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Striking teachers march in Athens. Photo: Kevin Ovenden

Striking teachers march in Athens. Photo: Kevin Ovenden

In opposition to a new law that is widely seen as a step towards marketising education, teachers defiantly walked out across Greece, reports Kevin Ovenden

About 100,000 teachers struck in Greece on Monday in a major show of workers' strength that has both shaken the government and will likely spur on other popular struggles after years of austerity and the hardships of the pandemic. 

The decade of austerity leading to pay freezes and cuts to education funding, combined with the huge pressures of the last year of pandemic, provide the background to this eruption that is far from over. 

The immediate issue of dispute is the attempt to impose a new evaluation scheme upon teachers - and by extension on schools. It would both be punitive against those working in education and open the door to the marketisation of education and to a pointless testing regime that has been so disastrous in countries such as England and Wales. Greek teachers know what has happened elsewhere and are determined to stop it happening to them and to them and the children they teach. 

One good measure by the brief reforming government of Andreas Papandreou in 1982 in Greece was to end the 1950s-style talk and chalk regime that disciplined both children and teachers and to open up, at least for a while, the prospect of a more egalitarian and comprehensive education system. That remains valued by those working in education and by many parents, despite constant ideological attack. 

So there was widespread active support by parents and the public for today's strike. And the numbers participating in strike rallies are unprecedented. Reports from school after school report a probably 85 per cent participation in the strike. In any case, schools were shut from the villages to the big cities. 

A second factor that has energised teachers is that after having put forward the Ofsted-style plan (as a precursor to marketisation of schools) and failing to win support from either the public or the teaching profession, the Tory government went to the courts. 

Teachers said they would not be coopeerating. So the government got a court ruling declaring that action illegal. On Monday there was a hearing at the Court of Appeal on that issue and so a focus for the strike. 

But it has infuriated teachers. Many, way beyond the committed activists of the unions involved, have voiced outrage that "the government takes us to court after all we have done in the pandemic!"

This comes as the same government has tried to use pandemic conditions as cover for all sorts of attacks, from the right of people to assemble and protest to the the imposition of new terms on workers. 

It seems that the bullying education minister, like her predecessors, thought that this barrage of attacks on children, teachers, lecturers and students would proceed without a generalised response. 

An attack on students and their tradition of militancy here, a "reform" of school accountability there. In particular, the primary school teachers are even more predominantly female than those in secondary. The two sectors have different unions. So the primary union has often been treated as weak. But today it is clear from the pictures and reports across Greece that the primary teachers, who decided last week to join the action, have struck solidly and have been very energetic in the mobilisations. Among those were a huge rally in Athens outside the court of appeal hearing the case over the right to refuse cooperation with the proposed scheme. 

And despite all the difficulties working class parents face, there seems to have been overwhelming support for the teachers' and educators' action. Cartoonists and artists have popularised a big theme of this strike - do you want your child's teacher to be focusing on them or upon some market mechanism? Are teachers to teach or to sell bits of learning? For that is what is behind the seemingly technical changes to the assessment process. 

That people understand that is a major problem for the government. A further one is that many activists after today are raising the tactic of a strike on 21 October that is jointly by those working in education and those in the health sector, where there are many disputes, campaigns and local struggles. 

It is very good that this discussion is happening at grassroots level. It opens the prospects of winning in each sector and of inflicting a big defeat upon the government. The New Democracy government has seemed for two years a bit like Boris Johnson's in Britain. Quite solid in the opinion polls, not facing much in the way of official opposition and able to get away with one lie after another. 

That has been changing throughout this year. This militant action by teachers - about three quarters of them women workers - may indicate a further turn against the government that has been drooping in the opinion polls even if the Syriza opposition has not been rising. 

A horrible defeat for the left in Greece happened six years ago with the Syriza government's capitulation to the austerity Troika. It had a bad effect internationally as people became demoralised and often looked to weaker forms of politics and organisation on the left. 

But there are important signs of recovery of the struggle of working people in Greece, and thus fresh openings for the radical left that bases itself upon working class struggle to surge back and do better this time. 

It is very fitting that at the heart of that are so many workers who have won the support of the parents of those they teach through patient conversations and who the state and elite would write off as just a bunch of women looking after children. 

The other side should think again. 

Anyone working in schools may want to contact their unions' international department to send messages of support from school groups or districts to the relevant unions in Greece. Members of the National Education Union are already doing this.

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Kevin Ovenden

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.

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