From the TUC

European unions show support for Greek workers

02 Oct 2013, By Guest

At a conference convened on Monday and Tuesday of this week by the European wing of the global union federation IndustriALL, delegates from across Europe (including Unite, and manufacturing unions from Belgium, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Italy and Spain) gathered in Athens to learn about the attacks on trade unions, the dismantling of collective bargaining by the Greek government and the rise of the fascist Golden Dawn party.

The conference had been called to show solidarity with members of the Greek metal workers union POEM whose officials were due to appear in a Greek court following the on-going conflict at the Skaramanga Shipyard.

For over a year Greek workers at the shipyards failed to receive wages because of a conflict between the shipyard’s owner and the Greek government. On 4th October 2012, POEM organised a demonstration in front of the Greek Ministry of Defence. They asked to meet the Minister but when it became obvious that the Minister was not interested in meeting with them, the workers, desperate and furious, decided to enter the building which led to clashes with the police.

Approximately 120 workers were arrested. POEM assumed responsibility for this event and asked the police to release the workers. This move was accepted by the police and the Attorney General.

As a result officials of POEM were faced with a court appearance this week. Conference delegates attended the court hearing and demonstrated in the court house square as the POEM officials made their first court appearance. The full hearing was put back until May, 2014.

The conference itself heard contributions by union officials and academics from Greece of the attacks on trade unions and working people including the so called market and pension reforms. These have had a devastating effect on Greece’s already weak economy.

It was reported that the latest Greek budget predicts that the economy will shrink by 6.5% this year and by a further 4.5% in 2013. Greece has been in recession for four years, and its economy is projected to have shrunk by a fifth between 2008 and the end of this year. Without economic growth, the Greek government cannot boost its own tax revenues and so has to rely on aid to pay its loans.

Many commentators believe that even the combined €240bn of loans and the debt write-off will not be enough. Eurozone finance ministers agreed earlier this month to give Greece two more years – until 2016 – to meet the deficit reduction targets that are a condition of the bailout loans. Greece’s debt is currently forecast to hit almost 190% of GDP next year.

The IMF made clear that it would only consider the debts sustainable if they could be brought down to 120% of GDP by 2020. The IMF will not lend money to a country whose debts it does not deem sustainable. Greece’s debts are now expected to fall to 124% of GDP by 2020. This will be done by cutting the interest rate on existing rescue loans, returning profits earned by the European Central Bank on Greek debts it owns, and helping Greece buy back its private-sector debts at their currently depressed market prices.

Greece’s unemployment rate is twice as high as the average across the Eurozone. Young Greeks, face up to 58% unemployment and almost 30% of the population has shifted to below the poverty line. 90% of families in the poorest neighbourhoods rely on food banks and soup kitchens.

Unicef estimated that nearly 600,000 children lived under the poverty line in Greece, and more than half that number lacked basic daily nutritional needs. The Neo Nazi party Golden Dawn has turned to staging “Greek only” food hand outs as a means of winning support.

In traditional middle class neighbourhoods the number of those requiring support has gone up from 50 to 500 since 2011. In 2011, Elstat – the Greek national statistics agency – reported suicide rates in Greece soared by 26%, the highest in fifty years. According to NGO Klimaka, the number would be significantly higher if failed suicide attempts were taken into account.

Greek workers no longer have money to buy medications or go to their primary care doctor and across the country, doctors and nurses have seen their pay reduced by nearly a third as serious shortages of drugs and medical equipment persist. Approximately 163 critical drugs are now unobtainable from pharmacies in Greece.

In attacks on workers’ rights the IMF, EU Commission and ECB set about dismantling core labour rights whilst collective bargaining is impeded and agreements abolished. The national minimum wage was recently slashed by 22% (32% for young workers) a move that will universally pull down wages by 40% and abolish a series of benefits.

Following the court appearance IndustriALL Europe issued a statement agreed at the conference and promised to continue to support Greek workers and their unions and agreed to return to Athens in May when the POEM leadership finally goes on trial.

GUEST POST: Tony Burke is Assistant General Secretary of the trade union Unite.