Friday, 1 June 2012

Greece: Austerity, resistance and higher education

Originally published in the UCU left magazine Another Education is Possible, Summer 2012 

Interview with Kostas Skordoulis – Greek academic and activist

1. How are ordinary people being affected by the austerity measures?

At the moment Greece is a huge laboratory of social engineering with a continuing escalation of attacks on the working class. Unemployment is officially at 22 per cent, but the real figure is likely higher as people who have not had a job are not allowed to register as unemployed or claim unemployment benefit. Many industrial plants have closed, with private sector workers being sacked. 20,000 people have already lost their jobs in the public sector and the government is planning 150,000 further redundancies. Nearly 40 per cent of all public sector employees will lose their jobs. Before austerity, there was easy credit. Now people cannot pay back their loans, they can’t pay for their rent or for their mortgages.

At schools across the country teachers are seeing real poverty. Children are coming to school starving and fainting in the class because their parents are unemployed, without unemployment benefit and cannot afford bread and milk to feed them. There has been a 35 per cent cut in salaries in the last three years for all public sector workers. Now, with the Memorandum 2, the troika (EU-IMF-ECB) with the Greek puppet government is cutting the Minimum Wage, from €700 a month to €400 a month. Recently there have been reports of people committing suicide because they cannot bear the effects of the crisis on their personal, political and social lives.

However, in Greece there are also some examples of workers’ control. Sacked journalists have taken over a newspaper (Eleftherotypia), medical doctors and nurses are organizsng health centres to provide free medical care for the unemployed and homeless. We have food kitchens, feeding the rapidly increasing numbers of homeless people. These acts of solidarity from below are embryonic forms of workers’ self-management.

2. What is the situation like for those working in universities in Greece?

Austerity has hit Greek Universities in many ways. University budgets have been slashed by more than 50 per cent, leading to serious problems. Funding for adjunct faculty has been reduced by almost 70 per cent leading to hundreds of lay-offs. Several hundred elected faculty members have been waiting, in some cases for two years, for their official appointment. All these cuts have led to serious teaching personnel shortages. Under the terms of the Loan Agreement,
university lecturers’ salaries has been reduced by nearly 35 per cent and are going to be further reduced, despite already being extremely low.

3. The process of neoliberalisation of the higher education sector in Britain has been occurring - has the same happened in Greece?
Institutional structures, management and the funding of Greek universities have been under attack for the past two years. This is another aspect of the devastation brought upon Greek society by aggressive neoliberal policies. New laws have been passed in another attempt to conform to the ‘Bologna Process’ requirements, which severely jeopardises university autonomy by taking power from the Senates – (representative bodies of university teachers, student sand other employees) – towards ‘University Councils’, consisting of university professors and representatives from the business world. The law is full of references for universities to look for funding in the business sector. In line with recent reforms in most European countries the new law is tailored to the needs of the current austerity packages imposed by the troika. It opens the door to a wave of department, and even university, mergers and closures, in the name of ‘efficiency’, ‘performance’ and ‘viability’. higher education in Greece faces the danger of shrinkage: fewer departments, students, and lecturers.

4. What is the relationship between staff and students taking action in universities?

The law regarding university funding was passed in Parliament with a two thirds majority despite the opposition; by student unions, who staged a four week strike and occupations; by local university teachers unions; by the majority of University Senates and by the National University Rectors’ Congress. The pro-government majority of our national university teachers union (POSDEP) openly supported the law. Because of this the local university teachers unions
established a national coordination committee to organise opposition to the law from below. This coordination committee effectively mobilised students and university staff and so, for now, the new Law has not been implemented at the universities. This is a partial, but very important, victory for the university movement.

In response to our victory the state authorities have put activists and trade-unionists from our unions on trial for “disobedience” to a state law. Solidarity actions have been organized in order to support our colleagues. The support of students and other social groups fighting against the austerity and the neoliberal policies is crucial. The Greek Ministry of Education has attempted to financially blackmail universities into implementing the new law, making the full release of 2012 funding conditional on universities establishing the new 'University Councils'! Fortunately, Greek universities have a long tradition of struggle, from both students and teaching personnel. That is why the new law has not been successfully implemented. Struggle, solidarity and unity between teachers and students are the only ways to answer the current attacks on Higher Education in

5. We have heard a lot about the many general strikes that have taken place in Greece over the last couple of years. Can you describe what the atmosphere is like on the strikes and demos?

On Sunday 12 February 2012 the people of Greece, in demonstrations all over the country, expressed their resistance to the terms of the new loan agreement dictated by the troika. Workers, young people, and students filled the streets with rage, defying the extreme aggression of the police force, and setting an example of struggle and solidarity. The government met the demonstrators with the same force and fury that those in Tahrir Square faced one year ago. The
police were determined to expel thousands of demonstrators, who had been standing for hours at Syntagma Square. The militancy and persistence with which the workers and young people protested for hours was remarkable.

6. What do you see as the way forward in Greece to winning the fight against austerity?
The left is facing a challenge of historical proportions.Greece has a bright history of social resistance stretching back to the 1970s. Following the youth revolt of December 2008 over the shooting of Alexandros Grigoropoulos, the Greek workers’ movement has responded to the government’s cuts packages with a wave of strikes and demonstrations. Anger is growing and mass strikes and demonstrations are exemplary of the workers’ resistance.

We insist on the need for an escalation of struggles, with general and sectoral strikes and mass rallies that will challenge the attack by the government, the IMF and the EU, defend workers’ rights and demand that capitalists, not workers pay for the crisis. We will keep on fighting with all our forces. At the same time we in the anticapitalist left are proposing a program of measures
that can lift the economy out of the crisis on the basis of giving priority to people’s needs rather than profits and imposing workers control over the market.

7. What can we do in Britain to show support and solidarity for Greek workers resisting austerity?

Greek workers need the solidarity of socialists, trade unionists, and anti-capitalists everywhere. Greece is simply the first European country to have been targeted by the financial markets, but they have plenty of others in their sights.The whole European social movement must stand next to the Greek people! A victory for Greek workers will strengthen resistance to the cuts
elsewhere. I think that initiatives of organizations of the anti-capitalist left in Europe expressing their solidarity with the Greek labour movement are crucial. With confidence in the potential of collective struggle and workers’ militancy, we can defeat the forces of capital and open up the way for an anti-capitalist alternative.

8. What do you think about the outcome of the election?

In these elections the left as whole scored an important victory with nearly 35% of the total vote.  Among the left, the main winner is considered to be SYRIZA, the radical left coalition enlarged with small bourgeois parties and traditional social democrats, which scored 17 per cent of the vote. The political crisis in Greece is deepening and new elections have been called for the 17th of June.

Our political tasks for the forthcoming period need to be forming a United Front  of all working class organisations to combat the rise of neo-Nazism. We also need to coordinate workers' struggles from below to overturn the neoliberal austerity measures; this united action should be expressed on the political level as well. 
Finally, the internationalist dimension of the workers' struggles in Greece need to be strengthened as the solidarity of the European working class is crucial in the coming period.

Kostas Skordoulis is Full Professor of Physics and Epistemology at the Department of Education, University of Athens. He is the editor of the journal Kritiki: Critical Science & Education and the leading figure of the critical education movement in Greece. He is a member of ANTARSYA, the Greek anticapitalist left coalition and the organiser of the Radical Scientists Network in Greece.