Tag Archives: Greece unions

Blood, sweat and fears

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

“We are prepared to bleed,” they shouted. “The prospect of going to jail doesn’t frighten us,” came another cry. And so, another chapter in Greek labor relations was written. In the face of stark threats from the GENOP union representing Public Power Corporation (PPC) workers, the government has, over the last few days, backed away from the idea of selling off some of the company’s lignite and hydroelectric power stations to private firms.

It had earlier been rumored that Greece’s European Union and International Monetary Fund (IMF) paymasters had demanded that 40 percent of the electricity plants be privatized as part of wider liberalization plans the foreign technocrats want to push through. The mere inkling that such a plan was being hatched was enough to unleash the full force of one of Greece’s most potent unionist machines.

Over the years, GENOP has built up a mighty influence derived from two main sources. Firstly, there’s the blunt reality that its members have the ability to flick the power grid switch on or off if they want to put the squeeze on politicians. But it also draws power from the close relationship it has developed with PASOK. For many years, its cosy alliance with the Socialists has proved beneficial for both sides – favorable treatment and political support have proved the ying and yang of this local brand of industrial philosophy.

So, like a cantankerous but passionate Greek housewife scorned for a demure but wealthy foreign visitor, GENOP has reacted with remarkable vigor to the idea that a PASOK government would privatize the electricity sector at the behest of the EU-IMF team. For a week, you could not switch on the TV, turn on the radio or open a newspaper without coming across GENOP’s president Nikos Fotopoulos or one of his associates raging against plans to open up an industry in which PPC has a virtual monopoly.

In a calculated move, Fotopoulos sent on August 2 a slew of text messages warning that GENOP would not take any liberalization plans lying down. The principal recipients of the SMS messages were PASOK MPs. “Our struggle is not for us, it is for the consumer, and that is why we will go to extremes. We will bleed,” said Fotopoulos. “This represents the view of all workers, who were until recently your comrades.” GENOP’s accusation that PASOK was selling out such a longstanding and powerful ally made the government think twice about its plans.

Oblivious to the irony, the day after claiming it was fighting for consumers, GENOP suggested PPC should put up its prices to stave off privatization. But the government said it was already considering other alternatives to selling off power plants, hoping this would defuse the situation. Fotopoulos backed off, saying GENOP was not against the involvement of private capital per se but that it wanted firms to create infrastructure and jobs, not just take over the management of power stations that had been built with taxpayers’ money.

Portugal has shown how the involvement of the private sector can be beneficial, by allowing companies to foot a 20-billion-euro bill to help build the infrastructure the country needed to increase the amount of electricity it produces from renewable energy sources from 17 to 45 percent of its total output in just five years. In return, the firms have been guaranteed wholesale electricity purchase rates by the Portuguese government for the next 15 years.

Fotopoulos’s argument, therefore, has a distinct logic but GENOP’s rhetoric and radicalism means few will believe it’s involved in an altruistic struggle but rather a battle of survival to protect the benefits PPC workers have accrued and the influence their union possesses.

It’s a shame because, in between the diatribes and delusion, GENOP has some timely points to make. For instance, it’s right to question one of the government’s alternative ideas, which is to allow private firms to buy electricity from PPC at cost and then resell it to consumers. Fotopoulos has questioned how the Greek economy would benefit if, instead of following the Portuguese example where private capital went into the creation of infrastructure and jobs, a foreign firm enters the Greek market to act as just a middleman. It wouldn’t necessarily hire a lot of local people and could transfer its profits abroad without leaving any lasting legacy in Greece. And, if it can make more profit by selling cheap energy produced from lignite, what incentives would this company have to invest in renewable energy sources?

Fotopoulos, and other union leaders like him, are allowing crucial questions like this to go unanswered because their only reflex is to turn every development into a political battle. This serves nobody, especially at a time when politics is in a sense irrelevant to the challenges facing Greece – the reforms that have to be carried out do not bear the hallmarks of PASOK or New Democracy, they are the blueprint for a new country where the political landscape has yet to be formed. The challenges they pose are about Greece’s society, not its politics. They have to do with things such as: whether we want individually licensed taxi drivers or companies to be able to buy up permits and employ cabbies as they see fit; whether legal firms should be able to adopt a US-style “No win no fee” practice and the aggressive marketing that comes with it or whether supermarkets will be able to have their own in-house pharmacies.

