GAZING across Sytagma Square at the Greek parliament, Despina Kostopoulou explained why her country’s future is hanging in the balance. The 53 year-old office cleaner is not part of Greece’s new Syriza government, which is locked in a titanic battle with Europe’s big powers. She’s not, in fact, a politician at all. But as a leader of one of the most important Greek protests in the last few years, she knows what needs to be done to save her country.
Greece’s new left-leaning Syriza government are eyeball to eyeball with Germany, the European Union (EU), the European Central Bank (ECB), and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). And Greeks have been pouring onto the streets to support Syriza. In Athens, thousands have been packing Syntagma Square urging Syriza to keep its promises and scrap the spending cuts, privatisations and attacks on workers’ rights which have brought Greece to its knees after being forced on the country by the EU, the ECB and IMF.
In the high-stakes diplomacy, Germany, the EU and the ECB are threatening to bankrupt Greece if it ditches the austerity programme. Syriza warns it will quit the Eurozone of countries using the Euro if it’s not allowed to reverse austerity and invest in jobs and living standards. That could spark a global financial meltdown. The only way to make sure Syriza doesn’t blink first is for Greeks to show their muscle and pour onto the streets, warns Despina.
“Syriza got to power because Greek workers came out onto the streets to support it and put it into power and now we need to keep coming onto the streets to keep it in power,” she said. “If we come onto the streets when Syriza is renegotiating the national debt, and if we come onto the streets when Syrizia looks like it might not deliver its promises – and sometimes it won’t, then things will get better and we’ll win. The future of our country depends on what we do now. It’s up to us, more than ever.”
Despina is one of the thousands of sacked government workers who have been promised their job back by Syriza. A cleaner for the ministry of finance for more than 20 years, she was one of 595 laid off without warning by the last government. She helped lead a 16-month strike, which won the support of Greeks and captured media attention around the world.
As she spoke, she pointed to a display of photographs of the strike. Image after image showed the cleaners – plainly dressed middle-aged women – being manhandled and beaten by armour-clad riot police. In some, the women are being treated for serious injuries and in one, Despina is being carried to safety, her face disfigured and swollen.
“It was just announced on the morning television news that we would be fired. I went to sleep a worker and woke up unemployed,” she recalled. “That’s the way it was then. Workers’ rights were ignored or cancelled by the government. Now we’re going back to work and that’s important for us and our families. But the most important issue isn’t us returning to work, it is for us to help change the whole situation in Greece.”
Even before the strike, the cleaners’ wages had plunged as Greece went into economic meltdown under the austerity programme. After the overnight announcement their jobs were under review as a prelude to redundancy their wages slashed again and the cleaners found themselves on the breadline.
“My family supported me but if it wasn’t for my partner, I would have been on the street,” said Despina, whose wages were cut to just 400 euros-a-month. “But I was one of the lucky ones. Some women were getting less than 300 euros-a-month because they hadn’t worked at the ministry as long as me. They owed so much in rent they were going days without food just to keep their home and were fainting from exhaustion. Some lost their homes and had to move in with their families, some had children who had to quit their studies. It was a social catastrophe. We were kept going because in every area we were supported by solidarity networks, giving us clothes, food and medical help.” That even included children who made soap from olives to raise money for the cleaners.
A political awakening for the women, their strike also won the backing of millions of Greeks fed up with austerity.
“I was never involved in politics on this level before and it’s been huge for me to have taken part in this struggle,” said Despina, who regularly slept on the 24-hour picket line outside the ministry in Athens, and was among the strikers invited to speak at anti-austerity protests across Europe. “Not many of us had the chance to go to university but we learned a lot in that struggle, it was a real education. It has shown me how strong the Greek people can be and why we need to keep going.”
The scars of the austerity economics are everywhere. In Athens, shops are boarded up and walls daubed with angry political graffiti, while the sight of a mother and her children scavenging in bins for food no longer turns heads. For some the unprecedented decline is simply too much and suicide rates have rocketed.
After five years of austerity, the economy has shrunk by at least 25%, unemployment has soared to almost 2 million and millions more work only a few days a year and among young Greeks the jobless rate is at least 50%. Employers were given a green light to hire workers from Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa on low wages. State-owned assets were sold cheaply amid a storm of corruption scandals. Pensions have been slashed and there has been a bonfire of workers’ rights and social protection. Hospitals and clinics have been shut while doctors and nurses run volunteer services, sometimes using veterinary equipment. Stripped of unemployment insurance, millions of Greeks rely on soup kitchens or the charity of their families.
