Paul Murphy is in Greece this week, meeting with workers, trade unionists and members of parliament. He'll be reporting daily on his experiences there; part one is below.
A crucial task facing socialists and activists today is building active solidarity and common action between the struggles of working people across Europe who face an onslaught of austerity. Greece is currently on the frontline of this struggle, where the austerity measures have gone so far that they increasingly represent an attack on society itself – with a massive increase in suicide rates, parents giving up their children because they cannot feed them and a pauperisation of large sections of the population. Therefore, when the suggestion of an emergency delegation to Greece to show solidarity with the Greek workers was raised last week in a meeting of the European United Left (GUE/NGL) group in the European Parliament, I immediately welcomed the suggestion and agreed to participate.
Ten MEPs of the GUE/NGL group arrived in Athens today. Tomorrow, we have a packed official agenda – with meetings with representatives of a struggle against the closure of the social housing section of the Ministry of Labour, of steel workers who have been occupying their factory for over 110 days now as well as with the MPs of both the KKE (Greek Communist Party) and Syriza (a left alliance), who are now the only real opposition in the Greek Parliament.It does not take long upon arrival for the sense of a social crisis to become evident. As I arrived at Syntagma Square, a PAME (the trade union led by the KKE) demonstration against austerity was just finished. Hundreds of policemen were still there, their demeanours meanicing; the street in front of the Parliament was effectively blocked. The other sign of the deep crisis that engulfs Greek capitalism is the large numbers of people begging on the streets that are testament to the massive increase of homelessness.
Tonight, I met with members of the Socialist Party's sister organisation in Greece, Xekinima, and we visited the Minstry of Health, which has been occupied by workers in psychiatric hospitals and institutions and those working with children with special needs. There, we had a long meeting and discussion about the conditions that face them.
This is a case, as has happened in Ireland, of the most vulnerable in society being targeted for savage attacks by the Troika and the government. Previously, there were three or four major asylums where most of the people with psychiatric problems were kept in very difficult conditions. Then there was an influx of European funds to change the system, with a transfer of patients to smaller, much improved institutions. However, the workers argue that the government made no plans for how to fund this vital service when European funds dried up in 2005 and 2006.
Since then, there have been major problems in the funding of these services, which dramatically worsened with the onset of crisis; they are now faced with the prospect of essentially closing down. These institutions are run by non-profit organisations that are subsidised by the state. In the latest round of austerity, their funding was cut by an incredible 55%. Of course, that means that it is simply not possible to maintain services. There is no money to pay the workers or even to buy sufficient food for the patients. The result will be a return to the dark days of institutionalisation in major asylums.
For children with special needs, the situation is also very bleak. Funding for schools for those with special needs has been cut from €25m in 2009 to €11m in 2012, which again means it is essentially impossible to keep these schools open. The workers argue that this will mean a return to the days when children with special needs were kept at home isolated.
A regular feature of life for these workers - as seems to be the case for lots of workers connected to the public sector - is not getting their wages for months on end. Everyone I spoke to had experienced many months of no pay - some for up to six months. They reported other workers not receiving wages for up to a year. Their wages were also low, at around €1000 per month. So much for the well-paid Greek public sector!
These workers have been occupying the Ministry for over two weeks now and it has become a focal point for the struggles of workers in the health sector. A 48-hour general strike of doctors starts tomorrow with a protest in front of the Ministry and a major assembly tomorrow inside to decide on the future of the struggle. It is also clear that this struggle, together with the years of austerity now experienced and the movements against it, has had a profound impact on their political consciousness. Nobody we talked to thought their struggle was an isolated issue to protect simply their own interests - they all connected it to the need to struggle against the Troika and austerity generally. The question of an alternative political and economic system was an integral part of the discussion.
There is some disgust at the trade union leadership, who have provided no real leadership to the mood of opposition and willingness to fight that exists amongst the Greek people. There is also a frustration with the major left parties and a sense that they are not posing a real alternative to the policies of the Troika. One of the workers made the point that they had been occupying the Ministry for two weeks and the first member of parliament to come to see them was from Ireland! After two weeks of occupation, there is also an understandable tiredness amongst the leading activists; something they have in common with an important layer of the activists in the Greek movement generally after years of hard struggle. But alongside that is an awareness that their struggle is vital in resisting what they describe as a looming humanitarian catastrophe in Greece, and also for vital workers across Europe who face the same savagery imposed by the Troika.
Paul Murphy is Socialist Party and ULA MEP for Dublin.
Image top: protonotarios.