Voices from Russia

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Greece’s 500

Barbara-Marie Drezhlo. Euroised Greece. 2012


On 10 June, a reshuffled cabinet took office in Athens, after the ruling New Democracy/PASOK coalition lost the 25 May European elections, with SYRIZA (Coalition of the Radical Left) beating them by a 4 percent margin. Prime Minster Antonis Samaras’ revamped coalition solemnly took the oath of office for the second time, the new ministers and secretaries visited the presidential mansion to receive the blessing of the Greek Orthodox archbishop. Samaras walked out of the ceremony in a rush to call the first cabinet meeting of his newly polished government and journalists interpreted his fast pace as a signal to ministers to get on the job quickly and be productive.

One of them, the newly appointed Minister of Public Order, Vassilis Kikilias, didn’t lose time. Less than an hour after he took office, riot police cracked down on a protest of the Ministry of Finance cleaning staff. The protesters were more than 500 women of all ages and national backgrounds, who clean tax offices, the Ministry of Finance, and Customs Services until a ministerial decree fired them all indiscriminately and permanently. The austerity rationale behind the decision was spurious because these women weren’t a fiscal burden… quite the contrary. Privatising cleaning services increased the amount spent to keep public working spaces decently clean. The fate of these 500 women is nothing new in Greece; for years now, and especially since the financial crisis, workers had to take to the streets to reclaim their rights.

Surviving an Acid Attack

Overall, privatising services and reverting to temporary contracts for workers leads to slavery-like conditions of labour exploitation. In Greece, a typical case is the story of the newly elected SYRIZA member of the European Parliament, Konstantina Kouneva. Kouneva, a trained historian, emigrated from Bulgaria to Greece in 2001 because of the financial troubles in Eastern Europe at the time. In 2003, the private company OIKOMET, which had a contract with the Athenian railway service, hired her as a janitor. Seeing the conditions under which her colleagues worked (low and infrequent pay, lack of insurance, mistreatment), Kouneva entered the Athens Janitors Union and soon became one of its leading figures.

From that moment on, she didn’t stop protesting working conditions, struggling for the rights of cleaning staff, often ignored by the main trade unions. She ignored threats against her life and never regretted her decision to continue the fight for labour rights. One night in December 2008, two men attacked Kouneva as she was walking back home in downtown Athens. They threw sulphuric acid in her face and forced her to drink the rest in what could’ve been a fatal attack. The Greek police failed to track down the assailants and bring them to justice; they remain unknown and unpunished to this day. After human rights groups like Amnesty International complained, a court fined the company Kouneva used to work for, concluding that OIKOMET was accountable for failing to protect her after she received death threats. Kouneva survived thanks to the medical care she received, but she’s still undergoing surgery. In July, she’ll be joining the European Parliament and she’ll take the struggle of Greek workers to the heart of the EU.

A Continuing Fight

Meanwhile, in Athens, the Finance Ministry cleaning staff will continue their fight. Recently, a court issued an order to cancel the ministerial decree and rehire these women to their posts, but on 12 June, the government took the decision to the high court, which ruled the order unenforceable until its final judgment in a few months. This doesn’t change the cleaners’ story significance… fired from governmental institutions, some of these women get jobs at half of their original salaries, no insurance in some cases, and unable to fight employer blackmail as employees. This is what the austerity programme is all about.

There is much writing on the high unemployment figures in Greece due to the crisis, but there’s another aspect that affects the working population. Salaries drop, conditions worsen, and the negotiating power of workers disappears. 500 women are continuing the struggle Kouneva paid for with her health, fighting hard to keep the gates that lead to the precarious underclass closed. Despite the fact that they have already won their litigation against the Greek state, conservative politicians, the mainstream media, and riot police constantly attack them. Just recently, they were brutally beaten again while trying to reach the Finance Ministry and demonstrate. On the other hand, other workers’ groups and the Left are standing by them. The same day of the violence, a large demo against the #WorldCup2014 headed to the Brazilian embassy decided to change course and join the cleaners’ protest instead. The cleaners are the conscience of the working class of our times. Standing on the verge of poverty and exclusion, they fight for all of us.


This isn’t only happening in Greece… it happens throughout the American South, for instance. I seem to notice that the Republicans who make a loud “Pro-Life” noise also allow corrupt businessmen to brutalise union organisers. Fancy that… low wages and no benes aren’t Pro-Life in the least. The Rick Perrys of this world are noisome hypocrites… they bring the name of “Christian” into disrepute. I’d say that there’s much more to Christianity than mere opposition to abortion and homosexuality, and I’m not alone in thinking that way.


13 June 2014

Matthaios Tsimitakis



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