Friday, August 06, 2010

Workers' Fightback - Greek Trucks and US Starbucks

The combined weight of the Greek army, riot police force, media and trade union leadership was mobilised last week, to stop a strike by truckers. The action took place as 'centre-left' Prime Minister Giorgos Papandreou continues to implement European Union and International Monetary Fund diktats. With Greece being seen as a testing-ground for repressing the entire working class of Europe, this episode comes as a stark warning to the rest of us.

From the perspective of the European and international financial elites, Papandreou has been doing an excellent job over the last several months. A report by the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy recently found that his government is on target to force through real wage cuts of between twenty and thirty per cent in 2010, by a combination of attacks on salaries, big rises in VAT, and rising inflation.

Though the bosses of private and public sector unions (ADEDY and GSEE respectively) have called a ritualised series of one day general strikes and protests, the truckers' action has posed the biggest threat so far to Papandreou. By holding out for six days, the 33,000 drivers brought the economy to near standstill during the peak tourist season.

On the strike's third day, the government effectively conscripted the truckers into the army, instantly making the strike illegal. But they refused to restart work, and five hundred fought riot police in an attempt to storm the Transport Ministry. The army was then brought in, and began supplying fuel to economically critical sectors. At this stage, truckers union president Georgios Tzortzatos began concerted efforts to shut down the strike, despite no demands having been met, telling drivers that they "had to consider the difficulties their actions have caused for society at large".

Strikes are powerful precisely because of the disruption they cause to profit-making business of usual, but the union bureaucrat offered to call it off, conditional on the government withdrawing the army. This was agreed, and on Sunday a narrow majority of strikers voted to end their brave action.

Abandoned by their own union, isolated from the rest of the working class (neither GSEE or ADEDY had called any solidarity action), and threatened with five years imprisonment, it is small wonder that the majority decided to give up the fight. But the consequences will be catastrophic.

The dispute was over the 'liberalisation' of the trucker licensing system. Under the old system, drivers bought trucker licenses from the state, for between €100,000 and €200,000. The licenses could then be resold on retirement from the profession. Deprived of this pension nest egg, many now face bankruptcy.

This social tragedy claimed a victim in the days leading up to the strike, when a sixty-seven year old, debt-ridden trucker took his life, hanging himself on a bridge over a motorway. Indeed, the Greek suicide rate has nearly tripled this year, according to suicide helpline Klimaka.

Furthermore, confident in the knowledge that trade union bureaucracies will help them if disputes get out of hand, the Greek state must now turn its attentions to lawyers, notaries, pharmacists, architects, civil engineers and accountants, according to the EU/IMF prescription. If these groups are to have a chance of surviving the onslaught, they must break with the bureaucracy and reach out to working people around Greece and throughout Europe.

One group of workers who won't have a union bureaucracy to worry about are the baristas of the 15th and Douglas Starbucks, in Omaha, New England. Together, they have formed an Industrial Workers of the World branch in response to recessionary attacks from bosses. As staff shut down the cafe on Thursday morning, shift supervisor Sasha McCoy declared:
"We are being squeezed, and we can't take it any more. Since the recession began, Starbucks executives have ruthlessly gutted our standard of living. They doubled the cost of our health insurance, reduced staffing levels, cut our hours, all while demanding more work from us. Starbucks is now more than profitable again. It's time for management to give back what they took from us."
As Phil Dickens recently commented: "Rank-and-file workers are the trade union movement, not those at the top who offer fine words and gesture politics. If the fight against the cuts is to have any success, we need to take it back from the bureaucrats. Otherwise, what the mainstream media is calling an "autumn of discontent" will amount to nothing more than pissing in the wind."
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