Strike wave across Greece may herald end of social calm
Unions all over Greece and in almost every sector of the economy have scheduled a series of strikes for October 1997 and for the first half of November which may reverse a climate of peace, as far as strikes are concerned, which has prevailed from 1990 until today.
Unions and labour centres (a form of trades council) initiated a new wave of strikes at the beginning of October 1997 in Athens and its surrounding region and across the rest of the country. This wave of strikes was sparked by three factors.
- It became clear during the current social dialogue process that there was a gulf between Government and unions on almost every issue tabled for discussion. This disagreement "on every issue" has contributed to a climate of polarisation and confrontation.
- The announcement by the Government that it will make every effort to ensure that pay increases do not exceed the level of inflation made the social climate even more tense (GR9710128F).
- At the same time, negotiations are imminently due to begin for the new National General Collective Agreement (EGSSE) for 1998.
A major strike has been called by the General Confederation of Greek Labour (GSEE). GSEE announced a 24-hour strike for 23 October, suspending at the same time the procedures for the social dialogue, which will continue after the strike. According to the GSEE committee, it was led to this decision by internal pressure from their member unions and threats that they would walk out of the social dialogue.
The committee of the Confederation of Public Servants (ADEDY) announced a four-hour stoppage for 23 October from 11.00 to 15.00 in order to participate in GSEE's strike. In addition, ADEDY is planning a 24-hour strike during the second half of November.
Other strikes that have been scheduled include those organised by the Union of High School Teachers (OLME), the Union of the Athens Public Transportation Organisation (OASA) and the Construction Workers Unions from all over the country. A week of strikes also started on 13 October on the initiative of the labour centre of Piraeus affecting factories, shipyards and the large and small industrial units in Piraeus.
Although employee demands vary from sector to sector, most of them include :
- the ending of austerity measures;
- the redistribution of income; and
- fair reform of the social security system
Reversal of trend
The number of strikes, the number of employees on strike and the corresponding number of working hours lost in Greece showed an impressive fall during the years 1990/6.
Whilst during 1990 1.4 million people participated in about 200 strikes and 20 million hours of working time was lost, during 1995 only 120,000 people participated in 43 strikes and lost working time amounted to only about 400,000 hours (the number of employees in Greece is about 2.1 million). However, in the eight-month period from January to August 1996 working time lost attributed to strikes showed a significant increase again. At the time, employer associations and unions were negotiating to reach new collective agreements. By contrast, during the corresponding period of 1997, working hours lost due to strikes reached their lowest point, making it the longest period of labour peace between GSEE and employer associations. Overall, the decrease in the number of strikes during the years 1990/5 can be explained on the basis of developments in the Greek economy and the labour market:
- Firstly, the increase in unemployment. The unemployment rate, which in the 1980s was kept at the relatively low level of 8%, followed an upward trend starting in 1990 reaching today's level of 10.5% . This increase is sometimes cyclical in nature (as it was during the years 1991/3 when the Greek economy was going through a recession) but in the long term it is associated with the rapid increase in the size of the labour force.
- Secondly, the increasing insecurity that employees feel due to the restructuring process as well as the structural and technological modernisation of companies. The increasing liberalisation of the Greek economy exposes local producers to the extremely intense pressures of international competition, due to the overvaluation of the Greek drachma. High interest rates (the highest amongst EU countries) result in increased competitive pressures on companies. The result of intense competition was, initially, the closure of many companies which were suffering losses or low profitability and, secondly, the increasing pace of structural and technological modernisation of companies. Layoffs that accompany the closure of companies and modernisation have created a feeling of insecurity amongst workers.
- Thirdly, there is the deep reservation a great number of workers have regarding the effectiveness of strikes, especially because strikes in Greece are not used as a last resort and are not used as methodically as in other countries. This attitude is reinforced because it is widely thought that important labour and social matters have been decided by powerful interests at the international level, which, in the name of an internationalised economy, impose certain policies.
- Fourthly, the creation of consultative bodies, such as the Mediation and Arbitration Service (OMED), has helped to ease tensions at the workplace, as have the free collective negotiations that started in 1990. They help to channel collective differences before they end in an impasse.
The number of strikes, the number of workers on strike and the number of working hours lost during 1997 may reverse the declining trend that took shape at the beginning of the decade. Such developments will indicate any changes in the social climate that would clearly affect industrial relations in Greece. It is accepted by most observers that the Government will want to avoid direct conflict with the unions, not only because conflict would jeopardise the social dialogue process but also because it would create the feeling amongst public opinion that the Government was merely using conflict as a pretext for imposing decisions that it had already taken. (Eva Soumeli and Giannis Kouzis, INE/GSEE)