General strike highlights deteriorating economic situation

A new general strike was held by the top trade unions affiliated to the Greek General Confederation of Labour and the Confederation of Public Servants in early April 2009. The trade unions condemned the restrictive fiscal policy of the Greek government, which has caused the economy to go into recession. They contend that it is the workers who are bearing the main burden of the economic crisis as a result of such policy.

Economic context

Since the beginning of 2009, Greek and international organisations have kept revising their forecasts about the downward trend of key indicators of the Greek economy. For example, although in late 2008 the European Commission forecast regarding gross national product (GNP) for 2009 indicated a marginal increase, a decrease was believed to be impending. In addition, it was estimated that unemployment rates would rise from 8.2% in 2008 to a two-digit figure in 2009.

Reduced remuneration

In the midst of the negative economic atmosphere, business groups put forward proposals on implementing legal provisions that would make the employment relationship more flexible, with a view to containing unemployment rates – for example, a four-day working week with reduced salaries and wages instead of redundancies was suggested. Meanwhile, a company failed to meet the wages increases provided by the National General Collective Agreement (Εθνική Γενική Συλλογική Σύμβαση Εργασίας, EGSEE) for 2009. Thus, concerns arose that, due to the unfavourable economic situation, some companies might decide to renegotiate the percentage increase in salaries and wages – which were to amount to 5.5% for 2009 – in order to reduce labour costs to improve their financial situation.

Furthermore, in an effort to reduce the public sector deficit, the government in effect announced that it would freeze salaries and pensions – more specifically, gross monthly salaries of over €1,700 and gross monthly pensions of over €1,100 would not be increased (GR0905069I). Moreover, relations between the government and civil service trade unions deteriorated when it emerged that an administrative member of the complementary actuarial fund of civil servants had proposed that civil servants would probably have to make a one-off contribution equal to their monthly salaries and that a part of their wages might have to be withheld every month and added to the fund. This suggestion was put forward to help cover the fund deficits.

Call for strike action

Against the background of this unfavourable economic context for workers, it was decided to stage a general 24-hour strike on 2 April 2009, the third such action in recent months (GR0901039I, GR0811019I). The strike was called by the Greek General Confederation of Labour (Γενική Συνομοσπονδία Εργατών Ελλάδας, GSEE) on behalf of the private sector and by the Confederation of Public Servants (Ανώτατη Διοίκηση Ενώσεων Δημοσίων Υπαλλήλων, ADEDY) on behalf of the public sector.

Details of strike

The general strike reportedly attracted a large number of supporters, especially from the public sector. The participants included public administration staff, employees of the education sector, public transport workers and air traffic controllers. Hospitals had to function with a minimum number of staff, as healthcare workers joined the protest action. Journalists and bank employees also participated in the strike. On the day of the strike, the trade unions held a protest march to the buildings of the Greek parliament.

Main demands

Among its demands, the strikers asked the government to:

  • increase public investment and strengthen the real economy in order to boost employment and the number of jobs, as well as to avert an economic depression, redundancies and unemployment;
  • ban lay-offs, suspensions and compulsory leave for as long as the economic crisis continues, even in those companies that had received or would receive financial support or subsidies;
  • prohibit the unacceptable conversion of permanent full-time employment contracts into flexible and precarious forms of employment.

Reaction of government and employers

In response to the strike action, the Ministry of Economy and Finance (Υπουργείο Οικονομίας και Οικονομικών) emphasised that the government was doing its best to take as many measures as possible to lessen the effects of the crisis on workers and socially vulnerable groups (GR0905079I).

For their part, the employers assured that there would be no question of renegotiating the EGSEE and, more specifically, the increases in salaries and wages. Besides, according to the Chair of the Hellenic Federation of Enterprises (Σύγχρονες Επιχειρήσεις, Σύγχρονη Ελλάδα, SEV), Dimitris Daskalopoulos, the social partners could not do much without a minimum degree of consent. MrDaskalopoulos proposed the undertaking of initiatives in cooperation with the trade unions to address the increasing unemployment levels. Indeed, regular meetings have taken place between the social partners to identify measures for dealing with the rising levels of unemployment; it was agreed to continue these meetings (GR0904019I).

Commentary

The summer months will be a particularly critical period for the Greek economy, as 18% of the country’s GNP depends on tourism. A likely drop in tourism income – combined with the downturn in the construction sector in recent months – will lead to a deterioration in the country’s employment and unemployment indicators from this autumn onwards, further fuelling existing social tensions. Moreover, according to organisations such as the European Commission, the European Central Bank (ECB) and the Bank of Greece – due to the structure of the Greek economy, which is highly dependent on services – the critical period will continue in the autumn of 2009 and extend into 2010. Unlike most other European economies, which are expected to undergo a phase of recovery in 2010, it is anticipated that the Greek economy will probably remain in recession next year.

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

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