by CHRISTOS GIOVANOPOULOS – Dikaioma, network of precarious and unemployed workers, Athens
Striking in the Troika era? That is apparently the wager of Olme, the union of workers of secondary schools in Greece which, going against government legislation that adds two hours more work a week for every teacher, announced a strike to be realized during the week of final exams for high school students. However, what should have been a mass mobilization, supported by 90% of teachers, never took place. A strike in surreal circumstances, in which the limits of the union form and of a certain conception of class struggle were made evident. Limits and contradictions made even more evident in their being manifested by union organizations ready to listen to the will of the base and in which the workers sometimes have a greater weight than their delegates.
The strike in the era of the Troika has shown how union struggle, even when sustained by the most combative ideals, is not always the same thing as class struggle. In Greece like in Italy the big unions use the threat and the tactic of the general strike that isn’t quite general to sit at a negotiating table that political and economic institutions don’t even feel the need for. The Greek government proved this, illegalizing the strike before it even started, thanks to measures which promise fines, firing and even jail for those who don’t respect the obligations imposed by the injunction. This missed strike tells us something about the limits of the union form even in those situations where it invokes and attempts to practice high levels of conflictuality.
The action of Olme reveals its impasse, between a condemnation of Syriza by the radical left, who however is delegated any and all responsibility for the politicization of struggles, and closure within the limits of sector-based demands. The results of this impasse are that the invocation of an increase in the level of struggle corresponds only to the incapacity to widen it, consequently making seeking the support of big unions, who at least are capable of mass mobilization, the only way to reach that objective. The authoritarian measures of the government force teachers and government to interrogate themselves on what is to be done. Seek refuge in a ritualistic anti-institutionalism? Seek a political ally in Syriza? Invoke class recomposition around a single segment of labor?
From the narration of the contradictions that are present in a strike that was «suspended before even being organized» various doubts emerge, along with a few more tangible indications. Indications relative to the impact of a struggle that if it wishes to be political cannot limit itself to seeking the protective umbrella of political parties and union confederations, just as it cannot ignore those places in which political command is produced on the backs of precarious, migrants and factory workers. A political struggle must also assume the risk of entering into the precariousness of our connections. Having recognized the non-practicability of an immediate recomposition, nothing is left to do except the politicization of struggles starting from their specific traits. A dangerous terrain in which however it seems possible to us to «include, give voice and expression to the popular anger which is growing».
The secondary education teachers’ union has been one of the most radical in Greece. This is thaks to the strong presence of radical and far left in it, as a result of the strong militant left university student movement in post-dictatorship times that found employment as public sector teachers. One characteristic trait of the union is the less representative way of its organization and decision making process, especially in big matters such as strikes etc. Each level of education (elementary, secondary, university) has different organization and federations. This strike only regarded the secondary education teachers. There is OLME, the federation of the local unions (ELME) of secondary education teachers. OLME can propose industrial actions and this is then discussed in local (ELME) assemblies of the teachers, not only the representatives. The decision for or against a proposal returns then and it is confirmed in the assembly of the representatives of ELME, where they vote according to what their local assemblies have voted for and not what they personally want. This allows any decision taken, e.g. for strike, to have real substance, participation and support. In this case, while more than 90% of the teachers in assemblies with mass turnout voted for strike, this expressed desire and decision were mismanaged on the level of the ELME representatives assembly, and therefore many teachers felt betrayed.
Getting a bit deeper now, to the complexity of the matters, that in reality exposes the limitations and outdatedness of a certain (on an industrial level alone) trade unionism and (workerist) ideas of «class struggle». OLME announced during the Orthodox Eastern break (27 April – 8 May) that it will propose a strike during the exams against a government legislation that adds two more working hours each week for each teacher. That would mean the layoffs of more than 2000 part time or temporary teachers, and the change of schools or work between different schools for the long term contracted teachers. A measure that of course will lead to the further destruction of public education.
The majority of the teachers were not initially very keen on striking during the end of year exams, as they knew that this is a fierce mode of struggle that leads to a serious conflict with the government. The plan of the OLME leadership, with the consent of the Left reps in it of any political hue, was expressed by the (member of the governmental conservative ND) president of OLME: «if they issue forcing orders to force us into the schools we will return with our head high». What this (publicity) stand had not calculated – showing its absolute inability to understand or accept the conditions of a state of emergency that has been imposed in Greece by the Troika governments – was that the government outlawed the strike even before it was decided, by issuing forced orders for the teachers and any other means (means of transport, local city councils included) starting days before the exams. This openly dictatorial move outraged many teachers, that only then started mobilizing, going to the local assemblies and voting for the strike, for dignity as free people and in order to demand respect and send a clear message to the government. However at the same time were not ready to break the personal forced orders to go for work. Something that has secured this, decides the deficiencies of the teacher union representatives to prepare for such climaxing of the conflict – still remained in the luxurious times of the past that governments tolerated such «dynamic» actions in order to control the unions – was the recent legislations that have made very easy the sacking of public sector workers too. That meant that the strike could not be implemented even if it was backed by almost the entire body of public teachers. So the question that aroused once more for the unionists and the teachers was: what we do. Even then, they failed to understand that at the moment that the government itself politicizes this struggle, they should take the initiative to expanded beyond the limits of their sector. They, indeed, attempted to do it, but in the complete wrong direction. They asked the backing and cover of their strike, even for one day, of the larger (and government controlled) trade union confederations of ADEDY and GSEE, which refused to call for a strike the first day of the exams (last Friday), something OLME asked just to save their faces and show a glimpse of «determination». This refusal of the larger unions isolated the teachers entirely. As the decision of GSEE and ADEDY was known from Monday and did not deter the teachers from voting in their local assemblies for the strike the next day (Tuesday) the question: What to do, remain as an unwanted trouble for OLME. A question that was result of the trap government and official trade unionism have set up, with the full consent of “militant” (in words) left union activists that took on their shoulders the support of (mainly the voting for) the strike, without questioning the plans of OLME or the government.
