Austerity and resistance in Greece: An interview with activist Dimitra Kyrillou

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Dimitra Kyrillou is a socialist and anti-fascist campaigner from Greece. She has been involved in the dozens of general strikes against austerity and the growing fight against the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party. She is a journalist for the paper Workers' Solidarity and a member of the Socialist Workers Party (SEK) in Athens. Dimitra spoke in Toronto last weekend at Revolution In Our Time, the Marxism 2013 conference.

Peter Hogarth: How has austerity affected living standards in Greece?

Dimitra Kyrillou: After three years of austerity measures -- based on the so-called "memoranda" -- the Greek economy is still in deep crisis, with projections for a 5.3 per cent drop in GDP in the first three months of 2013. This is only slightly better than the recession of 2012. Greece's GDP has fallen by 25 per cent in the last three years, but the effect on working-class living standards is much worse. In fact, it is estimated that living standards for Greek workers have dropped by 40 to 50 per cent.

Unemployment is now almost 30 per cent (and that’s the official number), with figures for young people (under 26) as high as 60 per cent. Massive public spending cuts were a real blow to the Greek welfare state, and have led to the closing or merging of nurseries, schools and public hospitals, and attacks on pensions, unemployment benefits and the retirement age. At the same time, the cost of basic goods are as high as the European Union average (or even higher), which means that many products and services are not accessible to the majority of the population. Life has become more difficult for most people.

PH: How has the working class responded?

DK: The working class responded to the very first announcement of the memoranda, more than three years ago. Since the crisis started, there have been 30 general strikes and several major strikes in particular sectors -- for example, in health, welfare, education, steel, and so on. These struggles have lasted days and even weeks at a time, and have involved huge numbers of workers. The city centre of Athens and other large cities are continually blocked, as big demonstrations gather around the parliament and government buildings. On many occasions, workers have occupied these buildings for days, including ministry offices and hospitals. Two weeks ago, secondary school teachers voted overwhelmingly for a strike during examinations, ignoring threats by the government. It was only after a terrible sell-out by the trade union bureaucracy that the strike was cancelled.

This kind of militancy has inspired a variety of other struggles. In the summer of 2011, people responded to the "movement of the squares," which originated in Puerta del Sol in Madrid, and occupied city squares throughout Greece for several weeks. During the protests, residents of the rural area of Ierissos in northern Greece were in a bitter struggle to reverse the government's decision to sell the nearby forest to a group of gold-mining companies whose plans threatened to devastate the surrounding environment. The police arrested local activists and threatened all the communities that resisted the companies.

PH: How have those struggles been reflected in Greece's parliament? 

DK: The austerity measures and the resistance against them have had a huge effect on the influence of the two big parties: PASOK (the social democrats) and New Democracy (the conservatives). Both parties had dominated the political scene for the last 40 years and used to get 80 to 90 per cent of the vote in most elections.

The anger among Greek workers has been reflected in the last two parliamentary elections, which were held last year. PASOK's support collapsed from around 45 per cent to a mere 12 per cent. SYRIZA -- the Coalition of the Radical Left -- was the main benefactor of this collapse, and expressed the hope for a left government. SYRIZA’s support rose from around four or five per cent to 27 per cent, and is now the main opposition party. The Communist Party (the KKE) saw its vote fall to 5 per cent.

On the right, New Democracy (the main right-wing party) suffered a split to the Independent Greeks, a nationalist-populist party against the austerity measures. New Democracy finally polled 30 per cent in the second election (up from 19 per cent in the first), while the Independent Greeks got seven per cent. As a result, New Democracy managed to form a government with a narrow parliamentary majority, based on support from PASOK and a small centre-left party called the Democratic Left (which was formed from a right-wing split from SYRIZA).

The most negative aspect of the elections was the rise of the fascist party, Golden Dawn (Chrysi Avgi), which won almost seven per cent of the vote.

PH: With so many general strikes, what is the relationship between rank-and-file union members and the union bureaucracy? Do socialists and the left have a presence in the unions?

