that its resources are insufficient to meet needs. Nevertheless he has stated that the Government is moving in the direction of active employment policies; for Euboea in particular some relief measures have been taken, such as medical and pharmaceutical care for long-term unemployed people, early retirement and a special unemployment grant. He has also stated that the government is opposed to the introduction of a single magnesite body.

To criticisms by the area's unemployed people that the trade unions are not on their side, the chair of the Halkida Labour Centre replied that the unions are close to the struggle of the unemployed but that their role is purely an advisory one. Commenting on the issue, the financial secretary of the Greek General Confederation of Labour (GSEE) noted that in the last six years the problem of unemployment has been a priority of the confederation. However, he expressed reservations about the manner in which Euboea's unemployed people are organised, stressing that unemployed and retired people should be united with people in work: if the unions were made into mass organisations, a powerful social coalition would be formed.

Commentary

Following the recent impressive actions by unemployed people across Europe and in France (FR9801189F) in particular, the organisation and mobilisation of unemployed people in the Euboea area is a timely, unique experience in the Greek situation. Although it is a fragmentary action, still it bolsters the viewpoint that for the first time, unemployed people are waking up to the fact that they represent a social force. After the first public mobilisations, many commentators and experts on unemployment issues believe that such initiatives may give a greater impetus to the creation of an unemployed movement in Greece and to the formulation of demands and specific actions to deal with unemployment. However, the fact that the trade union party factions disagree on the way the unemployed should be organised may have an important influence on their organisation and activity in Greece. (Eva Soumeli, INE/GSEE)

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