General strike shuts down Greece; demonstrators attacked causing one death

A two-day general strike shut down Greece on Oct. 19 – 20, while violent attacks by police and self-described “anarchists” caused injuries, arrests and one death.

But the Greek Parliament approved the austerity measures that were the cause of the protests anyway. The measures will sharply cut public and private pay (up to 50 percent in some cases) and pensions, force the privatization of public enterprises, and trash collective bargaining agreements in the interests of “labor flexibility”. They come on top of already painful austerity and privatization measures enacted previously.

The strike was timed to coincide with a vote in the Greek parliament on yet more austerity and union-busting measures aimed at appeasing demands from the European Central Bank, the European Union and the International Monetary Fund who threatened not to release the latest $11 billion installment of a $150 billion bailout loan if the measures were not passed.

There have been many demonstrations in Greece during the past two years since the government’s solvency crisis began, but this past week surpassed all in terms of militancy and scale. The PAME (All Workers Militant Front), which is affiliated with the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) and played a major role in organizing the general strike, mobilized massively to surround the Parliament building on Syntagma Square in downtown Athens as the vote approached.

The strike and demonstrations had very wide support, from PAME and other unions and from the general public, and the numbers protesting in Syntagma Square were reported as up to 100,000 in this country of 11.3 million people. The strike shut down much of public and private economic life in Greece. Civil Service workers also carried out “occupations” of a number of government industries.

On Thursday, a group of hooded, black clad individuals, supposedly “anarchists”, erupted into Syntagma Square and attacked the PAME demonstrators with firebombs and rocks, as well as carrying out acts of vandalism and looting. PAME members fought back, but later complained that the police stood by instead of dealing with the violent attackers.

The appearance of a “black block” of violent individuals at mass demonstrations is something that has been going on in European countries for several years; supporters of the main demonstrations speculated that these people are off-duty police or at any rate are deliberately acting as “agents-provocateurs” to disrupt and discredit the popular demonstrations.

In the attacks, up to 35 demonstrators and several police officers were injured. One unionist, Dimitris Kotsaridis, a 53-year-old member of the PAME affiliated construction workers’ union, subsequently died after being tear-gassed by the police. 

Meanwhile, in Parliament, Prime Minister George Papandreou of the ruling Pan Hellenic Socialist Party (PASOK) pushed hard for approval of the austerity measures. A few PASOK members had talked about voting “no” but in the end, only one of them, former Minister of Labor Louka Katseli, voted against the labor law changes, and was promptly expelled from PASOK. Two votes were held: One on the general austerity plan on Oct. 20 and another on more detailed aspects on Oct. 21. Both barely squeaked through, garnering 153 votes in the 300-member chamber. Voting against were parliamentarians from the Greek Communist Party (KKE) as well as from the right.

At writing, there are indications that the bailout loan installment will be approved. However, many economists are predicting that Greece will eventually default anyway, because the austerity measures end up radically shrinking the economy instead of growing it, with the danger of bringing down banks in Europe (and beyond) that have investments in Greece.

Photo: Media workers protest in central Athens, Oct. 18. Greek railway workers and journalists joined ferry crews, garbage collectors, tax officials and lawyers in a strike blitz against yet more austerity measures. Petros Giannakouris/AP



Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Emile Schepers was born in South Africa and has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He has worked as a researcher and activist in urban, working-class communities in Chicago since 1966. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He now writes from Northern Virginia.