DK: The trade union bureaucracy and its links with PASOK and New Democracy have been hit hard because of rank-and-file militancy and all the struggles. For example, PASOK's influence on the trade unions has shrunk and, in some cases, it has completely collapsed. In some workplaces (like the publicly-owned Electricity Company), trade union leaders have disaffiliated from PASOK and are against the austerity measures. However, the trade union leadership in general is far behind the militancy of rank-and-file members, as the recent experience of secondary school teachers shows. When rank-and-file teachers voted 92 per cent for a continuous strike during examinations, the government tried to force them back to work ("conscripting" them), while the official trade union leadership (which eventually won support from KKE and SYRIZA trade unionists) decided that "there existed no conditions for carrying through this strike." In the end, the leadership called off the strike, causing widespread frustration and anger among teachers.

The anti-capitalist left mostly organizes around ANTARSYA, the electoral front in which many of my comrades are active. ANTARSYA is expanding its influence and vote in the trade unions. In some cases, it is stronger than the reformists, but as the teachers’ example shows, ANTARSYA must use its strength more effectively to organize struggles from below, so that they can finally win.

PH: The news about the rise of Golden Dawn has been sobering. How have activists tried to counter their influence? 

DK: The rise of the fascists of Golden Dawn is a real problem, and shows how dangerous it can be if desperation and anger against mainstream politics turn to racism and scapegoating. This is the case with Golden Dawn. The crisis inside New Democracy and the right-wing parties, along with the collapse of PASOK, created space for Nazi gangs to attract votes from mostly conservative and confused audiences. That’s how Golden Dawn managed to get seven per cent in the elections, and why they occasionally poll even more than 10 per cent.

What is more dangerous is that they organize gang attacks against immigrants, gays and the left. But it has to be clear that they manage this only under the open support of the police and the racist policies of the government. Despite their efforts, they failed to increase their hard-core membership. This is because of the activity of the anti-fascist and anti-racist movement, which has successfully mobilized to confront them in the streets and in local neighbourhoods. Our comrades in the SEK (Socialist Workers Party) participate in KEERFA (Movement United Against Racism and the Fascist Menace), which has organized hundreds of marches, petitions and protests in cooperation with the trade unions, local groups and activists. One of our most successful initiatives is an event called "Athens: Anti-fascist city," which took place on January 19, 2013.

There can be neither panic nor complacency in the struggle against fascism. So far, it is a victory for anti-fascists that Golden Dawn doesn’t dominate in the streets, but the fascists are a real threat. It's also the case that we can't put all our trust in simply strengthening anti-racist laws as a means to stop the fascists, even though new laws are being legislated by the government with support from the European Union. These kinds of laws have done nothing to stop the fascists.

PH: What are the next steps in the struggle against austerity?

DK: The struggle in Greece continues on three main fronts. The first front is organizing the strikes -- from below and against sell-outs and compromises. Our key tasks are building and strengthening solidarity for the sectors that will go on strike, and to resist divide-and-rule policies and getting frustrated.

The second front is strengthening and spreading the antifascist struggle in the workplaces. The working class of Greece today includes hundreds of thousands of immigrant workers, who are part of the resistance to fascism. Last month, at the harvesting of the strawberry crop in Manolada, Peloponnese, farm bosses’ thugs fired shotguns at Bangladeshi and Egyptian workers, sending them to hospital. The workers had protested over not getting paid. In response, 8,000 immigrant co-workers demonstrated against the bosses, forcing the government to publicly condemn the shootings and to promise justice for the victims. As a result, the media had no choice but to cover the shootings and to denounce racist attacks. This mobilization represents a big step towards a united fight between Greek and immigrant workers. Another positive sign is recent organizing by the Union of Immigrant Workers in workplaces in Greece.

The third front is building the anti-capitalist left and ANTARSYA, as SYRIZA oscillates between left-wing statements and compromising policies. The recent debacle in Cyprus was a dress rehearsal for the hard choices awaiting the Greek left over the issue of the Euro and the European Union. A break with these institutions is absolutely necessary, and so far it is only the anti-capitalist left and ANTARSYA who pose this demand.

 

Peter Hogarth is a Toronto-based activist and a member of the International Socialists. 

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