More workers occupying premises as form of protest

During the period from December 2008 to February 2009, a special form of social reaction emerged in Greece. More specifically, the practice of occupying premises and facilities by employees and groups of employees or private sector trade unions came to the forefront concerning industrial relations in the cleaning sector. The protests were sparked by a vicious attack on a contract cleaner, and highlight breaches of labour law and poor working conditions.

Social unrest

The social unrest during the three months following a tragic incident in whicha schoolboy was killed by a police officer on 6 December 2008 (GR0901039I) gave rise to a different form of social reaction in Greece. More specifically, it renewed the practice of occupying premises and facilities by employees and groups of employees or primary trade unions in pursuit of demands pertaining to working or social issues. The trade union movement in Greece has three levels of representation: primary or first level (company, regional or craft unions), secondary (local labour centres, sectoral federations) and tertiary (national confederations).

Innovative aspects of site occupation

In recent months, this form of collective action has been characterised by two main innovative aspects beyond the traditional form of occupying an employer’s premises in the context of a strike. Usually, such a strike would have been organised by employees of the specific enterprise in order to exert more pressure and to address particular working demands.

  • The first innovative aspect is that the occupied premises are not always working areas but may be public buildings or buildings accommodating secondary or even tertiary trade unions.
  • The second is that the collective bodies that decide on the protest actions, and organise and manage them, bring together unionised and non-unionised employees with flexible forms of employment in different sectors of the economy.

Thus, in principle, their demands do not refer directly to the improvement of particular terms and conditions of employment of the workers participating in such actions. In fact, the demands do not necessarily even relate to a specific branch or profession, let alone a specific company.

Reasons for occupying premises

The widespread wave of site occupations was mainly triggered by an unprecedented attack with sulphuric acid that took place on 22 December 2008 against Constantina Kuneva, a Bulgarian migrant worker and trade union activist in the industrial cleaning sector (GR0903019I, BG0902029I).

In addition, the Labour Institute (Ινστιτούτο Εργασίας, ΙΝΕ) of the Greek General Confederation of Labour (Γενική Συνομοσπονδία Εργατών Ελλάδας, GSEE) published research on industrial relations in contract cleaning companies, which had already been commissioned by the trade union with which Ms Kuneva was registered. This publication prompted the occupation of a large number of premises and facilities in condemnation of the attack and in demand of better protection of workers’ rights in the cleaning industry.

Furthermore, throughout Greece, premises belonging to trade unions, such as the building of GSEE and dozens of local labour centres, are being occupied for a few days by collective bodies of employees and primary trade unions that often are not affiliated to GSEE. According to the organisers, such protests aim to highlight the responsibilities and inertia of the official trade union movement in relation to the prevalence of flexible forms of employment, especially contract work. The organising bodies deplore the violation of the rights of cleaners working for contractors that enter into contracts with companies in the public or wider public sector, in which traditionally powerful employee unions are operating.

In addition to the symbolic occupation of universities, these employee collective bodies and trade unions occupy working areas in the public or wider public sector where cleaners who have been hired by contract cleaning companies work. These protests aim to criticise the administration of specific organisations, such as hospitals, educational institutes and public transport companies, for the tolerance that they show to contractors despite the widespread breaches of labour and insurance laws identified by state auditing mechanisms.

Results of protest

The most characteristic and substantially successful site occupation took place on 25 February 2009, when the headquarters of Athens Piraeus Electric Railways (Ηλεκτρικοί Σιδηρόδρομοι Αθηνών Πειραιώς, HSAP) was occupied for the second time. The contractor for whom Ms Kuneva was working has had the contract for the cleaning of these premises since 2002.

The protest was organised by the Initiative of Primary Unions for solidarity with Constantina Kuneva, which brings together about 100 primary unions, most of which are affiliated to GSEE. As a result of this intervention, HSAP management was forced to enter into an informal tripartite agreement with the Attica Union of Cleaners and Domestic Personnel (Παναττική Ένωση Καθαριστριών και Οικιακού Προσωπικού, PEKOP) and the company union. As part of the accord, HSAP agreed to:

  • cancel the contract with the contractor, due to numerous violations of labour laws;
  • cooperate with PEKOP in order to launch a new tender to award the cleaning work;
  • accept joint responsibility for labour law compliance together with the new company that will undertake the cleaning of HSAP platforms and other facilities.

Commentary

Regardless of the binding effect and applicability of this specific informal agreement, in the future it is uncertain whether informal collective movements such as site occupation will always be purely symbolic.

Apostolis Kapsalis, Labour Institute of Greek General Confederation of Labour (INE/GSEE)

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