In addition to that, indeed the political parties, and mainly SYRIZA, did not do anything to take responsibility, support practically (e.g. organizing teachers’ support groups in the neighborhoods etc), and turning the conflict into a political struggle. Within this framework, nobody really believed this strike could go on, and everybody, at least of the main players including all the left unionists, refused to take the responsibility of politicizing the struggle, calling the people to mobilize against the government (and not in support of the teachers) and thus pressuring SYRIZA and the rest of the left political parties and groups to mobilize. One comment on the Communist party (KKE). KKE from the start claimed that there are no favorable conditions for a strike in the exams. Asked for strikes from the rest of the unions and the confederations, and it was covered behind the decision by ADEDY to call a strike, which nobody participated to, for Tuesday exactly the same time of the teachers’ local assemblies. This was the reason why even OLME condemned the strike by ADEDY. Now KKE members criticize SYRIZA for betraying the will of the teachers, while KKE teachers constantly throughout this period were against the strike. This is why nobody amongst the teachers pays attention to their criticisms, in contrast with the critique by the left unionists that do not belong to SYRIZA. Another confusing element is that SYRIZA members and unionists participate in two separate teachers’ union groups. The majority participates in the formerly Synaspismos affiliated union group of Aftonomi Paremvasi (and now SYNEK), while many of the most militant unionist participate in Aristeres Paremvaseis / Kiniseis. During the final voting representatives of Aristeres Paremvaseis didn’t vote for the implementation of the strike. The problem was not that, though. It was that against the impasse that this kind of maneuvering and framing (trapping) of a strike by the governmental unionists, it was the represenative of Aftonomi Paremvasi (belonging also to the «workerist» self-acclaimed Left Stream within Synaspismos and SYRIZA) was the one that came forth to take the hot potato out of the fire, without any other apparent reason than the probability the ELME reps to vote for the implementation of the strike, something that would put in trouble the unionist themselves. This act of him was that seemingly made him to identify with the unionists’ of PASOK and ND. However the resulting decision suited everyone, because nobody believed the strike was feasible. The problem on that scale is simply of wrong decisions and unreasonable moves, that many on the minor left now exploit in order to attack SYRIZA, for all the wrong reasons and in order to conceal their reluctance to take responsibility and politicize this struggle. What makes things worst is that this exact the possibility was excluded and did not even cross their mind from the start. They had outsourced to the political parties in order to get rid of their political role. What they managed once more is to expose how much outdated such conceptions of struggle and unionism it is.
I think, the extracts that I have translated for you from a text produced by the teachers of the Communist Organization of Greece, that participates to SYRIZA also, now can be more accessible, with some final remarks.
Lessons from a struggle that was announced before been prepared, was criminalized before been decided, and was suspended before been organized.
«In the Greece of memoranda and the sellout of the country and of its people to the slave market neither the strikes, nor demanding your rights, or the syndicalism have a place […]. It was a struggle that was announced before it was prepared, was criminalized before it was decided and was suspended before it had been organized. The main responsibility for that is carried by the pro-government teacher union factions (Dake / conservatives and PASKE / “social democrats”) that trapped the teachers, during the Eastern break (that means with the schools closed), with a decision (to strike during the end of year exams), which they knew – as it is clear now –would bound the entire secondary education sector with the implementation of the state of emergency measure and of forced orders to work to the teachers. The left groups within OLME (confederation of secondary education teachers) aimed at militant decisions without preparing and building the necessary conditions in order to materialize the militant will that the teachers’ showed indeed.
