Greece – Chronicle of a union’s defeat

On the day the national union of teachers would defy the Greek state’s show of force, by entering in its first day of industrial action, its members instead found themselves to be the receptors of government gratification for continuing with their duties. And so, once again, in the most unceremonious manner Greek workers were lined up for a battle their leaders never wished to fight.

Despite the unskilful attitude the government showed in its willingness to move against the next section of organized public workers, the leadership of the teachers union fell into the trap that had been set with immense naivety and compliance. In the beginning of May the government moved to issue a Presidential decree introducing cuts and redundancies masqueraded as one related to teacher evaluation processes and personnel transfers, thus tempting the union leadership to consider industrial action to coincide with the start of the national exams for students trying to acquire an entry to a university beginning on 17th of May, knowingly all too well that such an action would shift public opinion in favour of the government. From its part the leadership of the teachers union having not taken any action when the initial plans of these changes were been discussed as early as January and at a time when public transport workers were been in dispute with the government themselves, remained silent and idle for the remainder of the period hoping for the instant moment of decision not to arrive. Inevitably the moment did arrive, at a time when it was most convenient for the government with the national exams approaching and with the victories against the public transport workers and the sailors in January and February giving the party of bourgeois law and order, a further sense of purpose and self significance. Since January the representatives of the European and Greek bourgeoisie had twice successfully used the might of the Greek bourgeois state against striking workers by imposing military law against them and forcing them to withdraw facing imprisonment and dismissal, should they choose to continue with their strikes. By Friday the 10th of May, and when the National committee of the national union of teachers (OLME) was going into their second day of deliberation, the government was already warning of using the same method used earlier in the year should the teachers decide in favor of industrial action. This time the excuse to use this constitutional right would be the safeguarding of the national exams. Admittedly, in the year 2013, in Greece, a European state, the right to strike has been abolished.

At the end of its two-day deliberation the national committee of OLME had decided to ballot its membership for industrial action, to coincide with start of the national exams on the 17th and continuing for six days. The prey had moved into the trap, and the trap door started to shut behind. Unlike the government, the leadership of OLME had chosen the worst moment for industrial action, with the Greek working class having been dealt a heavy blow only two months earlier, the union would almost certainly face the government from an isolated position. The balloting of the members would have taken place on the 13th and 14th in regional meetings with the final decision to take place on the 15th by the national meeting of all the regional presidents.

At a time when the leadership showed lack of decisiveness and enthusiasm for the cause, the government mobilized the state with immense conviction and swiftness. By the next day Saturday the 11th of May, the government had already decided to issue martial law against the members of OLME even before their regional meetings had taken place, and had begun to print the 88,000 orders to be delivered by the police from Monday onwards. In this chronic bureaucratic degeneration of the trade union movement the biggest weapon the working class could possess against the state when it came to matters of economic action was absent. Effectively neutralized by the bureaucracies themselves in order to satisfy their need to become the directors, manipulators and pacifiers of a great social strength, at a time when the rules of engagement have been dramatically changed the ability of the working class to spontaneously, abruptly and unpredictably move against state oppression was not present. Thus the working class has found itself crawling in response to events when at the same time the state moves with menacing speed. The mass bureaucratic formations that once gave the leaders of unions great leverage of political power against the political establishment as means to gain some concessions, and great political control against its own membership to force those concessions upon them as a solution to the deep needs of the working class, has now, against the hunger of capital for more profits, been found inadequate to provide even the most basic protection.

Thus, the leadership having been out-maneuvered by the government had effectively put the membership in a position where it was no longer facing a decision just for industrial action, but for action against the state and the bourgeois political establishment in its totality. Consequently the bureaucracy was facing the likely nightmare scenario of having to lead a union against the state, and inasmuch actually fight the battle they have been calling for. On Monday the 13th the leadership of OLME appeals for support to the Greek federation of public workers (ADEDY) and proposes the calling of a 24 hour strike for the 17th , the first day the teachers would strike. The federation traitorously calls for a 24 hours strike for the 14th, thus washing its hands of the matter, and putting an end to any scenario of the teachers coming out of isolation, with the general secretary of the federation criticizing OLME’s decision to strike during the national exams. Critically, by taking this course, the leadership of the federation placed the question of the ‘right to strike’ in the context of petty bourgeois ethical interpretation, effectively conceding to the government’s argument and insomuch allying with the bourgeoisie.

