MIA: History: ETOL: Newspapers & Periodicals: International Socialist Review: Issue 18

International Socialist Review, June–July 2001

Antonis Davanellos

General Strike in Greece


From International Socialist Review, Issue 18, June–July 2001.
Downloaded with thanks from the ISR Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the ETOL.


ON APRIL 26, 2001, a gigantic general strike shook Greece. Responding to the call of the General Confederation of Greek Workers (GSEE) – which represents private-sector workers and the union of public-sector workers (ADEDY) – factories, services, banks, hospitals, and transportation went dead. In Athens, a demonstration of more than 120,000 workers took over the center of the city, and more than 500,000 workers participated in rallies around the country. The strike, led by the most militant sections of the working class, energized even its weakest sections (journalists, musicians, etc.), who turned out in force for the first time in many years.

This was the workers’ answer to attempts by the social democratic government of PASOK (Panhellenic Socialist Movement) to reform the social welfare system by reducing pensions, raising the retirement age, and opening up the way to private insurance companies. A day before the strike, the government saw the storm coming and recalled the measures, inviting the unions to dialogue “from ground zero.” But it was too late. Even though the leadership of the unions belongs – by overwhelming majority – to PASOK, it did not retreat, resulting in the groundbreaking strike of April 26.

A week before the strike, the newspaper of International Workers Left (DEA, the ISO’s sister organization in Greece) ran a front-page headline that read: “They won’t get through – Nothing is going to be the same after the strike for the insurance system.” And, indeed, the situation in Greece is unfolding rapidly and reflects significant developments in the working class. The breach between the workers, who are the social base of the social democracy, and the party that is supposed to represent them, PASOK, opens up enormous opportunities for the left. Inside PASOK, the workers’ reactions have triggered a wave of disagreements and confrontations, creating a chaotic situation that has driven Prime Minister Costas Simitis (a Tony Blair-type “modernizer”) into isolation.

Seemingly omnipotent until the strike began, today the prime minister who guided the Greek economy into the Economic and Monetary Unification in the European Union (ONE), can count on the open support of only a small group of extreme modernizers connected with banking and big capitalist interests. The Greek press is already publishing editorials urging Simitis to leave office, become a European Union commissioner, or run for the decorative post of President of Democracy. Many worry that the crisis in PASOK will facilitate the rise of the right-wing party New Democracy (ND), a neoliberal party that demands swifter attacks on the working class. The ND platform is based on emphatic demands for privatization and so-called flexible labor relations, which effectively do away with stable working hours and daily overtime pay.

But more observant analysts point out that the crisis in PASOK stems from an attack from the left not the right. They also pose the question: How could a right-wing party without support in the unions succeed in meeting working-class demands when PASOK, a social democratic party that until yesterday seemed to control the majority of the unions, failed?

The developments in Greece offer valuable lessons for all revolutionary socialists, who are faced with the duty of staving off neoliberal policies, enacted in the majority of European countries by social democratic governments. These developments show once again how workers’ struggles initiated to protect basic rights can lead to a period of political crisis. In Greece today, all appearances suggest that this period of crisis will be an extended one, and one of extraordinary importance for the left.

Reformers without reforms

Greece is a country where the distinction between right and left has deep roots. The explanation lies in the history of the bloody Civil War of 1945–49, and the military dictatorship of 1967–74. In 1981, PASOK won the election in a climate that resembled a festival of the people. Then-Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou governed until 1989, for the most part supporting the bourgeoisie, but also promoting some democratic reforms that gave him a progressive veneer. The slogan “People don’t forget what right means” was PASOK’s answer to any criticism from the left. In 1989, Papandreou’s government collapsed amid a wave of corruption scandals and after repeatedly disappointing his labor and popular base with his pro-business economic policies. The ND government that succeeded him judged that the balance of class forces in Greece had been turned in favor of the bosses and attempted a brutal neoliberal attack, based on the standards of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

That government was swept away within two and a half years in a prolonged wave of harsh strikes and large demonstrations. Through all its years in government, from 1993 until today, PASOK has fixated on the goal of getting Greece in ONE, which means that it has been dedicated to an austerity program of privatization, flexible labor relations, restrictive income policies, and cuts in social spending.

The policies of modernization were met with great resistance in Greece. One after the other, large sections of workers participated in strikes in opposition to the government. But the high level of support for PASOK in the trade unions allowed Simitis to isolate these struggles, confront them one section at a time, and cause them to splinter. The results were defeats or bitter compromises, painful for large sections of the working class (including teachers, bank workers, and shipyard workers). Simitis was able to carry out his attacks under relatively favorable economic circumstances. From 1991 to 1996, the average real annual increase in gross domestic product (GDP) was 1.4 percent. In 1997, it was 3.5 percent; in 1998, 3.5 percent; in 1999, 3.4 percent; and for 2000, it is expected to be announced at 4.1 percent. That gave the government some wiggle room, allowing them to present to the central trade union bureaucracy a policy that could be called “neoliberalism with human face.”

Nevertheless, the continuous pressure on working-class living standards increased class polarization, piling up anger and indignation in the working class. After Greece’s admittance to ONE, which seemed an impossible dream to Greek capitalists at the beginning of the 1990s, the ruling class saw its future coming up roses. The developments in the Balkans and the relative improvement in relations with Turkey opened up room for Greece to claim the role of a leading local power. The news that the 2004 Olympic Games are to be held in Athens triggered an explosion of land and public works speculations. An annual increase of 4.5 percent in GDP is predicted for the next five years. One side effect of this “progress” was an outbreak of competition among large capitalist groups trying to determine who would benefit the most from the new opportunities, adding to the political pressures on the government.

