Unions In The Firing Line

22 August 2014 By George Harissis, leading Greek trade unionist with postscript from Cllr Isidoros Diakides Trade unions are workers’ first defence against Europe’s harshest austerity regime, argues GEORGE HARISSIS – and they’re under attack.

Commentary icon22 Aug 2014|Comment

22 August 2014

By George Harissis, leading Greek trade unionist with postscript from Cllr Isidoros Diakides

Trade unions are workers’ first defence against Europe’s harshest austerity regime, argues GEORGE HARISSIS – and they’re under attack.

IN THE last 25 years the Greek trade union movement has seen its priorities change — partly due to differences among trade unions but also due to the growing influence of neoliberal economics and the decline of collectivism.

The sections of the trade union movement that are influenced by conservative and social-democratic political parties have accepted the basic labour relations “reforms” promoted by the country’s capitalist political establishment, as demanded by the EU and the IMF.
By their acceptance they have cultivated the perception that the capitalist classes and their political parties are the “social partners” with which the working classes can negotiate, losing sight of the fact that these are class enemies against whom our class has to constantly struggle.

As a result, the reformist perceptions of social partnership, cross-class collaboration and social dialogue have become dominant within the Greek working classes and associated layers of society, weakening the previously dominant principles of class struggle, workers’ demands and the class emancipation of exploited layers of society.

In 2010 during the first stage of the “memoranda” regime, the dominant trade union sections influenced by Pasok — the social-democratic party — and the right-wing New Democracy, considered the crisis to be a socio-economic one instead of a systemic-capitalist one and believed that it was possible to solve it by simply reducing public expenditure.

They did not join the fight to defend their colleagues in the public sector, who were at the time the main target and the victims of the biggest reversals of pay and other employment rights.

The end result was that the whole of the working class lost basic employment rights which had been won through hard-fought battles and the shedding of workers’ blood over a period of more than 100 years.

Greece experienced a violent reversal of established employment and other civil rights within such an extremely short timescale that Greek society found itself ill-prepared to resist.

However, despite all that, in the last few years there have been significant battles fought by the workers and Greek society, which may not have prevented the imposition of the anti-labour reforms, but have nevertheless delayed substantially their implementation and have, crucially, changed the political scenery of the country.
The left is now the major political force in Greece.

The two governing parties, which between them five years ago had a combined 80 per cent of the vote, are now struggling to get 30 per cent.

These radical changes are also spilling over, albeit in a more tortuous way, into the trade union movement.

This and, more importantly, the fact that the trade unions are the main opposition on the ground to the politicians of the governing “memoranda” parties, are the main reasons why the government is so determined to constrain their activities.

The curtailment of trade union rights is part of the wider assault on democratic rights in our country. Increasingly in demonstrations today the dominant slogan is “Bread, Education, Freedom,” devised in 1973 during the popular uprising against the dictatorship, followed up now by “The junta didn’t end in ’73,” reflecting a wider mood as the basic values of the bourgeois parliamentary democracy are being once more trampled upon.

Demonstrators are again facing oppressive police violence, strikes are being declared illegal and ultra-vires by the courts and employees in key sectors are being “conscripted” — as in the cases of the National Electricity Board this year, the teachers last year, railway workers and local government workers.

(Greek law allows the government of the day to “conscript” specific groups of workers in the national interest, through emergency legislation, ie to temporarily recruit them into the armed forces, thus abolishing their constitutional right to take strike action.)

In order to be able to impose the savage new austerity measures demanded by the “lenders,” with the connivance of the Greek government, and having already abolished collective bargaining and any sense of collective negotiating, they are now preparing the ground for a new assault on trade union rights and freedoms:

  • Making it even more difficult, even impossible, to legally declare a strike, proposing a legal requirement of securing in advance the consent of an absolute majority (50 per cent plus one) of the total workforce — including both union and non-union members — instead of the current requirement to secure an absolute majority of members at special general meetings
  • Giving employers the right of “lock out,” something that was in existence until 1980, when it was abolished following hard-fought battles
  • Planning to restrict and in certain cases abolish trade union facilities, especially time off for trade union duties, in order to impede direct contact between unions and their members.

It is worth pointing out that in our country democracy stops at the gates of factories and other private-sector workplaces, with those brave enough to make demands or try to establish trade union branches being easy to sack.

This is one of the main factors explaining why union membership in the private sector runs at around 10 per cent of employees as opposed to 80-90 per cent in the public sector.

The right also wants to abolish the funding of trade unions, in order to strangle them financially as well. This affects only the private sector — currently by law employers have to collect from the wages and salaries of their workers a levy earmarked for funding trade union work and activities and certain other social welfare schemes.

The latter have been severely reduced and even abolished in many cases since the introduction of the “memoranda” regime.

Although this does not mean that these unions are government-funded as implied by some — the funding comes out of the wages and salaries of the workers themselves — it has nevertheless made these unions hostages to state manipulation and it has undermined their economic independence, one of the basic prerequisites of an effective trade union.

The situation is different in the public sector, where trade union funding has nothing to do with the state and relies entirely on the monthly subscriptions of the paid employees.

In recent years the government, supported by the mass media, has made every effort possible to discredit union activity, unions and trade unionists, often exploiting real weaknesses within the movement.

However the government’s reforms are not designed to deal with these weaknesses, but to exploit them in order to abolish any social or union resistance, because the main obstacle to the savage reforms imposed on Greek society for the benefit of big capital are democracy and collective struggle and resistance.

George Harissis is a leading Greek trade unionist and on the central committee of Syriza. He writes in a personal capacity.


Workers’ rights at risk – the European picture

SINCE the onset of the Greek sovereign debt crisis, Greek society has had foisted upon it the harshest austerity regime in Europe, known popularly in Greece as the “memoranda.”

This austerity regime has already curtailed a range of established trade union rights and freedoms, as well as other associated social support mechanisms.

Although detailed rights and freedoms of workers vary from one country to another, it seems clear that there is a co-ordinated attack on them across Europe, designed to “harmonise” such rights and freedoms around the lowest common denominator.

Within this context, Greece, and to a large extent the other so-called peripheral states of Europe ie Spain, Portugal, Italy, Cyprus and Ireland, have become the front line of a pan-European battle.

Political actors and trade unionists here in Britain are increasingly becoming aware that the real target of the reforms imposed in Greece is not just the Greek labour market but the European one.

The Greek government is currently promoting legislation designed to impose a range of further restrictions on established union rights and freedoms, ostensibly demanded by the “lenders” and already agreed behind the scenes by Greece’s compliant current government.

Cllr Isidoros Diakides

Co-chair Greece Solidarity Campaign

This blog post first appeared in the Morning Star

George Harissis

Leading Greek trade unionist with postscript from Cllr Isidoros Diakides