Solidarity versus austerity: a report from the Greece solidarity delegation

Tansy Hoskins reports on her experiences on the trade union solidarity delegation to Greece organised by the Coalition of Resistance and the People’s Charter.

Greek pensioners protest for translation of their placards visit Craig Wherlock's Flickr page

Athens is a city of lit fuses. Graffiti covers buildings, pavements and statues like an angry rash. Burnt out and boarded up buildings are dotted around the city. Tension is palpable as people await the next demonstration, the next riot and the elections in April.

However, the crisis in Greece has gone beyond something that an election or a riot can resolve. It runs deeper than the question of who should sit in parliament, of how the debt should be paid off, or if it should be repaid at all. The crisis is now about the very fabric of society, of who should have control and for whose benefit society is run.

The 45,000 homeless people in Athens – many of whom spent a frozen winter sleeping in caves – are testimony to the total failure of capitalism to provide a decent standard of living. The loss of healthcare and unaffordable food prices means people are literally struggling to stay alive.

At the same time Athens still has its luxury shops, hotels and restaurants. There are multi-national corporations feasting on whatever the parliament decides to add to its corrupt garage sale of national assets.

But amongst the chaos and the poverty – and abandoned by traditional power structures – people have been taking control of their lives and communities. They face the huge opposition of international capital and all its manifestations but they have no choice – it is do or die.

It must work. Otherwise the ramifications will be catastrophic both for Greece and for the world. It is because of this that a united campaign of international solidarity is critical.

Homage to Ellinikon

Ellinikon, to the south of Athens, is one pocket of radical change. In the face of devastating cuts and poverty, people are re-organising the way society is run, both out of sheer necessity and because they have a vision for a new and fairer way of life.

The figurehead of this change is the Mayor of Ellinikon, Christos Kortzidis. In 2007 he went on hunger strike to protest at the privatisation of beaches and coastline. He is almost shy about this rare act of solidarity and dedication by a politician, giving instead the impression that he simply felt it his duty.

Sincerity and strong politics have seen him repeatedly re-elected despite losing the backing of the Greek Communist Party (KKE) and the redrawing of constituency lines.

The re-organisation of society in Ellinikon includes the introduction of food and health provision outside of state lines. Over one hundred doctors have been organised into a volunteer force that treats people free of charge. Most of the people who have found themselves without healthcare over the last few years are the elderly and families with young children.

Unofficial food markets have also been set up to allow farmers and growers to sell their produce direct to customers. The Mayor’s office negotiates prices on behalf of those in need, allowing both customer and farmer to survive.

A short drive from the Mayor’s office is a vast fenced-off wasteland that stretches down to the sea. It is scheduled to be privatised and sold off to a multinational corporation which will build more hotels, condos and night clubs – and charge for access to the beach.

Athens is short of parks and green spaces. Campaigners in Ellinikon are therefore fighting to turn the wasteland into a public park with disabled sports facilities and play areas for schools. To this end they are reclaiming the land by planting olive trees.

Tied to the trunk of each sapling is a little coloured label, which carries the name of the person or school group that planted it (and so gained a sense of ownership over land that is their rightful resource). It is in the same vein as a memorial forest, except this time the labels are messages of life and hope.

Between the hundreds of saplings and the sea are the remains of the Olympic site from 2004: a ghost town of deserted stadia, and tumble weed blowing across abandoned car parks. Whilst one of the stadia is used by a football club, there is barely anything to show for the billions of pounds that Greece spent hosting the Olympics.

At the back of the site is a car park full of rusting mini-vans and trucks – all painted blue with the Olympic logo stamped on them in white. In a country plagued by malnutrition and poverty, the Olympic legacy is one of waste and exclusion.

The Mayor is adamant, however, that neither he nor the Greek people want either sympathy or charity from abroad. They want international solidarity. Whilst future delegations could bring shipments of food or medical supplies, he wants to work with people not become the subject of pity.

This sentiment is reinforced by Sofia Sakorafa, an independent Left MP and former Olympic javelin world record holder, who split from the social democratic PASOK party. Much of her work focuses on trying to bring about parliamentary Left unity. Although the chance has passed to build a Left electoral coalition for the elections in April, many are hopeful that unity can be achieved after the elections.

The call for Left unity is not only coming from the traditional sources. Sofia Sakorafa talks of voters from centre and centre-right parties begging her for a united Left party that they can vote for because they can no longer take the conditions in Greece.

In the parliamentary common room, her voice suddenly drops at the sight of a tall grey-haired man in a grey suit. He is a former fascist MP, now a member of a centre right party and she does not want him to hear what she is saying. The far right is a constant concern in Greece. If the Greek Left is unable to fill the vacuum that is being created by a disintegrating society and increasingly unpopular government then the future could be very dark.

An ineffective attempt at Left unity could result in a loss of trust by the Greek people, potentially lasting for generations and leading voters to look for other more sinister solutions. If the Left cannot unite and provide real solutions at a time like this, then it does beg the question of when it can unite – and even what the Left is for.

