Greek trade unionists in 2019 Greek trade unionists in 2019. Photo: PAME

Kevin Ovenden writes from Athens on the strikes and demonstrations involving vast numbers from union members to school students, which is galvanising a whole new movement

The great spirit of revolt of the anti-austerity movement in Greece of a decade ago is back. An appalling tragedy has been the catalyst. That is the meaning of the massive demonstrations and strike rallies that swept the country today. It was not only in the big cities. It was in the small towns and on the islands. There has been a national rail strike for seven days. That and other transport disruption meant local, not regional or national protests. 

Some areas report the biggest weekday demonstrations for 15 years. Hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated across the country, either formally striking or just walking out of classes or stopping work to join in. Where unions such as the ADEDY public sector union, the rail workers and others called for walkouts there were strong, organised contingents. That was especially true where there had been strong workplace organisation. 

Protests and some strike actions had already been planned in a few cities over a week ago to mark International Women’s Day and to highlight the conditions of women workers hit hardest by the social crisis. Then on Tuesday last week the disaster of the rail crash at Tempe struck, killing 57 mainly young people. Others are still in hospital in a serious condition. The march in Larisa stopped outside the hospital where they are being treated to sing and chant support for them. 

It is a national tragedy. But the country is not united in a national sentiment. Rather it is openly divided between the mass of people and the government and the elites who, eight days on, the big majority of people hold responsible for this tragedy. It is summed up by this contrast. On the one hand, an outpouring of solidarity, grief and rage from the base of society today. On the other hand, the minister of development of the right-wing government shamelessly said that if the transport ministry had admitted previously to the safety crisis on Greece’s railways then the privatised rail company would have lost hundreds of millions of euros. Maybe so, given they have plundered the railway and failed to introduce necessary signalling and safety measures. But 57 people would still be alive. 

It is that calculus that has been in the minds of millions of people in Greece from within hours of the disaster. Attempts to put this down to the ‘human error’ of one station master did not wash with most people from the beginning. As one Metro worker in Athens put it today, ‘There used to be two station masters on the mainline. Now there is one, and still no modern safety system. ‘If a system depends on no one ever making an error then the “error” is the system.’ 

Mass sense of truth

More and more people have been saying the same thing. So the transport minister had to resign last week. Issues that were known in outline before the crash are now retold in detail by large numbers of people. Every day more information comes out, such as engineering company Alsthom cutting links with another subcontractor as it was corruptly taking money with no intention of providing the right equipment. 

Prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis had to acknowledge the systemic failings of the privatised rail network. He was careful though to spread the responsibility so broadly and so vaguely as if to make it a ‘national failure’. He said sorry for it on Sunday, but without pledging to do anything immediately and concretely about it. He even took it upon himself to apologise for the ‘human error’. 

His political pitch on becoming prime minister four years ago was to clean up the ‘Greek disease’ of corruption and nepotism through proper ‘European modernisation’. He was to be a competent manager. Just like previous modernisers. 

He has instead presided over nepotism and corruption that are in no way specific to Greece or the European south. If anything, his Harvard-educated arrogance has antagonised people further. Instead of limiting the large protests and a constantly renewed rail strike that had been taking place every day to then from Wednesday, his haughtiness encouraged more. 

Monday saw big school student protests. There were university student demonstrations and mass meetings in many cities. The last week has been characterised by ongoing protests, often by young people. Tiktok and other social media sites are awash with pupils spelling out ‘crime’ in the school yard with their backpacks or pointing out that there is money for the government to repress people but not for train safety. Money for politicians and corporations buying spyware but not rail signalling. And always money for the military. 

There are several reasons for this return of youth militancy. Most of the victims of the Tempe disaster were students returning after the Bank Holiday to their university in Greece’s second city Thessaloniki. A common slogan on handmade signs over the last week has been: ‘Text me when you arrive’. It is what every parent in Greece sends their child – no matter how old – as they wave them off on a long journey. Another has been: ‘They were students’. 

Implicit in all of this is that the corrupted and crisis-wracked Greek state cannot secure the lives and futures of this generation of young people just as it could not in 2010 or for earlier cohorts forced to emigrate or driven to precarity. There is a sense of national shame. As if reliving the Athenian nightmare of ancient mythology of having to sacrifice 14 young people every year or so to the monstrous Minotaur of Crete. 

That is felt keenly by parents and older people too. That is why, while there were huge contingents of school and university students today, it would be wrong as some international news organisations have claimed to say this is only a youth revolt. A 90-year-old great grandmother was pictured in Thessaloniki holding a Greek flag and a sign that read: ‘I shout and weep for the children trapped under that steel sheeting.’

An example of the generalised character of today is Greece’s third city, Patras. The Patras Labour Centre estimates that 20,000 people joined the demonstration. That is getting on for 10 percent of the entire population including infants. The Democratic Women’s Association of Patras was already mobilising for International Women’s Day and said: ‘We become the voice of the dead children. A river to drown [the criminals] with our rage.’

Lawyers struck. Dressed in black, they stood on the court steps holding the names of the 57 dead. Workers struck. Pensioners protested. And everywhere there was the call: ‘Down with the government.’ The demands did not stop there. As evidenced by the signs people made there is clearly a big sense that the general system is to blame. The political system: every single governmental party is tainted with the privatisation of the railways. That was enacted before the Syriza government, but it saw it through in 2017 after the capitulation to the EU and institutions. 

It is also an indictment of the whole social and class system. 

So today’s strikes and demonstrations were anti-systemic. They mark a return of what the extreme centre of politics – Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer in Britain – hoped had been eradicated in the last three years. That has been the aim of the centre-right and centre-left across Europe in the last five years, most recently exploiting the proxy war in Ukraine for that purpose. But it is today, and not the modernising centre, that represents progress. It was the unions, but it was way beyond that. It was the popular masses. It was a social outpouring. This was not some ‘problematic populism’,

Today could be found the women’s movement and feminist campaigners. Not with the ‘liberal-modernising’ government and its tame NGOs, no matter how plush the receptions. The immigrants, migrants and refugee communities had an impressive organised presence, especially in Athens. They chose to be with the radical left, not the institutional forces. They made a banner that linked the fight for justice for the victims of Tempe to that of those who are murdered by Fortress Europe. 

Greece today felt like 2010 and the beginning of the last great wave of radicalisation. 

It comes as the country faces elections that must take place before September. The tragedy of Tempe has upset whatever calculations Mitsotakis was making for an election in a few weeks time. Opinion polling is unreliable and all over the place. A general election is likely to be inconclusive, leading to a second within weeks under a voting system that favours the biggest party. The problem for the Syriza opposition is that it is mired in this tragedy because it signed off the privatisation when in government, even if it pleaded duress. 

There was a very big presence of the Communist Party and its union organisation today. It has representation in parliament. So does the radical-left MeRA25 party of Yanis Varoufakis, though it lacks such deep roots. The anti-capitalist left in all its shades was very visible. But today went way beyond the left – as did the movement from 2010 onwards that broke the old political system in Greece and held out the offer of something much better. 

Can this movement do better this time? Achieving that must surely depend on at least two things. 

First, an assessment and discussion of why things went so drastically wrong in Greece that it moved from being a source of international inspiration on the left to a memory that so many have felt the need to repress over the last five years. Second, and more importantly, solving that question is through the movement by helping to answer the political problems that arise and developing a grassroots, rank and file force to take things forward. But above all, events this day in Greece show that despite very bad defeats at the governmental and party political level, it is the working class and its struggles, it is the mass of people who can move things. 

And when they move – new horizons open up. 

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Kevin Ovenden

Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.