In the afternoon hours of the 14th of May the results of the balloting from the regional sections were conveyed to the union leadership. Although more than 90% had voted for strike action, the leadership was dealt with a further blow since less than 20% of the membership participated in the elections. The leadership found itself isolated both outside its own bureaucratic walls as well as inside them. A last attempt was made to come out of isolation, this time turning for political support. The same day as the results came through from the regions the leadership of OLME went into a meeting with the president of SYRIZA. Yet the weakness of the leadership of SYRIZA had already been exposed when it found itself incapacitated to act twice in the past when workers were brought under martial law. Once again this newly established petty bourgeois alliance found itself incapacitated to have a presence outside bourgeois parliament. And so, with the loudest voice possible it shouted its support for the teachers union. But, outside the closed parliamentary doors hardly anyone came to notice the shouting, since in these times of state aggression and heightening of class struggle the walls of parliament have become sound proof. Thus, On the one hand insulating parliament from the political presence of the working class, and on the other, insulating the petty bourgeois leadership of workers parties, from the pressures of the developing class struggle.

The next day the 15th, the day the regional presidents assembled to put forward the final vote, the leadership had already started to meet with representatives from the government in order to achieve the commencement of negotiations at any possible level. It was not so much a question of finding a solution for their members, but rather a question of finding a solution for their own personal predicament. The nightmare scenario was fast approaching and a way out was immediately needed. Anything would have been enough to proclaim the start of negotiations and the indefinite postponement of the strike. Yet the bourgeoisie being in a position of extreme power and facing another opportunity to strike hard and deep into the soul of every individual worker, were in no mood to negotiate. Indeed this was an opportunity, which also coincided with the resigning of a national employment agreement by the federation of private workers, since from the 15th of May onwards all previous national employment agreements would cease to be valid, thus putting pressure on the leadership of the federation of private workers (GSEE) to come to agreement with different employer associations. With the biggest employer association not even sitting at the negotiations table, on the 15th of May, the leadership of the federation of private workers had agreed for further cuts, cancelling of existing benefits and in general accepting the furthering of exploitation of Greek workers. Needless to say the leadership of GSEE was too busy signing the further enslavement to capital of a big section of Greek workers that didn’t feel it had any role to play against the oppression the teachers were receiving. After all it didn’t in the past either.

In this kind of political atmosphere the regional presidents of OLME convened to vote for industrial action, upon the recommendation of its leadership and upon the balloting of the membership. What the membership however dismissed heroically, the leadership could not. And while the membership voted in favour of industrial action despite being at the same time leafleted with military orders by the police, during the meeting the leadership put to vote the question, weather conditions existed for the union to break the martial law. The answer was no, and the strike was cancelled. And so, in the most embarrassing way the battle against the government and state oppression was postponed till the next time a group of organised workers would be targeted.

Yet what has been profoundly different this time the state machinery was used to smash an organised group of workers from the previous times is the orchestrated manner that both the state and the union bureaucracies acted. From the part of the bourgeoisie this was another clear victory and from the part of the workers a clear defeat. Yet from the part of the workers the rules of engagement have clearly been displayed in the open, insomuch that no group of workers in the future will consider taking industrial action without considering at the same time its defence from state oppression. The bourgeoisie from their part and in their eagerness to smash any level of defiance they have at the same time devalued the foundations that keep their social system afloat, and consequently, themselves exposing the existence of class struggle by placing in the same equation the right to strike against the bourgeois state. The right to decent working conditions against the existence of a class society. The right to democracy against the existence of a bourgeois parliament. The right to political expression against bureaucratic control. Thus, forcing the working class to reconsider the organisational effectiveness of its institutions of economic and political struggle and its current incapacity to achieve unification. And while the petty bourgeois leaders of PASOK, SYRIZA, DIMAR and KKE are content with the working class being separated on the basis of their own reformist political notion and in the context of bourgeois parliamentary democracy into different parties, events manifesting from the political and social liquidation the current financial crisis bestows will make the existence and preservation of this reformist ideological equilibrium intolerable. After years of bureaucratic degeneration and political decay the Greek working class not dissimilarly to the European working class has developed a condition of hypotrophy. Thus, every time it rises to react to events it soon comes down crashing under its weight and with its political muscles unable to hold the movement in motion. And what has come clear from this latest dispute is that before it can move decisively, the working class must first strengthen its political muscles while at the same time shed the bureaucratic and reformist obesity that has developed around them.

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