Sofia Sakorafa points to the examples of Argentina and Iceland, where a defiant approach to debt crises was demanded and then implemented to the overwhelming benefit of people in those countries. These success stories do not fit the narrative of disaster that the IMF and Greek government are peddling.

However, for many people in Greece they do not have to imagine what a disaster would look like – they are already living it as a result of being forced to pay for a crisis they did not create. At the Centre for Homeless People in Athens, psychologist Yiolanda Zogopoulou has seen a vast increase in the numbers of people seeking help because they have been made homeless. As a result of the economic crisis, suicide rates have doubled in Greece.

In the courtyard of the shelter she explains the new programmes the Centre has implemented to deal with the rising numbers of homeless people. As she talks, a crowd starts to gather in front of the courtyard’s high iron gates. People hold onto the metal bars to keep their place in the queue and wait for the 3pm meal that the shelter provides. The small crowd consists mostly of women pensioners and migrants.

As three workers from the shelter carry out large vats of soup, Yiolanda Zogopoulou brightens for a moment and says that the shelter has seen a large increase in the number of volunteers signing up to help and also in donations of food, clothing and toys.

At the back of the shelter is a red-fronted building called a Social Supermarket, which is being run by a big supermarket chain. To shop there customers need a ‘poverty card’ to prove that they are eligible for the subsidised products. Inside, the shop is a small mini-mart, neat to the point of seeming unused.

Everything seems untouched and it is only once you have been in there a while that you realise what is amiss. While the shelves are full, there are only about 20 products in the entire shop. One wall of shelves is full of dried bread biscuits. Half the refrigerator is full of the same brand of orange juice and the other shelf has feta cheese, slicing sausage and margarine. At the back of the shop is a stack of one brand of washing powder and some freezer cabinets.

It is the polar opposite of supermarkets that overwhelm with 40 different brands of shampoo. Like a free marketeer’s nightmare projection of communism, all variety has been lost and instead there are a few scant products all made by the same brand.

But this, of course, is not communism: it is the result of free market capitalism, as orchestrated by the IMF.

Of course the Social Supermarket provides a far better alternative than the threat of starvation, but its day-in-day-out lack of variety and democracy for ‘poverty card’ carrying customers can only take a serious toll on people’s spirits.

It is not just those at the bottom who are suffering the disastrous effects of Greece’s economic and political crisis. Greece’s cultural heritage, its hundreds of museums and thousands of archaeological sites and monuments, are all under threat. The Association of Greek Archaeologists has recently launched an international appeal against government cuts.

Even in times of prosperity there were vastly fewer staff than sites. Now, with over 10% of the total workforce of the Ministry of Culture having been sacked and over 35% of its budget slashed, employees are unable to cover the basic running of sites.

Greece has seen an increase in targeted and professional looting, with the National Gallery and Museum in Olympia both being robbed. Illegal digging has also dramatically increased with archaeologists stating that the thefts can only have been commissioned by rich and powerful clients looking to exploit the turmoil.

One archaeologist, Despina Kutsumba, studied for six years at university before gaining a job at the Greek Archaeological Service. Her salary used to be 1,200 Euros per month, but it has been cut with every memorandum that has been passed by the Greek parliament.

Now she is paid just 550 Euros – the new minimum wage. This meagre salary is only enough to cover her rent, so to feed herself and her young child she relies mostly on food parcels from her family in Crete.

Just outside of Athens is the Hellenic Steel Plant, one of several factories owned by banker, shipping tycoon and steel magnate John Manessis. The plant is easy to spot because of all the banners that have been hung from the side of the motorway. At the entrance to the plant is a hand-painted sign with the number of days the workers at the plant have been on strike. It currently reads 142, making it the longest running strike of this crisis.

The strike began when a quarter of the factory’s 400 steel workers were sacked and the rest told they would be working reduced hours in shifts on lower wages. They are calling for the reinstatement of the sacked workers and a return to normal hours and pay.

They have received widespread support. Donations flooded in – the most recent from the Union of Unemployed and Precarious Workers of Kavala. Donations of food have also been sent from farmers. However, they have not received support from a nearby factory also owned by John Manessis nor from the Metal Workers Federation (POEM).

With no other option but to strike and determined to keep the factory closed until they win, the steel workers have established shifts to guard the site both day and night. The wives of some of the steel workers also wait with them, though many are at work, now the sole family provider.

As one woman remarked, giving voice to the entire situation in Greece, ‘It is very hard but we must win.’

Support the Greek Resistance

As well as continuing to campaign against cuts in the UK, here are some things that you can do to support those fighting for change in Greece:

  1. Arrange for your town or local anti-cuts group to twin with a district like Ellinikon.
  2. Support the archaeologists: – go to ‘I Support Greek Heritage’ page on Facebook
  3. Donate or raise money for the Hellenic Steel Workers strike (contact Counterfire for details)
  4. Add your signature to the Coalition of Resistance’s statement of solidarity with the people of Greece: and get involved with the next international solidarity delegation.

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