Greece slashes worker pensions

ATHENS — The Greek government overturned long-standing retirement benefit provisions for working people in a vote last week that will have powerful ramifications for generations to come. The new “anti-social security” measures will hit working mothers especially hard, increase retirement age by two to five years, and reduce pensions by 10 percent to 40 percent for future retirees.

Greek trade union and community forces have been mobilizing for many months in an all-out effort to thwart the conservative ruling party, New Democracy, and the opposition social-democratic party, PASOK, from pushing through the legislation, which was mandated by the European Union. Both parties have been laying the groundwork to dismantle the country’s social security system for the past 20 years during their respective terms in office. Labor and progressive groups charge that the two parties are responsible for the state’s “robbing” of the pension fund and its predicted bankruptcy in the next 20 years.

The new legislation includes a packet of reforms that will essentially demolish the current system of retirement benefits. The new increases in retirement age will affect hundreds of thousands of workers. Until now, those who have completed 35 years of work had the right to full retirement at age 58. They will now have to reach 60 before becoming eligible for full pension. For women, the retirement age is increased from 57 to 60. In both cases, an additional six-month period is mandated for each working year after 2013. For those who work in hazardous occupations, the retirement age is extended from 55 to 57 for full retirement and from 53 to 55 for partial.

Working mothers with dependent children face the most dramatic cuts. Opportunities for earlier retirement with partial pension for mothers below the age of 50 with dependent children are being eliminated. Earlier retirement will now be possible only at the age of 55. For self-employed women the age of retirement is going up from 50 to 55. Special provisions for women with three or more children are being eliminated.

Although the passage of these reforms was predictable due to the gridlock of the two-party system in the Greek Parliament, trade union and people’s organizations engaged in an unprecedented level of organization in the drive to block them. Unions representing over 3 million workers in public and private sectors took part in a series of general one-day strikes last December and this February and March 19, as well as a series of local and federation strikes to combat the legislation. These were organized by the All-Workers’ Militant Front (PAME), a bloc of left, progressive trade union forces affiliated with the World Federation of Trade Unions. Three members of PAME’s executive committee are members of the Greek Parliament, elected on the Greek Communist Party ticket.

Millions of Greeks walked off the job March 19 in the third general strike since December, shutting down public services including schools, ministries and banks. Tens of thousands of people took part in a march through Athens to protest the pension legislation.

State electricity company workers, transport workers, journalists, sanitation and bank workers, in particular, disrupted “business as usual” to protest the proposed reforms.

Workers at Greece’s main electric utility, Public Power Corporation SA, closed down 11 power plants with a combined capacity of 2,775 megawatts while staging four rolling 24-hour strikes causing continuous blackouts.

Dozens of flights scheduled to leave or arrive in Athens were canceled. Ships were left stranded in ports as port authorities joined the strike. Urban transport, including buses, the tram, the Athens Metro and suburban railway services, stopped operating after workers walked off the job.

Garbage piled up on city streets as sanitation workers joined in efforts to bring the country to a standstill. Trading on the Greek stock exchange was halted for days when Bank of Greece workers struck. A weeklong lawyers’ strike closed down the courts and tax department. A journalists’ strike led to a news blackout lasting several days.

Greek trade unions vow to continue the fight and are currently organizing a new general strike for April 13. Union locals say they will also pursue an aggressive campaign to overturn the rulings in court on a local by local basis.