But crisis appeared in earnest when signs of international financial deterioration called all of these ambitious capitalist dreams into question. A ruling-class consensus formed demanding an acceleration of structural changes to the economy, a roundabout way of calling for new attacks on workers. Under these pressures, Simitis, who had promised a loosening up of his economic policies after ONE, announced the “second wave of modernizing.” He set a goal of swift privatization of the large public companies: telecommunications (OTE), electric power (DEH), and Olympic Airways (OA) – a very bitter pill for the most loyal members of PASOK.

He asked for even greater flexibility of labor relations (including on-call working hours and the abolition of protection from firings), but the sharpest attack was the demolition of the social welfare system. These modernizers, drunk from the successes they’d had against isolated strikes, believed they could provoke the entire labor movement with impunity. The general strike of April 26 gave them the answer they deserved. It was so militant that it has now called into question PASOK’s ability to stay iª power. After the strike, the newspaper of the International Workers Left ran the headline, “Workers counterattack – Now we demand,” with a main article entitled, “The time of the left.”

The left

In Greece, the political organizations to the left of social democracy that have strong support in the unions grew out of the breakups and recompositions of the old Stalinist Communist Party (KKE). The KKE went through an extended period of crisis after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in 1989. Today, its politics are reminiscent of the “third period” of the Stalinist Comintern, when communist parties set up separate unions and denounced reformist workers’ organizations as fascist. It calls both leading and rank-and-file supporters of PASOK sellouts. It has attempted to build KKE-based red unions, without any qualms about splitting up the labor movement.

When the level of struggle was low, the DEA had to be very careful to resist the peculiar “reformist sectarianism” of the KKE, which substituted initiatives of the party for the whole of social resistance. This policy received a loud slap on the face on April 26. And, although the KKE leadership did not hesitate to organize a separate, “pure” May Day demonstration a few days later, there is already evidence that some experienced labor leaders are questioning party leadership on the crucial matters of the unity of the class and the unions. The ex-eurocommunist section, now going by the name “Alliance of the Left,” has the opposite problem. It was under pressure by its right wing to support PASOK by entering into a governing alliance with it. But one result of the general strike was the reinforcement of a left current searching out alliances – not with PASOK, but with dissidents of the KKE and also with the revolutionary left.

The closing of the gap between right-wing and social democratic policies leads workers to search for a third pole, increasing the pressure for unity of the left. After the general strike, that pressure has taken on enormous dimensions, since many workers are searching for the support of a party that could politically express a workers’ fightback. In these circumstances, the DEA has focused its attention on the tactics of the united front. We are opening up to united action with everyone on the left – including PASOK’s base – with the aim of supporting the struggles of the movement and achieving concrete victories for workers.

This effort not only does not conflict with but requires the building of an independent socialist organization. Independent socialist organization is indispensable, both in order to formulate concrete tactics and to take part in the battle of ideas within the left – a battle that is critical in such a period. Already, the Alliance of the Left, the dissidents of KKE, the more serious movement organizations, and the local section of the Fourth International have proposed the formation of a “place of common action and dialogue on the left,” which is going to support the strikes around the social welfare system, the defense of political and union rights, and the organizing of Greek participation in the international protest at Genoa (the next big antiglobalization event).

International protests against neoliberal globalization (Seattle, Nice, Quebec, Genoa) have become very popular in the current circumstances. Greek participation in Genoa is going to be big, with labor unions weighing in significantly. A radicalization is shaping up in Greece that takes the form of a rapid escalation of workers’ struggles, which is playing a central political role in the struggle. As it ascends, it carries along with it all new movements critical of capitalism.

This ascendance presents revolutionaries, in a very acute way, with all kinds of tactical problems: the role of reformism, intervention in the trade unions, unity and critical dialogue with the other left currents, and so on. In these conditions, there are two likely mistakes that have to be avoided: on the one hand, sectarianism – underestimating the need to get involved with any form of workers’ resistance; on the other hand, liquidationism – dissolving revolutionary organizations within loose activist collectives that do not allow for real long-term changes in the relationship between revolutionaries and reformists. Living through great events such as the strikes in Greece, one realizes the importance of discussions that are developing globally within the revolutionary left.

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Antonis Davanellos is a member of the editorial committee of the Greek socialist newspaper, Workers Left, and a member of the ISO’s Greek sister organization, International Workers Left (DEA). Article translated by George Vouros, Poly Siringa, and Elizabeth Terzakis.

Note: Shortly after this article was written, the GSEE and ADEDY called a second one-day strike for May 17. Millions of people participated again in the strike, which this time included small businesses, bakeries, gas stations, and cab drivers. Eighty thousand people turned out in Athens for the labor rally, with hundreds of thousands more in rallies across the country. Since the April 26 strike, the government has been under enormous pressure to agree to make the necessary changes to put the social welfare system back on its feet. The most militant sections of the working class (bank employees, teachers, hospital workers) with newfound enthusiasm are escalating the strikes and demanding more. The Workers’ Center in Athens, one of the largest federations of workers across the country, voted to demand that the GSEE call another general strike for the first week of June, but the GSEE refused. The bank workers, together with the National Federation of Teachers, called for a two-day strike starting on the same day as the May 17 strike, demanding free and public education for all and protection of their working schedule, a 35-hour workweek, and an increase in their salaries. Hospital workers answered the government’s attacks by organizing a general strike on May 10 and fully participating in the general strike on May 17. They planned a further series of half-day strikes for the second half of June.

George Vouros

Last updated on 28 July 2021