Greek author and political commentator Van Gelis said if Syriza is to survive it simply must ditch the hated austerity programme and deliver on its promises to invest in the country.
“If Syriza just folds and continues implementing the policies of the last government, even some kind of austerity-light programme, then there would have been no point in the elections last month,” he said. “Voters completely turned their backs on the old parties of Pasok and New Democracy, which traditionally formed governments. They rejected them for implementing policies forced on Greece by the EU – in particular Germany, the ECB and the IMF, known collectively as the Troika and hated by Greeks. For Syriza to go back to those same policies would be to completely ignore the will of the Greek people, to deny the election, and condemn Syriza to the dustbin of history. Syriza would simply fragment into the different groups that came together to form the party.”
And he expects Greeks to go on packing Syntagma Square, piling the pressure on Syriza. He continued: “There have already been rumblings over statements by Syriza’s finance minister Yanis Varoufakis over his alleged statements agreeing to implement some of the Troika’s austerity programme in exchange for a cash injection. I saw tens of thousands packing Syntagma Square calling on Syriza not to make that kind of deal.” But, he warned, Syriza will need a “workable Plan B” in the event it is ejected from the Eurozone. Like a growing number of Greeks, Van Gelis would welcome a return to Greece’s old currency, the Drachma, and more trade with Russia and China.
The biggest China deal is also one of the most controversial, however. The sale of part of the Piraeus shipyard to a Chinese industrial giant was a main plank of the austerity economics. But it was bitterly opposed by many Greeks, including the shipyard workers who warned against lower wages and the dilution of labour rights.
Now the deal is back under the microscope with development minister Panyiotis Lafazanis suggesting the last government’s plans for a privatisation of the rest of the shipyard may be reviewed, a position in line with Syriza policy. In the background, Beijing has been lobbying for Cosco, Washington pressing for a US giant to be given the port and Germany and the EU for Greece to stick to the austerity policy of privatisations. The battle over Piraeus illustrates exactly the kind of difficulty Syriza faces as its anti-austerity pledges come face to face with realpolitik, said Van Gelis.
The docks are in Piraeus, an industrial area just a short train ride from Athens. The metro trains serving Piraeus are older and dirtier than those running through the rest of Athens, and as they slip through the suburbs, past the home of Greek football champions Olympiakos and into solidly working class districts, the stations and the streets show the scars of decay. By the time the trains reach Piraeus, the evidence of decline is everywhere. Struggling hotels offering rock bottom discounts, migrant workers hawking cheap goods, and everywhere in its narrow streets the jobless and penniless scour bins with specially adapted hooks, or huddle near markets waiting for leftover food.
The largest port in the Mediterraneam, Piraeus had been the jewel in Greece’s industrial crown. Its decline began in the 1980s with the imposition of EU free trade rules but it has been utterly devastated by the social and industrial blitzkrieg of the last five years.
In 2010, half the port was sold for 500 million euros to Chinese state-owned Cosco – a record foreign investment in Greece but a snip for the shipping giant with plans to open a new Silk Route to Europe.
The Cosco-owned Pier II is humming with activity. Towering cranes heave giant containers off the ships, trucks weave down roadways. Business has risen three-fold since the privatisation.
But it has come at a heavy price. The EU parliament was warned Cosco has imposed sweatshop conditions, trying to ban union membership among its workforce of more than 500. Reports surfaced of workers earning less than half the wages paid to those in the neighbouring Greek state-owned pier, of workers being forced to gruelling eight-hour shifts without a break for food or to use the bathroom, and of exhausted workers on 24-hour, seven day-a-week standby for shift work at the risk of losing their jobs. Workers reported taking containers into their vehicles to urinate in.
“The privatisation has accelerated the race to the bottom – a sharp deterioration of conditions, union-bashing and the under-cutting of labour protection,” said Yannis Deliyannis, local official of the dock workers union, OMYLE.
The union office is a converted container at the entrance to the state-owned pier. Inside, its walls are plastered with posters demanding an end to austerity, warning against the rise of Greek fascism and for the country to quit the EU.
But the state-owned pier is a shadow of its old self. The tarmac is cracked and in places swims with stagnant water. Small groups of men are at work but the towering cranes stand idle, the wind whistling through their rusting cantilevers.
In the last 30 years, the number working in the dockyards has plunged from 25,000 to fewer than 2,500, with just 500 working on any day. The work is shared out, meaning most work fewer than 30 days a year, explained Deliyannis. Just 10% of workers reach the threshold of 50 days of work a year to qualify for free state health care. And with workers paid between 75 and 125 euros for a seven-hour day, they are struggling to reach the breadline.
