Striking Greek unions accuse government of leaving them powerless

Athens city buses and electric trolleys remained parked, as did light rail and passenger shipping.

Greek proteset september 24
Banks remained closed as some retail, construction and telecommunications workers’ unions joined protest marches to the parliament [Costas Baltas/Reuters]

Athens, GreeceGreece‘s three-month-old conservative government has faced its first public sector strike as it presented a bill it says will bring growth and jobs.


Athens city buses and electric trolleys remained parked on Tuesday, resulting in a gridlock on the roads. The light rail and passenger shipping also remained stationary.

Government services were shuttered. Public schools were closed and hospitals operated on skeleton staff.

Flights were grounded for three hours.

Although the strike was primarily a public sector one, private-sector unions were also present. Banks remained closed and some retail, construction and telecommunications workers’ unions joined protest marches to Parliament.

The private sector will hold its own full-blown strike on October 2.

Secrecy of data

The union’s strongest objection is to a provision in the law that would allow the government to keep a roster of all their members, and replace paper ballots on whether to strike or not with an online voting platform.

Unions fear this would compromise secrecy.

“These are sensitive personal data,” said Dimitris Karageorgopoulos who sits on the board of the General Confederation of Greek Workers, the private sector’s umbrella union.

“If they should fall into the hands of someone who wants to abuse their power, anyone who signs up with a union in secret will be revealed. We’ve not been told how secrecy will be guaranteed.”

Arbitration over collective bargaining 

The other great nub of disagreement is a clause forcing unions to justify going to arbitration if collective wage bargaining talks reach an impasse. Unions would have to produce an extensive report backed up by figures usually only available from government ministries.

“These cannot be supplied in under nine or 10 months,” said Karageorgopoulos.

“Imagine having to set the wages for 2018-20 and having to wait until the end of the year to set them … In effect, collective wage bargaining is annulled.”

Collective wage bargaining used to be the norm in the Greek workplace. So powerful were the unions that the agreements they struck for their members were automatically applied to non-union labour was well.

Greece’s eight-year recession, which wiped out a quarter of its economy, changed all that. A February 2012 reform abolished collective wage bargaining, effectively silencing unions. Minimum wage dropped by 22 percent to 586 euros ($650).

Τhe last conservative administration, in 2012-14, effectively eliminated the public sector’s right to strike by ordering transport workers and teachers to work on pain of imprisonment. It cited a law that gave the government special powers to protect the public interest.

Unions fear that the rights workers lost during the deepest recession in a developed post-war economy will now remain compromised in the name of growth.

The left-wing Syriza party, which came to power in 2015 vowing to end austerity, restored collective wage bargaining this year but introduced new conditions.

“Employers had to prove they represent more than 50 percent of a given industry in order to sit down and negotiate wages for that industry,” Yannis Tasioulas, head of the construction workers’ union, told Al Jazeera at the protest.

“If they didn’t prove this, no collective wage bargaining was necessary,” he said, adding that New Democracy party was further eroding employers’ obligations.

“Now, New Democracy is adding a clause that allows exceptions to collective wage agreements even when they are struck. An employer can declare they are bankrupt, for instance.”

‘Fewer wage agreements’

Yiorgos Christophorou, head of the workers’ union at Nokia, describes the cumulative effect of these reforms.

There are fewer wage agreements in the telecoms sector. There used to be five or six, now there’s one,” said Christophorou. “Exceptions to wage agreements essentially means everyone can create their own economic zone.”

Like Syriza, New Democracy has pledged to end austerity. But unlike Syriza, it is not attempting this by confronting eurozone members, who own two-thirds of Greek debt and largely set its economic reforms.

Instead, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has promised to double current growth rates to four percent by lowering taxes and stimulating the economy. A key promise is to lower workers’ social security costs from 20 percent of income to 15 percent.

“Over-regulation and asphyxiating oversight in the name of worker protection actually produces the opposite result,” Mitsotakis said at the Thessaloniki International Fair earlier this month.

“The marketplace reacts by making working conditions over-elastic … by moving workers to a black labour market or underreporting their hours.”

Mitsotakis has promised to come down hard on employers who do not pay their workers’ full social security costs and protect workers’ rights. But unions believe that should be their job, not the government’s.

Source: Al Jazeera