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"We should not be made to pay for this crisis," Greek salaried workers loudly protest

Translated Saturday 13 February 2010, by Isabelle Métral and reviewed by Henry Crapo

Anger runs high against the government’s new super austerity plan, in a country where precarious employment and low wages have become the norm. Papandreou’s government now faces the threat of another outburst of social unrest.

From our special correspondent in Athens

“It’s not a shock therapy, it’s a shock without therapy.” Stupor vies with anger, as Rania Astrinaki, professor of political anthropology, details the so-called consolidation program decided by the Greek government under Brussels’ strict surveillance. In the conference hall of Athens’ Pantheion University where the staff have assembled, she enumerates the consequences of the planned public sector’s overhaul, which is presented as a way to bring the country’s public deficit below the 3%-of-GDP threshold from its current 12.7% level in 2009. The plan consists of a freeze on new staff appointments, a wage cut for public workers, the replacement of only a fifth of newly retired public workers, the setting up of a mechanism to keep a check on each ministry’s budget…

To Rania Astrinaki, “this austerity plan is meant to bring Greece into line with the stability pact," which is sure to have dire consequences on public services that have already badly suffered from a shortage of budgetary funding. Members of the assembly denounce "the social injustice and economic inefficiency of the austerity plan”. “This crisis is going to deepen people’s distrust of a laissez-faire, bureaucratic European Union where the ECB enjoys full prerogative. We are heading straight for the repetition of the December 2008 outburst of social unrest,” warns Stavros Konstantakopoulos, secretary of the University’s Union.

Outside the conference hall, in the patio, between two exams, young unionists invite students to take part in the demonstrations against the austerity plan. “The government is using the crisis as a pretext to increase the pressure on salaried workers, on young people, on pensioners, and to lay into public services like health and education. But we should not be made to pay for a crisis that only rich people and those in power have brought about!” exclaims Heleni Lekkou, a psychology student and member of the Pame students’ union, which leans to the communist party.

In order to defuse the people’s mobilization, George Papandreou’s socialist government’s strategy relies on a three-fold tactic: intimidation, guilt and division. In a society where precarious jobs and low wages have become the norm, public workers are accused of “enjoying privileges” and enjoined to “make an effort”. To some extent this anaesthetic ploy is bearing fruit. Especially as the big unions’ leaders, who have close ties with the social-democratic Pasok party in power, are tempted to relay the very same call to “responsibility” despite contrary pressure from the rank and file.

Outside a department of the Health ministry in Athens’ city centre, faces are glum. One of the employees, despite being a union member, confesses to being resigned. “We are left with no choice, this austerity plan is a must. Of course my salary will be cut, but we must consent to make efforts, otherwise the crisis will get worse still,” she says with a sigh.

According to a disputed poll interpreted as a blank cheque by the prime minister, 60% of the Greeks approve the plan. Wrong, comments Dimitris Agkavanakis. He is a member of the executive committee of the public workers’ union Adedy (which has a 200,000 membership) that called Wednesday’s strike. “Those measures are impopular. We urge people not to listen to their fear and to oppose this plan as it is meant to protect the interest of capital and of the richest.” To this trade-unionist, the Greek spiralling deficit results not so much from an increase in government spending as from an unjust and incoherent fiscal policy.

A physics teacher in a private secondary school, Sana Kacem casts a dispirited look at the tax notice she has just received. It eats up one third of her salary. “When I have paid the taxes and bills, I am left with next to nothing,” she concludes.

But she goes on to incriminate the tax exemptions for the well-off and for companies and the fiscal administration’s passivity toward tax evasion. “The austerity measures cannot be socially acceptable as long as nothing is done to restore a degree of fiscal justice,” argues Michalis Vergitsis, an engineer in a petroleum company that was recently privatized. “But as everyone knows, it is the salaried workers, not capital, that are always presented with the bill.”

This logic has not been reversed after Pasok’s victory in the early general election. Which certainly goes to fuel the exasperation of “the €700 generation” who rebelled in December 2008. Despina Koutsoumba, a young archeologist working for the ministry of culture, and union delegate, also predicts the possible repetition of that outburst. “Young people have the feeling that they can have no hope of a future, of a decent life, even of the slightest stability. This frustration is potentially explosive.”

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