Magazine: A message from the shipyards of Greece

They once worked two or three shifts a day, but Greek shipyard workers are now lucky if they get 30 shifts a year.

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Despite the hazardous nature of their work, the shipyard workers say they will put up a fight if the government insists upon privatising the port [Menelaos Myrillas/SOOC]

Everyday, at around six in the morning, men gather at this port outside Athens to see if a new ship has arrived, in need of repairs. Most of these workers live just a few metres away, in the low-income neighbourhood of Perama, a concrete jungle of hastily constructed homes and shacks.

Michalis and Gabriel are among those waiting for work. Sunburnt and disheartened, they sit in a shipping container that serves as a coffee break room, smoking cigarettes.

Michalis is middle-aged, tall and skinny. Like most of the men here, he worked just 30 shifts last year and can barely make ends meet. His sarcasm is tinged with anger. “I need a job. I have a dog back home waiting to be fed,” he says jokingly.

But when talk turns to politics, Michalis grows visibly irritated. “The port of Piraeus is being sold, and with the port they’re selling the shipyard too,” he says.

When he was running for office in January, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras promised he would reorganise Greece’s crushing public debt, renegotiate the country’s bailout agreements with the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund and reject proposals to sell off public assets like this shipyard.

But as Tsipras and his left-wing Syriza party have been trying to scrape together $33bn to make this year’s repayments on the Greek debt, those campaign promises are becoming harder – if not impossible – to fulfill.

Tsipras and Yanis Varoufakis, the Greek finance minister, have been negotiating to lower the payments, but pro-austerity German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a conservative Christian Democrat, and others are resisting their pleas. Recently, George Stathakis, the minister of economy, infrastructure, shipping and tourism, announced that the government would privatise the Perama shipyards along with the Athenian port of Piraeus.

As a result, one of the most left-wing governments in Europe, elected on the basis of their promise to repair the damage wrought by the Wall Street meltdown, the Eurozone crisis, and by Greece’s constantly multiplying public debt is now, at the behest of its creditors, presiding over the dismantling of state assets and, by extension, the working class communities that rely upon them.

The election of the first leftist party in the EU to reject the dogma of austerity may have made the lenders unhappy, but it reflected a clear mood within the country.

Syriza’s increase from four percent to 12 percent and to 36 percent in just a few years has to do with people’s disillusionment, mainly with PASOK, the centre-left party, and secondly with the centre-right New Democracy,” explains University of Athens political scientist Dimitris Charalambis. “Most people refused to vote for those that cut their wages again, but they also had the hope that [with Syriza] things can get better.”

A maritime nation

Greek ship-owners still own almost one quarter of the world's oil tankers and carry 16% of the world's cargo [Menelaos Myrillas/SOOC]
Greek ship-owners still own almost one quarter of the world’s oil tankers and carry 16% of the world’s cargo [Menelaos Myrillas/SOOC]

A mountainous peninsula surrounded by sea, Greece has been a maritime nation since antiquity.

That legacy continued in the modern era, when Greek shipbuilders became titans of international industry. As late as the 1980s, workers in Perama would work two or three shifts a day to meet demand.

After a tragic accident towards the end of that decade, when 25 shipyard workers were burnt to death, the shipbuilders’ labour union pushed the government to enact new safety rules, institute collective agreements, pay higher salaries and implement seven-hour shifts. Business was booming. And labour was strong.

A few years later, Greece signed an agreement with the EU that required the country to downsize its shipbuilding industry in order to allow Germany’s and Italy’s industries to develop. After the 2008 financial crisis, the industry shrank further along with maritime commerce worldwide.

Despite the shipyard’s dire straits, however, Greek ship-owners still operate the world’s largest merchant fleet, own almost one quarter of the world’s oil tankers, carry 16 percent of the world’s cargo and own assets worth more than a $100bn.

And all of this makes workers like Michalis wonder why Syriza is selling-off Perama, so that somebody else can profit from Greece’s maritime strength, rather than investing in it.

“If they wanted to solve the problem they’d already have bought a bigger docking keel to have larger ships coming here,” he says, referring to the buttresses that hold up ships in dry dock. “But they haven’t. It just takes political will. It just takes some political will.”

A new dawn

Yannis Deligiannis, the secretary of the shipyard workers' union, says:
Yannis Deligiannis, the secretary of the shipyard workers’ union, says: “I have been in the industry since I was 14 years old. I have supported my family with this job” [Menelaos Myrillas/SOOC]

It is that desire for political will that has led some of Greece’s disgruntled workers – those who would traditionally have been stalwarts of the left – to go searching in the opposite direction.

