Steelworkers’ strike continues into fifth month

The steel workers’ strike at the Aspropyrgos plant of steel manufacturer Hellenic Halyvourgia is becoming entrenched, with workers now into their fourth month on the picket line. The strikers say they will not end their protest unless Hellenic Halyvourgia renstates 50 colleagues who were made redundant in October 2011. Management maintains that the loss-making plant can only continue to operate with fewer employees and shorter shifts for those that remain.

The case of Hellenic Halyvourgia

Steel maker Hellenic Halyvourgia was created from the merger of Halyvourgia Thessalias and Helliniki Halyvourgia on 1 December 2006. Since then domestic demand for its steel has declined and the company has not been able to create an export market for its products.

In October 2011 management dismissed 34 workers and another 16 shortly afterwards at its plant in Aspropyrgos near Athens, saying it had no choice because of the financial situation at the plant. Trade union members and almost every worker at the Aspropyrgos plant reacted by joining the strike called by the Federation of Metal Workers (POEM).

The workers have been on strike ever since and say they will not return to work until their colleagues are resinstated.

Managers point out that, in the nine-month period from January to September 2011, demand in the domestic market fell by 40% compared with the same period in 2010, and by 70% compared with 2008. Efforts to channel production into exports were not successful, while increased energy costs mean Hellenic Halyvourgia is not competitive with foreign steelmakers. Over the last seven years industrial electricity rates have increased by 40%, largely as a result of government policy. At the same time, a large number of new taxes (such as Consumption Tax, charge on renewable energy systems (RES)) have contributed to an additional 10% rise in industrial rates.

The employer’s side proposed that workers in two plants in Aspropyrgos and Volos should work for five hours a day through November and December, because the production from a full eight-hour shift at both plants could not be absorbed’. This proposal changes the employment contract and cuts workers’ pay but, according to management, it safeguards all the jobs and does not affect the workers’ social security rights.

The workers’ union in Volos voted in favour of the proposal and the plant continues to operate, but the union at the Aspropyrgos plant rejected it. It rejects the management’s claim that the business has been making a loss for the last three years, saying that during the same period production increased by 40–50% (from 196,000 to 266,000 tons of steel). It also says that most workers have not taken their full summer holiday entitlement due to the increased volume of work, and that they had been working for 14 hours a day right up to the start of the strike.

Social dialogue begins

In early January a tripartite meeting took place at the Ministry of Labour and Social Security between representatives of Hellenic Halyvourgia’s management, legal representatives for the workers and the Deputy Minister of Labour Yiannis Koutsoukos.

Both sides stuck to their demands and the talks broke down. The company insisted on the need for restructuring and the dismissals that would entail, while the workers’ representatives continued to demand the reemployment of their 50 colleagues and the re-implementation of an eight-hour day for all workers without any pay cuts.

The 400 workers in the steel factory of Aspropyrgos have now been on strike for over three months and their continuing protest has attracted considerable attention at home and abroad, inspiring events across Greece to demonstrate solidarity and support for the strikers as well fund-raising events to help support them.

Social partner reaction

The Centre of Athens Labor Unions (EKA) recently called a 24-hour strike in support of the steel workers. EKA issued a resolution calling for the austerity measures to be overturned and for the abolition of all statutory regulations that circumvent workers’ rights and social security entitlements.

The Association of Industries in Thessaly and Central Greece (AITCG) intervened in favour of Hellenic Halyvourgia, describing the actions of those who are preventing those who want to return to work from doing so as opportunistic, illegal and irresponsible. The Association says, among other things, that Hellenic Halyvourgia wanted to retain its entire personnel, despite the dramatic decrease in its turnover and the corresponding increase in its losses.

Commentary

During the last three months, the workers of Hellenic Halyvourgia’s plant in Aspropyrgos and the company’s majority shareholder have been locked in a tug-of-war that is having a huge impact on both sides.

The production process has been hit by the negative economic climate, a fall in demand for steel, the adoption by management of an investment strategy during a period when potential for exports is limited and now the ongoing strike, severely jeopardising the viability of the company and the future of its workers.

However, the unprecedented solidarity and active support shown by unions, workers and the public throughout the strike, along with the physical presence of supporters and the donations of food and offerings, have been important elements in the steelworkers’ mobilisation.

Elena Kousta, Labour Institute of Greek General Confederation of Labour (INE/GSEE)

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