“This was once a beautiful shipyard with enough work for us all to live but the EU has systematically taken the work. Now we just can’t survive,” added Deliyannis. “Now workers have to rely on their family or their parents, if their parents are pensioners. Families are breaking up because of the economic crisis, people are committing suicide and homes are being repossessed.”
The union has also found itself thrust into the battle against the effects of austerity in the communities where its members live. When the last government introduced laws making it easier to seize people’s homes, the local union helped organise protests to physically confront officials.
“We can’t just fight for ourselves now, we have to fight for the communities too,” continued Deliyannis. “Our job is to protect all workers – to stop repossessions, stop electricity from being cut-off. We are organising to stop the policies of economic genocide. And we will organise against the Syriza government, if we have to. We will demand a rational economic plan under which the state will intervene to rebuild the ports and rebuild the economy, and restore worker’s rights. Greece is a shipping nation so we want proper rights for workers, regular work, health and safety rules, health cover and laws to stop people working too many hours. We are wary the Syriza government will continue along the same path as the previous governments and if they do, we will organise to stop them. But if they do things that are good for us, if they keep their promises, we’ll support them all the way.”
Nearby a statue of a ship worker – muscular and defiant – appears to survey the wreckage of the docks. Underneath it a small knot of men share a cigarette, their hands in their pockets, their collars turned up against the wind.
One, a welder in his late 50s with a battered face and the gait of an old boxer, has been out of work for five years. He preferred not to give his name and said the union has not done enough to confront austerity and said he voted Syriza. He lives in Perama, a suburb of Piraeus, with three children who are also jobless. They survive on food hand-outs. His wife recently died, he confided.
“We have no money, no pensions, no health care,” he said. “All we have are the solidarity clinics for basic food. I have friends who have divorced because of the pressure. Some people commit suicide. But the communities have tried to support each other. There hasn’t been an increase in crimes and we’ve organised to stop people having their electricity cut for not paying taxes or having their homes repossessed. A lot of people feel Syriza is our last hope, and we’ll fight like hell to stop them going back to austerity.”
Living conditions in Perama have deteriorated so sharply in the last few years that the area is dubbed “Ground Zero” by many of the shipyard workers. Most live in homes they built from breeze blocks with neither heating nor electricity. More than three-quarters are jobless or underemployed, almost half survive on food hand-outs from community-run soup kitchens, and almost none have access to hospital care. Health services are provided by volunteer doctors.
The collapse of Greek health provision under austerity has been devastating. An work related insurance system, the rise in unemployment and deep cuts to health budgets has left millions of Greeks without cover. Hospitals are trying to cope with zero budgets for drugs and equipment, while nurses have to care for up to 40 patients each. Vaccination programmes have almost halted and HIV infection has risen up to 200%.
Last year a study for the respected British medical journal, the Lancet, discovered government hospital spending collapsed by 26% between 2009 and 2011, and what was left was slashed by more than half between 2010 and 2014 to just 2 billion euros. Pregnant mothers have been left without any medical care, there has been a 43% rise in infant mortality, a 21% rise in stillbirths, sharp increases in rates of tuberculosis and clinical depression.
For 32 year-old Maria Gianopoulos the new Syriza government is a lifeline. A leading member of a national lobby group for sufferers of the crippling condition myasthenia gravis, the Hellenic Myasthenia Gravis Association, she said the new government is must transform Greek health care.
A former court clerk who was made redundant under the government cuts, Gianopoulos explained prohibitive charges for prescriptions and attending hospitals have been introduced since 2010. Last year the government tightened its rules so that at a stroke thousands of disabled Greeks found themselves stripped of essential benefits. Disabled protesters were met with police violence.
“One member of our society had to pay more than 200 euros for his medicine and there have been even more extreme cases. Some patients have to pay as much as 500 euros for their medicine. I regularly had to pay 40 or 50 euros a month for prescriptions and 25 euros when I attend hospital for treatment. The last year was the worst. For me it was the worst in my whole life.”
She added: “When we protested in Syntagma Square against the old government the police pushed us back. With Syriza we demand that things improve. They’ve promised to reduce the costs of medicine and restore health budgets. That’s what has been promised to the Greek people and they must deliver. It doesn’t matter how tough it is for them to deliver, they must stand strong. And we’ll be back in Syntagma Square to make sure they do.”
22nd February 2015