In 2012, Golden Dawn, the country’s fringe right-wing party, made one of its first appearances in Perama, then considered a leftist stronghold. Young men wearing black shirts and holding Greek and Golden Dawn flags bearing swastika-like symbols crowded City Hall, where speakers blamed immigrants for their economic problems.

A destitute man stood up and explained how he had worked his whole life in the shipyards, but now couldn’t provide for his family. His life had fallen apart, he said. And he knew who he blamed: the left-of-centre Panhellenic Socialist Movement, or PASOK, whose leaders ruled Greece from 2009 until last year.

“I used to vote for the PASOK, but what can I tell my son now?” he asked angrily. “They betrayed us. There are no jobs anymore. They gave them all to the immigrants and they let the communists with their unions destroy the shipyards.”

“Now I’ll vote for Golden Dawn. At least we can be proud Greeks.”

In the following elections, Golden Dawn entered parliament for the first time.

Then the attacks started. First, there was an assault on a group of Egyptian fishermen, then on a group of communist youth putting posters up in the streets. Golden Dawn members are now in court on charges relating to both incidents.

And while the party lost a seat in January’s election, they still hold 17 – the third-largest share of the country’s fractured electorate.

In addition to its court cases, Golden Dawn has made other missteps. In Perama, the party tried to create its own affiliated labour organisation to oppose the historic shipyard workers’ union and to offer work only to Greeks, explains local labour leader Yannis Deliyannis.

And that runs counter to the position of the main union. “We make no discriminations based on nationality, colour, race or faith,” Deliyannis says. “We are workers, we have embraced them [foreigners]. They embrace the union, and we are struggling with common goals. Because problems and hunger do not discriminate.”

The Golden Dawn union workers would also make around $28 less than members of the regular union per shift. “Workers don’t trust them and it doesn’t seem to be going well,” Deliyannis adds.

Nevertheless, many analysts fear that if Greece fails to renegotiate its debt and leaves the Eurozone – the so-called Grexit – the far-right will capitalise on the crisis.

“Except for the huge economic difficulties that would come with an exit from the Euro, for Greece it would also create an identity problem,” says Professor Charalambis. “Many would say, ‘See, this is what European democracy did to us,’ and subsequently they would turn to the far-right. In the long-term, this would be tragic.”

Still fighting

A man fishes in the port [Menelaos Myrillas/SOOC]
A man fishes in the port [Menelaos Myrillas/SOOC]

Back in the shipyard, 48-year-old Gabriel Toudor, a Romanian who came to Greece more than 19 years ago, is playing backgammon with a colleague. He is preparing for his 23-year-old daughter’s wedding back in his hometown of Craiova, Romania.

Toudor recounts his childhood under communism.

“Back then, we all studied for free and could easily find a job. Of course there were problems, too,” he says, throwing dice in the shipping container-cum-break room.

“I remember, after the fall of the Eastern Bloc, they sold off all the public companies to a handful of businessmen who then shut them down,” he continues. “People lost their jobs, unemployment grew. It’s exactly what’s happening to Greece today. This model is being implemented here as well.”

As Toudor speaks, Deliyannis rushes into the shipping container. He has been working at the shipyards since he was 14. Now he is secretary of the shipyard union, and his phone rings constantly.

He has just come back from court, where the union is trying to obtain an explanation for an accident that killed three people last month at the nearby Hellenic Petroleum refineries. He wonders whether one or more of the employees were forced to work longer than the agreed hours and if that might have led to the fatal mistake. “People are still working 15 to 16 hours,” he says. “You can’t call this an accident.”

Michalis squats down to demonstrate the conditions in which he works for seven hours – when he is able to get a shift, that is. “Imagine getting in the crude oil up to your knees in order to clean the tanker of a ship,” he says. “In the past we even used asbestos to repair ships. From the exposure some colleagues developed lung cancer.”

Still, despite the hazards of their work, the shipyard workers have made it clear that if Tsipras moves forward with selling the ports, he will meet fierce resistance from those who, by then, will have little left to lose.

“This government is not telling the truth, you can’t continue being in a European Union that has imposed all these [austerity] measures, and believe you can convince them to change their policy,” says Deliyannis, who seems suprisingly sure that the unions will win their battle against the privatisation of the port.

“When they sell this to a private company, it’s obvious that the company won’t want us,” he says. “They’ll choose specific people who won’t make demands. We might be illiterate, but we have class consciousness. We’re not going just to stand by. We’re going to fight them.”

This article first appeared in the June issue of the Al Jazeera Magazine. Download it here for iPads and iPhones and here for Android devices.