General strike over proposed social insurance reform

In December 2007, Greece witnessed its biggest general strike in recent years. The protesters’ main demand was for the government to retract its plans to reform the social insurance system. The trade unions reported a high level of participation in the strike in both the public and private sectors. The employer organisation the Federation of Greek Industries also expressed its support for the workers’ demands and is seeking more meaningful dialogue on the reform issue.

The general strike organised on 12 December 2007 by the main trade union confederations in the private and public sectors – the Greek General Confederation of Labour (Γενική Συνομοσπονδία Εργατών Ελλάδας, GSEE) and the Confederation of Public Servants (Ανώτατη Διοίκηση Ενώσεων Δημοσίων Υπαλλήλων, ADEDY) respectively – represents the biggest strike held in recent years in Greece. The initiative has been compared to a general strike held in 2001(GR0105108N): the main demand then, as now, was that the government withdraw its plans for the social insurance system, including the Giannitsis Law, named after the Minister of Employment at that time. This objective was finally achieved when the government retracted the controversial bill.

Reform of social insurance system

While the current government’s intentions have not yet become fully evident, they would appear to include the following measures:

  • unification of the various social insurance funds;
  • higher retirement ages for certain groups, such as working mothers;
  • a change in the method of calculating pensions;
  • changes to the system of pensions for those in arduous and unhealthy occupations.

Strike demands and participation

The main demands of those participating in the December strike included the retraction of all proposals that might worsen the terms of social insurance – such as higher retirement ages and lower pensions. Also attracting opposition is the government’s economic policy, which the trade unions believe is driving down the purchasing power of wages and pensions, as well as leading to the sale of public enterprises.

According to trade union estimates, there was 100% participation in the strike by public transport workers, journalists and public authority employees. Participation reached almost 90% in the Public Power Corporation (Δημόσια Επιχείρηση Ηλεκτρισμού, DEI), the Hellenic Telecommunications Organisation (Οργανισμός Τηλεπικοινωνιών της Ελλάδος, OTE), oil refineries and the chemical industry. Participation amounted to over 80% in the health sector, while it reached an estimated 75%–80% in the education sector. In addition, the country’s courts and land registries remained closed for two days due to a token strike by court officers, while lawyers also took part in the December strike.

Furthermore, on 19 December, another 24-hour strike was held by a number of occupational groups opposed to plans to unify their social insurance funds; this included lawyers, engineers and journalists.

Statements by trade union leaders

The GSEE President, Giannis Panagopoulos, stated that the strikers and demonstrators had sent a strong message of resistance and struggle against the government’s policy, which he described as anti-worker and anti-insurance system.

Meanwhile, the President of ADEDY, Spyros Papaspyros, claimed that the direction in which the government’s policy regarding the insurance system is going is threatening working life and society, along with the present and future economic situation, and could result in extreme destabilisation.

SEV shares workers’ concerns

In a statement on the general strike, Dimitrios Daskalopoulos, the Chair of the Federation of Greek Industries (Σύγχρονες Επιχειρήσεις, Σύγχρονη Ελλάδα, SEV) – the main central employer organisation – emphasised that the federation shares the workers’ legitimate concerns and the insecurity expressed by those participating in the general strike. He argued that employers and employees have every reason to demand an integrated, viable solution to the problem of the social insurance system and to oppose the imposition of fragmentary measures that only ‘patch up’ the problem for the time being and in effect intensify it by putting it off for the future. Mr Daskalopoulos added that a meaningful dialogue is needed rather than one based on pretexts and that, in its present form, the dialogue that has developed has cultivated mistrust and provided an excuse for evading the issues. Lastly, the SEV chair argued that the general strike has highlighted the need for social initiatives and actions by the social partners, aimed at a system capable of constituting a pillar of social insurance, security and justice.

Commentary

Some commentators believe that the success of the general strike in December will force the government to change its course towards more moderate measures, including the unification of social insurance funds for certain occupations. As regards other possible measures affecting large categories of workers – such as higher retirement ages or a substantial reduction in the number of people retiring early – it appears that the government will opt for less radical measures. This is more than likely due to the fact that it has also calculated the political costs, which, as the general strike and the reactions of the social partners have demonstrated, will be particularly high if the government proceeds to make the changes it wants without the necessary social consensus.

Indeed, this change of course may also determine a change in the leadership of the Ministry of Employment and Social Protection, following the resignation of the former minister, Vassilis Magginas, during whose term the social insurance system came to the fore as an issue of top priority for the government. Although his resignation was not directly related to the government’s change of course regarding the insurance system, some of the former minister’s political and personal conduct – including the failure of dialogue on the insurance system – was considered a factor in strongly reducing any possibility of communication and dialogue between the government and workers regarding the planned changes to the social insurance system.

Stathis Tikos, Labour Institute of Greek General Confederation of Labour (INE/GSEE)

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