As I sit writing this, crowds with banners and loudhailers are marching towards Syntagma Square in Athens to take part in a demonstration as part of the first general strike against the Syriza/ANEL government. According to one of the main union confederations backing the strike, this is the “mother of battles”; according to The Guardian, “Syriza faces mass strikes in Greece“; according to Bloomberg, hardly a union mouthpiece, “Greece comes to a standstill as unions turn against Tsipras”.
So what is actually going on? Regular readers of this blog will know that we like to dig down into the cultural context and present a more nuanced picture of events in the headlines.
First of all, some background. Although Greek protests have featured large in the international press in connection with the anti-austerity movement, general strikes and the accompanying protest marches are not specifically a feature of the crisis. They are a proud tradition which has been upheld over the past forty years of democratic government, and one at which Greece excels on the international scene. A recent study found that between 1980 and 2006, Greece held 33 out of the 72 general strikes recorded across Western Europe (notably, the study performs two parallel analyses, one including Greece and one ex-Greece, such is the over-representation of this single country in the data sample). Given that Greeks hold more strikes and protests per year than they do national holidays, it is not surprising that such events also follow an almost equally ritualistic pattern, where the various participants seem to act out pre-determined roles within a circumscribed space, using a well-worn vocabulary of words and actions, call and response (for a level-headed description of what to expect, this handy Q&A is a good source).
Who is striking? Strikes such as today’s are “general” in the sense that they are held against the government rather than a specific employer, or by workers in a particular sector – but not in the sense that they are universal, or even necessarily mass protests. This is because the unions and confederations that call for general strikes in Greece represent a diminishing minority and are unrepresentative of the total workforce. At the peak of union participation in 1980, 39% of the Greek labour force was unionised; by 2012 that number had almost halved at 21.3% according to the OECD (the numbers are roughly in agreement with those reported in surveys by the unions themselves). The two main trade union confederations behind today’s strike are GSEE (private sector workers, mainly in quasi-public bodies like transport and utilities) and ADEDY (civil servants), as well as PAME, a Communist-supported confederation which has distanced itself from GSEE. Also joining in this year will be pharmacists, the latest target of reform measures threatening their protected status, and representatives of small business. It is not just that union membership is small; Greek trade unions systematically and increasingly under-represent private sector workers, a large portion of whom (around 38% in 2014) are (or were) employed by SMEs below the the unionisation threshold, women, the young, precarious and immigrant workers. These under-represented groups are arguably the most vulnerable groups of workers in the best of times, and were first and hardest hit victims of this crisis in terms of both job losses and loss of income, benefits and bargaining power. So, in a sense this strike, more than ever, represents the most protected groups fighting to maintain their remaining privileges, privileges that the majority of the workforce have already been deprived of along with their basic entitlements.
Can we expect riots? Well, because they are part of the accepted ritual, there will almost certainly be some molotov cocktails and teargas somewhere today, if not in Syntagma then almost certainly in the unofficial anarchist capital of Exarcheia. In the course of the crisis, protest took a variety of forms, whether or not accompanied by union strikes. Broader participation was a feature of many anti-austerity protests, especially the earlier ones, as were violent pitched battles between smaller groups of rioters and police. In a typically Greek confluence of events, on the 5th May 2010 during a largely peaceful protest march attended by many young families, a firebomb was thrown by a small group of masked troublemakers into a bank with inadequate fire protection, resulting in the death of three employees. In June 2011, police clashed with rioters causing injuries among the more peaceful protesters, and many properties in the centre of Athens went up in flames. The violence around the protests became a regular feature on the global news cycle, making Loukanikos, a semi-stray four-legged resident of Syntagma Square and regular frontline participant, an international celebrity and TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year for 2011. All of which has obscured the essential nature of the protests themselves. With the exception of the rallies organised around the July referendum which once again mobilised broader support, recent demonstrations have reverted to traditional form, with a core of activist marchers and a fringe of hooded troublemakers. Indicative of this fact, the Wikipedia page which meticulously recorded the anti-austerity movement in Greece with a clear partisan bias ends its account in 2012 (as of today’s visit). There is of course no Greek media coverage today, as the journalists’ union is also striking, but foreign press have been pursuing their customary breathless live coverage of the more sensational moments.
What is today’s strike and protest about? If one reads the slogans, this is yet another anti-austerity protest: it is about safeguarding jobs, social security and pensions, lowering taxes, saving homes from foreclosure. Many in fact expected strikes and protests to cease entirely when Syriza, the standard-bearer of the anti-austerity movement came to power in January, and again in September of this year. Things became more complicated when Syriza were forced to make an about-face and sign a third memorandum with Greece’s creditors in July. However, they were re-elected less than two months ago specifically with a mandate to implement the additional austerity measures specified in the memorandum. In practice, according to September’s election results, 18.5% of the Greek electorate affirmatively voted for this government to implement the specific policies this strike is protesting against, another 21.5% voted for parties who said they would also support them in principle, and a further 53% effectively waved them through by abstaining from the vote. So it was not unreasonable to expect this to be a turnout for the last holdouts of the anti-austerity movement that lost September’s elections.
But here’s the twist. In a move that has in turns puzzled, amused, and worried observers, Syriza’s own labour section called this week for mass participation in today’s strike and demonstration. This strike then, whatever its origins, has been effectively co-opted by the governing party in a canny move straight out of the Andreas Papandreou-era PASOK playbook. This is now the government-endorsed escape valve for anti-austerity sentiment, while at the same time projecting outwards the image of a government embattled by a desperate populace, effectively giving Alexis Tsipras the “see what I am up against?” defence as he prepares to use the refugee crisis as a bargaining chip with the EU at today’s emergency summit in Malta. If past history is any guide, it will have little effect in changing the course of events.
None of this is to say that the majority of Greeks are for austerity, merely that today’s strike and march as a form of protest does not represent them, nor does it help their cause. The strike is of course causing massive disruption to transport and services. You can be sure that those in whose name it is being held have spent the morning wondering how they will get to their precarious job (those who have one) handing out advertising leaflets by the Metro station, or taking time off (most likely unpaid) to look after their children whose teachers are striking…