ATHENS – It started murderously and massively when an estimated 100,000 Greeks full of fury took to the streets to denounce austerity measures on a violent May day in 2010 that saw protesters clash with riot police and three bank workers, including a pregnant woman, killed when a Molotov Cocktail was tossed through their office window.
Since then, there have been scores of thousands of protests, strikes, demonstrations, riots and actions, from several-hour work stoppages to days or weeks – all of which failed to move a succession of governments from catering to demands of international lenders who put up one, then two and now three bailouts totaling 326 billion euros ($383.69 billion) in return for big pay cuts, tax hikes, slashed pensions and worker firings, as well as the sale of state enterprises that saw workers fear for their jobs.
It seemed that nearly every public and private worker in Greece was on strike at some times, sometimes at the same time, and so many that you can Google “Greek Strikes Today” just to keep track of whether there will be public transportation, if schools and public offices will be open, whether the Metro is running and if the stops at and near the main station of Syntagma Square will be closed because of likely battles upstairs between riot police and anarchists.
Teachers didn’t work. Metro workers didn’t work. Ferries stopped, trains stopped, even air traffic controllers at Athens International Airport stopped working for several hours, delaying and confusing international air traffic.
Farmers used tractors to blockade highways for weeks. Politicians were hung in effigy outside Parliament. A movement called The Indignants pitched tents in Syntagma for weeks. Even police, firefighters and the military went on strike.
Through it all was one constant. The workers didn’t work and neither did their strikes. So why do they persist?
After scores of thousands protested in May of 2017, seven years after the deadly start of austerity, as the now ruling Radical Left SYRIZA-led coalition of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, who promised to reverse austerity but doubled down on it, the civil servants union ADEDY denounced the new moves as “barbaric,” just as it had before.
It blistered Tsipras for what it called the “looting of wages and pensions” and a “sellout” of state assets, referring to plans to privatize the power board and other public bodies. He ignored them, just as previous Premiers ignored them.
“If a trade union wants to be effective it has to proceed with strikes that will last and not for one or two days, but probably for days or weeks and one should look at history in order to understand that if you want to achieve something you need to sacrifice something else, meaning your salary during the strike,” Alex Sakellariou, a sociologist at Athens’ Panteion University told The National Herald.
Still they strike although unsure whether it’s making a difference because it hasn’t yet. “It doesn’t make a difference whether you strike or not. All the measures will pass anyway,” Apostolos Seitanidis told the Associated Press as he walked in the city center during this year’s May protests that did nothing to change the government’s course of surrender to creditors.
Panagiotis Adamopoulos disagreed and told the news agency that, “Every strike is a holy thing. If we dismiss it, surely we’ll end up getting 300-euro ($330) salaries and 200-euro ($235) pensions.”
Six months earlier there was another big strike that shut down services for 24 hours and saw thousands of Greeks demonstrate again in what has become a kind of tragicomic street theater with a predictable script: protesters scream, chant, carry signs; anarchists throw Molotov Cocktails at riot police who respond with tear gas; there is chaos and then life goes on – with more austerity that is unstoppable.
The protests don’t affect the targets, politicians and ministers and lawmakers who don’t take the Metro, don’t go out in public, don’t meet people, don’t hold news conferences and vote the way they’re told by their party leaders in the insulated bubble of the Parliament.
“A one day strike means nothing to the capitalist system and of course any government since it acts like a custom, a customary strike. Who will care if the public sector is closed for one day?” asked Sakellariou.
He added: “Maybe people themselves have become so individualistic that they actually look after their own good and not perhaps the good of their group or of larger parts of society. So, they think ‘why should I bother, the system doesn’t change and I will lose money’ and this is connected with the previous aspect, like a vicious circle.
Evagelia Braila, 58, a public school teacher said strikes must be held so people can show they won’t take what’s being dished out even if they can’t stop austerity.
She told TNH, “There is no other way of legitimate resistance other than to protest. I don’t believe Greeks insist on striking because all those who wield the power – with every means they have – try to convince them that strikes have no worth, no value.”
Greeks have a defiant nature, which has stood them in good stead in repulsing foreign invaders and occupiers and in standing up to the Nazis in World War II. It’s kind of in the bones and blood so strikes persist.
Antonis Klapsis, Antonis Klapsis, Academic Coordinator For the Centre of International and European Political Economy and Governance at the University of Peloponnese told TNH: “There is a long tradition of strikes in Greece.”
He said in most costs they’re just intended to stick it to a rival government but that in the pre-austerity era that trade unions were able to make gains. But, he noted that, “During the crisis, strikes were completely useless as there was practically no room for any government to make any economic concessions.” Still, the game goes on.