The introduction of all these things will change Greece in small but incremental and noticeable ways and there is no guarantee that all the changes will be for the better. For instance, I like my pharmacist, Mr Vangelis. He’s polite and knowledgeable and I trust him to give me the right products. I don’t like the idea of buying medicines in a supermarket and I’m worried that if the Carrefour, Sklavenitis or Alfa-Vita around the corner is able to sell drugs, Mr Vangelis will soon go out of business. I would not only lose a trusted pharmacist, the neighborhood would be shorn of a professional, independently run business. It would be a blow to our community. I believe, however, there are ways of opening up Mr Vangelis’s profession so that pharmacies are more accessible and the state doesn’t have to guarantee his profit margins without damaging the fabric of our society. Liberalization does not have to be free of values or morals.

But this is a debate we are not having in Greece. Through their bloody-mindedness, the unions are forcing into a corner people who would be willing to discuss these matters and who have genuine objections to total deregulation. It seems clear that the majority will embrace liberalization because they are so fatigued with the current system. In which case, rather than engaging in a glorious, bloody battle to uphold their values, the unions will be their opposition’s secret weapon in a bloodless coup that could damage rather than improve Greece.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and was published in Athens Plus on August 13, 2010.

It’s not the fall, it’s the landing

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

La Haine (Hate), Mathieu Kassovitz’s seminal 1995 film about the disenfranchised youths of a Paris housing project begins with an image of a petrol bomb dropping to earth. As the firebomb falls, a voice says: “It’s a story about a guy who falls from a 50-story building. As he falls, he tries to reassure himself by repeating: “So far, so good. So far, so good. So far, so good.” When the firebomb explodes, the voice says: “It’s not the fall that matters, it’s the landing.” Last Wednesday, when three bank employees in central Athens suffocated from the smoke produced by petrol bombs, it confirmed Greece was locked in a death spiral and rapidly approaching rock bottom.

The incident and its fallout encapsulated the failures and hang-ups that have pushed Greece into the void. The attack, carried out by mindless fanatics or deranged criminals depending on how you prefer to view it, was the culmination of years of pathetic indifference to the destructive nature of a fringe element that mistakenly believes it has a relevant message to convey. Greek society has never been able to draw a clear distinction between what is legitimate, effective and necessary protest and what is the imposition of one’s view on others.

The way some protesters taunted the bank employees is evidence of the perverted thinking that has been allowed to fester among a segment of the population. It’s the defeat of compassion by bigotry and the loss of common sense to blind obedience. Unquestioning commitment to the cause suggests a society where the basic norms have dissolved under the pressure of its members constantly needing someone or something to oppose.

The fact that the particular bank was a sitting target, with little protection against such an attack, highlights more of this society’s hang-ups. The bank did not have metal shutters because it was housed in a neoclassical, listed building. If the building was worth protecting, either it shouldn’t have housed a bank or adjustments should have been made to protect it. Doing neither is proof of a people that cannot reconcile themselves with their past, who end up simultaneously paying it both too much and too little respect. The end result is that Greeks are not able to live fully in the present, let alone think about the future.

That the three employees were allowed to be in harm’s way also points to some of the shortcomings in labor relations in Greece. Although Marfin Egnatia is not a member of the OTOE banking union, which had joined in the general strike, the Stadiou Street branch should have been closed last Wednesday purely for safety reasons. Rather than bowing to protesters, this would have been an acknowledgment of the real danger to employees’ health and safety. People are a business’s most important assets but in Greece the conditions in which employees work are too often overlooked. The unions that represent workers are too focused on other areas, such as maintaining privileges and rigid labor regulations, to pay any attention to ensuring working conditions are safe and professional.