[The decision of the government to call a state of emergency and send the teachers papers of obligatory presence at the schools with the police, resulted in] […] the proposal (for strike during the exams) to be voted in favor almost unanimously in mass general assemblies, for a strike that could only be carried out under conditions of real mass mobilization (and movement – that exceeds that of teachers’ only) for political struggle. In the context of the emergency regime of the memoranda and the Troika, the trade unions should understand that struggles on one sector / industry alone cannot be fought for real, without aiming at the overthrow of this regime of the memoranda and obedience to the Troika, underlining the need for a different way out for the country and the whole of society. There is no other way than the continuation of the struggle of the teachers as a fight for Democracy, as a political struggle against the dictatorship of the memoranda. Namely, as a call for a general upheaval for the right to education, for the ousting of the Troika and the government. […] At the same time, the respect for the autonomy of the trade union movement cannot abolish the responsibility of the political forces, those against the devastating effects of the memoranda, to stand wholeheartedly shoulder to shoulder with such struggles and to increase their power and importance on the central political level. Neither it (the respect for the autonomy of the movements) can raise barriers in a common mobilization between social, trade unionist, political and other forces that want a different perspective for the workers, the people and the country.
The forces of the political Left and particularly SYRIZA (that is charged, by many, with the suspension of the strike) should face issues as those of forced orders against any strike with a more determined stance. They should connect the struggles of the different separate fields with the necessary political struggle. They should assign themselves with the task to write off all the anti-people’s measures of the memoranda government. To work for the widest unity in order to pave the way for another Greece in another Europe […]. Thosewho knew (the setting up of the struggle by the government) and considered the development of the struggle as doomed from the start, did not do anything to promote a different plan, a different path. They consumed themselves in intra-union politicking and today they try shouting merely to capitalize politically (from the failure of the strike). They follow the road of «fare politica» that has to offer nothing at the teachers’ movement, and nothing, in the last instance, at their micro-politicking itself, as the recent experiences has shown«
This last paragraph refers to the vociferous critics of SYRIZA, especially those of the far-left that hold good positions to the teachers’ union (their stronger presence in the union movement in Greece). In reality they worked within the setting up of a struggle restrained within the field of specific union demands. Even when the entire conflict was politicized their position was that the political demands and mobilization for this struggle is business of the political parties and not of a trade union. This was a self-isolating (and it proved to be a suicidal) position, taking in account the refusal of the trade union confederations of both public sector (ADEDY) and private sector (GSEE) to cover their struggle. The refusal to set up political aims, such as the resignation of the minister of education or the toppling of the government, or, even a call of struggle against such dictatorial measures – aims that ordinary Greeks could identify and possibly could mobilize their anger, aims that when they were put in the local level teachers’ assemblies were met with enthusiasm and applause. So their unwillingness to support such aims exposed on one hand their damagingly limited perception of union struggles and on the other their unwillingness to be in the forefront of the politicization of the struggles. The replication, on a higher volume, of the same framing of the struggle expressed with loud support for the strike – however the results show that many of their representatives also they did not vote for the implementation of the strike – and calls for sacrificial actions of trade unionists alone, do not show anything else than their impasse and the outdating of a certain conception and practice of the representative and industrial level alone unionism and workers’ struggle.
At this point it is worthwhile to refer to the intervention of the representative of Aristeres Paremvaseis in OLME, at the assembly of the ELME representatives: «20000 teachers took part in the general assemblies. 13000 of them voted for the proposal of OLME (the strike during the exams). 10000 of them because they were pissed off (with Samaras’ government) and 3000 determined to strike, who are mujahentin. Therefore the conditions to go with the strike do not exist. But because we should do something, i suggest 500 trade unionists (elected teachers in union positions) to strike on Friday. The invigilators to go and work at the exam centres kai those not involved in the university entrance exams to hold rallies outside the exam centres without forming strikers’ picket lines».
What becomes clear now more than ever, and this is the hard learned lesson of the recent strikes in Greece (and not alone), is that: no single issue struggle or conflict can be fought and won without the development of a mass grass-roots political movement. No mass political movement can be developed based on support of one particular struggle. Rather the opposite. It is the specific struggles and sectors/subjects in struggle that should politicize their aims, tactics and demands in order to include and give voice and expression to the popular anger that is still boiling. The probable unwillingness or hesitation of the political Left to play this role, does not suffice as justification for not setting political aims to end with the government and the dictatorship of the Troika. It expresses, sadly once more, a representative logic that segregates the different fields of struggle by assigning, supposedly different tasks to the players of each field (the political, the social, the institutional, the street etc.) What’s needed is aims that unite the will of people to resist and fight, and still lot of unused reserves of that have been left to the Greek people, aims that cross-cut and produce synergies across all these levels. The system, panicked by its crisis and its inability to implement its measures in any other way possible but with iron fist, does its best to politicize the different struggles. The refusal of the trade union movement and of the political Left to do, or even respond, similarly is costing and consumes the fighting fuel that the Greek people have shown again and again. The very same people that set up the political aim to oust the dictatorship of Troika, memoranda and their governments by recuperating the general strikes, occupying the squares, by reclaiming (and radicalizing) democracy, by voting SYRIZA to assist their job and complete the deconstruction of the political system (an assignment SYRIZA has failed so far), by building hundreds social solidarity structures in order to defend society against its destruction and to organize its own «public sphere» from below and political basis of struggle and social transformation.