Panos Garganas of the Greek Socialist Workers Party told Patrick Ward how resistance to austerity became a rebellion
Almost all of Greece’s public sector workforce took part in an enormous general strike which rocked the country’s government last Wednesday.
A huge number of private sector workers joined them.
The strikes happened as the government tried to force yet more austerity measures through parliament. Tens of thousands of protesters filled Athens’ central Syntagma Square and fought the police in an attempt to reach the parliament building.
The strike was accompanied by a wave of occupations.
The protests have plunged the Labour-style Pasok government further into crisis.
It’s not clear if the government will be able to pass its cuts, worth £25 billion, or even manage to hold together.
Panos explained the scale of the resistance, the fragility of the government—and where the struggle should go next.
How was this strike different to the previous general strikes?
Two things stand out. The first is the sense of political crisis. This general strike coincided with the most crucial stage of negotiations between the government and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and European Union (EU)—and between the government and the opposition.
They were negotiating over how to reinforce the Greek government in terms of standing up to demonstrators and dealing with creditors.
The general strike intervened to show that resistance is not going away.
The second most important thing was the size of it.
People have gone through so much in the past 20 months that they are getting more and more angry. That’s why so many people came out and the strike was so solid.
Syntagma Square has been occupied for three weeks. Police tried to disperse the occupiers on the strike day, but they failed because there was even more determination to keep it going.
What kind of forces are involved in the struggle?
The occupation of the square didn’t start with the unions. It was much more spontaneous—largely organised by bloggers. At first the left wasn’t sure how to respond.
The media portrayed the occupiers as apolitical and opposed to traditional forms of organisation.
They presented the occupiers as hostile to the left. Some were, but they weren’t dominant.
The most important people in the occupation have taken part in many strikes and occupations over the past 20 months.
The occupation of the square is important because it has united strikers and demonstrators.
Sections of the left, including the Socialist Workers Party and the Anti-Capitalist Left, played an important role in arguing for this.
We should not let the media play one section of the movement off against another.
Who defended the square against the police? Were most people involved in “rioting”?
The occupation was peaceful. The occupiers were very clear that they didn’t want to provoke the police and allow them to attack.
On Wednesday, lots of people in the square denounced provocations. Police tried to set up an incident to create an excuse for them to attack.
Groups of anarchists were involved in fighting with the police, but the bulk of the demonstrators were not involved in rioting. The priority was to hold the square.
How does the government plan to get its austerity measures through parliament? Will the cabinet reshuffle make a difference?
There is a desperate attempt going on to keep the government alive.
Last Wednesday, prime minister George Papandreou offered to resign if the New Democracy opposition—similar to Britain’s Tory Party—agreed to join a coalition.
It was a clear indication of how far the government has failed economically and politically. It faces such strong opposition that it cannot form government on its own.
But then Germany and France told the Greek government that it couldn’t afford a political crisis and must press ahead.
So Papandreou did a U-turn, saying he’d reshuffle and press on.
It’s hard to tell how far the government will survive. Its majority is getting smaller and smaller.
There’s a vote of confidence on Tuesday night, and the following week Papandreou will try to pass the cuts. These are two crucial votes. They will take place with the government surrounded by demonstrations—and the demonstrations will be stronger.
The unions have called a 48‑hour general strike for when they try and pass the cuts.
Papandreou may twist MPs’ arms and win the vote. But implementing the cuts won’t happen.
I think the government will collapse—if not from votes, then from strikes. When the press and government say that resistance is futile, it is not true.
Power workers are on all-out strike from Monday. This can make the situation impossible for the government.
You don’t want the austerity measures passed. But wouldn’t it be worse for ordinary people if Greece defaults on its debt?
The first thing to say is that all the measures that are supposed to save working people from default aren’t working. So we are closer to default every day.
The cuts aren’t stopping the crisis and more cuts won’t either. Workers are suffering with no end in sight.
It’s important to ask how a default would come about. If it happens on the terms of the creditors, people will suffer.
But if the movement says we refuse to pay the debt, that’s very different.
Last year the Greek government paid 51 billion euros servicing the debt—that’s one billion euros every week.
If we stopped paying that billion a week, we wouldn’t need cuts in pensions, wages or services.
The wages bill for public sector is 16 billion euros.
A default organised by our side would lead to improvements for the working class in Greece.
Does Pasok’s relationship with the unions affect the resistance?
Traditionally, Pasok controls the main body of the Greek TUC. Pasok has held a majority in it for 30 years.
Every TUC leader has been a member of Pasok for 30 years.
Pasok doesn’t have a long history, unlike Labour in Britain. It has only existed since 1974.
But every Pasok government has been able to compromise with the unions to push through what capitalism needed.
This is changing.
A local government union has resigned from Pasok. It was against the agreement with the EU and IMF.
This is happening elsewhere too. And if this is happening at leadership level, imagine how it is among the rank and file!
Thousands are showing their opposition to Pasok.
It started in May last year—people booed the TUC leader at strike rally organised by the TUC.
For the first time the left is electing people in the unions. In smaller unions the Anti-Capitalist Left is getting people elected to steering committees and other leading trade union bodies.
Where can the movement go from here?
We want two things. First, we want rank and file control of the strikes. The strength of the mood now means we can get general assemblies in workplaces, with elected committees, for people to decide how to handle the strikes.
This has already happened in some strikes in the past 20 months.
The mood is now so strong that we should generalise this sort of thing. It strengthens the movement.
There is an alternative to austerity. We should push for nationalisation of the banks, cancellation of the debt and workers’ control of the banking system.
These demands are becoming more and more popular. Workers committees in strikes should adopt these demands. That’s the way forward.
We can stop this crisis on workers’ terms.