The reaction of the country’s unions and politicians after the firebombing emphasized the bankruptcy of the current system. In the immediate aftermath of the three deaths, when a minute’s silence and a brief statement of condolence would have sufficed in Parliament, the party leaders chose to engage in drawn-out political point-scoring. The unseemly argument between the Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS) and the Communist Party (KKE) was like guests at a funeral arguing over the quality of the brandy. The unions reacted by making the rally they had organized for the next day one of remembrance as well as of protest against the austerity measures. It didn’t occur to them to either cancel the gathering out of respect for the dead or to organize one for another day just in memory of the three victims.

In fact, the silent protest that was held in Syntagma Square on Sunday by a couple of hundred citizens also speaks volumes about Greece’s social degeneration. Those who gathered did so thanks to a commendable effort to use the real social networking power of the Internet. But the presence of less than 200 people confirmed a fear or lack of conviction among Greeks – who have been spoon-fed political protest as the only form of valid public discourse – to eschew these old habits and voice their displeasure as independent citizens. And, what of the young people who so passionately and so justifiably took to the streets to protest the killing of teenager Alexis Grigoropoulos in December 2008 – where were they to protest the deaths of people that could have been their brothers, sisters or cousins? Did someone not have the guts to tell them that in a few years’ time they could be the ones working behind desks at banks?

Certainly, it’s not something they would hear from the media. Never ones to miss an opportunity to pour oil onto the fire, newspapers, radio and TV had for weeks been screaming about tough measures and unavoidable pain and disaster. None of them, though, would accept that for years they have played a part in fostering an atmosphere of fear, antagonism and rejectionism. Why keep your head, when – as the media suggest – everyone around you is losing theirs? And, just to confirm the cheapness of the country’s journalism, one newspaper illustrated a story about one of the victims – a woman who was four-months pregnant – by running a picture of a sonogram with flames surrounding an unborn baby.

But perhaps the most galling aspect of the firebombing was that the three victims belonged to a group this country is relying on to stay afloat – salaried workers. For years now, Greece has managed to stumble along because of employees who have their taxes deducted at source. These people carried others who treated tax as an option rather than an obligation. Having been pushed, pulled and squeezed for so many years, they are now being asked to give again. Well, three of them can’t give anymore, nor will they find out if everyone will be made to pay their fair share.

As La Haine nears its tragic climax, the three main characters pass a billboard. The image of the earth is seen again, this time with the slogan “Le monde est a vous” (The world is yours) underneath it. One of the three takes a can of spray paint and changes the words so they read: “Le monde est a nous” (The world is ours). This hints at the question Greeks must respond to: whose is this country? Who will fill the moral, social and political void? As Greece hurtles headfirst toward apparent disaster, the only chance it has of landing on its feet is if this question is answered. Anything less and there will be an almighty thud when the country finally hits the ground.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and appeared in Athens Plus on May 14.

No sleep till Athens

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

There isn’t much to laugh about in Greece at the moment. So, it was with great pleasure that I read an e-mail last week from one of our readers in the USA in which he suggested how Greece could overcome its economic problems. One of his ideas was that Greeks should stop taking lunchtime siestas because they lose valuable working time. It was the first time I laughed out loud for weeks. I don’t know any Greeks under the age of 65 that take a nap at lunchtime, apart perhaps from my son. But he’s only 20 months old, so perhaps he can be forgiven for not using these hours to contribute to the country’s gross domestic product.

Although the e-mail from America provided a moment of light relief, it left a bittersweet taste because it also underlined how the crisis has created a negative stereotype of Greeks. It is patently obvious that many Europeans, especially Germans, are convinced Greece is full of freeloading slackers. The reality, though, is different. For instance, Eurostat’s figures for the average working hours in Europe for 2009 indicate that Greeks work an average of 42 hours a week. The EU average was 40.3 hours and in Germany it was 40.8. In fact, the Greek figure is the highest in all of the 27 EU countries.

So, if the Greeks work so hard why is their country in such a mess? Well, one answer is that working long hours does not necessarily mean you are productive. In fact, in Greece you often end up working longer because of the inefficiencies of the system. The time you could be using productively may be spent queuing at a public service to get paperwork stamped or writing out invoices by hand because there is no computerized accounting system.

