Alexis Tsipras, the head of Greece’s leftist SYRIZA party, waves at supporters during a pre-election rally in Athens June 14, 2012. REUTERS/Yorgos Karahalis
Greece’s new center-right government is set to impose fresh austerity measures in the fall, including further privatization of utilities, railways and ports. With unions already angry over wage and pension cuts, more work stoppages and demonstrations are expected. Three ministers have already resigned their posts, including a deputy labor minister who said the ruling coalition has no intention of keeping its campaign promise to renegotiate with the Troika (the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund), which had insisted on more austerity as a condition of continued aid to avert bankruptcy.
The government is already unstable. With labor’s help, the people could bring it down, observers say, giving the once-marginal Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza), the biggest opposition group in Parliament, a chance of forming a labor-backed government opposed to the Troika’s demands.
Many Greek unionists feel betrayed by their traditional political ally, the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (Pasok), which has agreed to layoffs, hiring freezes and wage and pension cuts since the crisis began in 2010. With Pasok a diminished minority ally in the ruling coalition led by conservative New Democracy (Pasok has thirty-three seats, compared with Syriza’s seventy-one in opposition), it would seem that there is little choice for unions other than mass mobilization. Kostas Koutsodimas, a vice president of the General Federation of Employees (Genop, representing electricity workers), told me, “The major problem is collecting taxes. It’s not the salaries,” pointing to the Greek ruling class’s infamous tradition of evading taxes and the government’s unwillingness to collect them. Another labor leader pointed out that imposing additional regressive consumption taxes while diminishing wages, in the midst of deep depression, only freezes the economy more.
And yet, the unions here have failed to take two available, and possibly overlapping, courses: link up with Syriza to fight austerity through parliamentary channels, and step up strike activity to force the ruling parties to acknowledge their demands or, better yet, force a government collapse. Labor leaders promise to use the strike weapon in the future, and some observers believe this is the calm before the storm that will be brought about by a fresh round of privatizations. Other activists believe the rank and file is simply too exhausted to engage in more action. Another theory is that just as decades of overt corruption—bribery in the public sector and widespread tax evasion—have drained the government of money, a more insidious political corruption keeps union leaders from making such a dramatic political break.
Greek labor’s roots with Pasok are deep, and long precede this financial crisis. The party spent decades advancing social democratic reforms, but they were accompanied by a patronage system to ensure loyalty. It was once a commonplace that anyone who could bring in critical votes would be rewarded with civil service jobs for their children. Labor leaders loyal to the party would often get key appointments in Pasok-led governments. Amid the crisis that system is breaking down. In February, for example, Deputy Labor Minister Yiannis Koutsoukos resigned when the government agreed to austerity measures. He had previously been an officer at the Civil Servants’ Confederation.
The bonds have weakened, but not enough. Sitting in a bar in the central Athens neighborhood of Exarcheia, a popular activist district, Syriza student activist Panos Petrou admits that it might sound bizarre for him to say the country’s labor leaders—who have led more than a dozen general strikes since the debt crisis emerged—are too conservative. But while one- or two-day transport strikes seem exotic to Americans, he said, these spurts of activism don’t pose a long-term threat to the existing order. The demonstrations give the appearance of labor militancy without putting the ruling powers in real danger.