Of course, there are very clear economic and financial reasons for Greece’s collapse but the causes of the illness go much deeper. One of the most serious underlying problems is a bloated and decaying public sector which neglects to punish inefficiency and indifference. Until 2007, according to World Bank data, it took 38 days to set up a business in Greece. In Djibouti it was 37 days. Of course, what statistics cannot measure is the frustration that causes so many people to lose the will to fight the system and eventually play by its warped rules, even if this involves corrupt practices. And what sustains this vicious circle? Political expediency. Governments created this monster and were afraid to tackle it because their support base, and therefore their destinies, were tied not just to the public sector but to the array of professions that are interlinked with it, such as doctors, civil engineers, lawyers, notaries and farmers.

Whatever you do in Greece, you cannot avoid dealing with the state and coming up against its inertia. According to Eurostat, roughly one in 10 Greek adults is a civil servant, which is the highest proportion anywhere in the EU. This is a legacy of the 1980s, when the governments of Andreas Papandreou’s socialist PASOK sought to balance years of right-wing rule and dictatorship by finding jobs for the party faithful. Since then, each government has treated the civil service as just another party apparatus, hiring more people even when the country couldn’t afford it.

But, again, the story of the Greek public sector is a symptom of the problem rather than the root cause, which lies in the country’s political system. Since the 1970s, Greece has been ruled by two parties that helped themselves rather than the country. They awarded their friends jobs or state contracts and as soon as any social group or sections of the media resisted an attempt to change the status quo, they would cave in and abandon the offending policy. So, it’s no surprise that an opinion poll by GPO for Mega TV this week indicated that 54.3 percent of Greeks believe all the recent governments, rather than a specific one, are responsible for the current crisis.

The previous New Democracy government of Costas Karamanlis is blamed by 20 percent of those questioned. Karamanlis and his ministers have a lot to answer for. At a crucial time for the global economy and despite having a comfortable majority in his first term, Karamanlis dodged any attempt at structural reform. Instead, he handed over questionable statistics, a spiraling deficit and no new ideas.

But the current PASOK government is not without blame. As assured as Prime Minister George Papandreou may look on the international stage now, he had no idea how to be a constructive opposition leader for the previous five years. In fact, the period from 2004 to 2009 will go down as a barren time in Greek politics, when no party could come up with a vision for Greece. The leftist parties — the Communists (KKE) and the SYRIZA coalition — were content to simply battle for control of the unions. This fight is continuing and, as the crisis puts the unions in the spotlight, it is clear they have failed to overcome their esoteric attitude. Even now, they have not been able to refine their tactics beyond that of blackmail — if the government does something they don’t like, they block ministry entrances or central Athens.

So, when people ask “Why did Greece end up in this mess?” perhaps the best answer is that it would have been a miracle if it hadn’t done so. It’s only now that Greeks are beginning to realize the damage that has been done to the country over the last decades and that, as voters, they actively encouraged it. They were happy to turn a blind eye as PASOK exploited the public sector in the 1980s; they were equally oblivious to the failures of socialist and conservative governments in the 1990s, when money from the EU began to flow into Greece; and during the last decade, when entry into the euro secured cheap loans and a comfortable way of life, nobody wanted to ask any difficult questions.

The realization is a painful one for Greeks — it’s like thinking you have entertained a friend by taking him out for a few drinks only to find out that you actually fed his alcoholism.

The recovery from this crisis will not just depend on the emergency loans from the IMF, Germany and the other eurozone countries. It will not depend just on growth rates and bond spreads. It will, to a great extent, depend on whether Greeks are now prepared to take the extra step to demand better of their public sector, push for the private sector to be allowed to flourish and, above all, be ruthless with incompetent and cowardly politicians. To do all this when your salary is shrinking, your taxes are increasing and your livelihood is at risk is not an easy task. For all these reasons, Americans, Germans and everybody else should know that Greeks will not be sleeping well at night for many years to come, let alone taking lunchtime siestas.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and appeared in Athens Plus on May 7.