Wednesday, 15 May 2013

A new street fight for Greece’s public teachers

This article was published by EnetEnglish.

The conservative-led government has spent the year escalating its undeclared war with the public sector. In January it succeeded in forcibly mobilising striking workers at the Athens Metro. The following month it did the same with mariners in passenger shipping. It now faces its biggest battle against the secondary school teachers’ union, OLME, the largest and most powerful of the three unions to have been presented with civil mobilisation slips ordering them back to work.

Although an official announcement is not due until the end of Wednesday, OLME is expected to vote in favour of defying government orders after local chapters overwhelmingly did so on Tuesday. The strike was sparked by a government request to increase classroom hours by two per week, to 20.5. The aim is to save 300 million euros a year by avoiding the hiring of substitutes.

OLME has suffered two blows in the opening stages of this battle. It will not enjoy full support from its parent body, the powerful civil servants’ union, ADEDY, which instead held a symbolic 24-hour strike on Tuesday. GSEE, the private sector confederation of labour unions, also invited to the fight, is to hold a five-hour work stoppage on Thursday. OLME is also in legal limbo. It failed to secure a court injunction against the mobilisation; instead, the Council of State will return a decision on June 7, so OLME has to risk action on its own.

Nonetheless, the vote will be binding on all of OLME’s 88,000 members, offering them the security of a swirling bait ball. Should they strike, they would face arrest or dismissal, testing the government’s resolve. It is technically impossible to arrest so many, and dismissing them Reagan-style would probably backfire by spurring ADEDY into solidarity. In this fight, there are no easy victories for predator or prey.

Who is right is a question of perspective. Teachers argue that both their numbers and their salaries are falling. Staff levels are already down by 12 percent since 2009, OLME says. It expects 64 schools to close and at least another 800 jobs to go in an upcoming consolidation. It also points to surveys showing that European Union average teaching salaries are between 50 percent and 70 percent higher than those in Greece, although Greek teachers work the same number of weekly classroom hours.

OLME also argues that the mobilisation is unconstitutional and autocratic. It may well be right. Article 22 of the constitution unequivocally states that labour may never be coerced. The government is standing on a presidential decree passed in September 1974, three months before the current constitution was adopted. The decree was drafted to “mobilise the civil forces and resources” of the country so as to “secure the national defence in a time of war and to face emergencies.” As a constitutional lawyer, the government’s socialist coalition partner, Evangelos Venizelos, once opined that labour strikes are clearly outside its purview. The fact that the government applied the decree pre-emptively to quash an incipient strike, thus precipitating it, might also be used against it in court.

The decree is very much a product of its time. In was passed shortly after a seven-year colonels’ dictatorship had collapsed, leaving many sympathetic appointees in the armed forces and the civil service. Konstantine Karamanlis’ fledgling civilian government could not necessarily count on loyalty. The Turkish invasion of Cyprus two months earlier had brought Greece to the brink of war and prompted Karamanlis to withdraw military forces from NATO. Greece stood alone and had to be able to rally its resources.

Yet the government has in its favour the historical context of a different kind of national emergency. The country is fighting for financial survival and struggling to reassert financial sovereignty. At stake are decades of work claiming and securing a place in the European Union and the Eurozone, but also the nature and extent of economic recovery in the decade ahead. Even the security of Greece can be argued to hang in the balance as cuts have deeply affected the armed forces.

The second factor that may give the government tacit approval is Greece’s inward division. The public sector may have sacrificed up to half its income, but the private sector has borne the brunt of unemployment. It is clear that the survival of one is at the expense of the other, so the two are not braced in solidarity. Patience has worn thin with entitlements that turned the state sector into a labour aristocracy since the 1980s.

OLME is a case in point. Its May 10 proclamation insists on no school closures, no layoffs, no transfers, no teacher evaluations, no extra hours and preferably a pay increase. This attitude sits ill with a nation in which 3.6 million people work to support another 7.2 million, many of whom have lost their livelihoods. The fact that a third of people still in work are public sector employees paid through diminishing tax revenues is now strongly felt by the other two thirds.

On top of this, OLME has its own peculiar sins to bear. Greek middle and high school students have been so ill-served by the system, that parents have spent the last thirty years building Europe’s most extensive shadow education economy, or parapaideia as the phenomenon has been baptised. A Europe Commission report (“The Challenge of Shadow Education”) showed that as late as 2008, the first year of the current recession, Greeks spent 952.6 million euros out of pocket on private tutoring in phrontisteria or at home, representing a fifth of the state’s primary and secondary education expenditure over again. That made Greeks the highest per capita spenders on private schooling in Europe, and Greece one of the top spenders in nominal terms. Nor is this done ethically. Although it is illegal for state teachers to work for a phrontisterio, the law is routinely ignored. The conflict of interest means that teachers can actively enrol their after-hours customers during their day job.

Perhaps OLME’s greatest sin is not in its refusal to regulate its profession (most Greek unions have failed at this), but in its insistence on playing national politics. It was instrumental in sinking far-reaching education reforms tabled by the New Democracy government in 2006-7 with street demonstrations even middle school students were encouraged to attend. Had the reforms succeeded, Greece would have amended article 16 of the constitution, allowing it to recognise non-state colleges and branches of overseas universities on Greek soil, as well as tens of thousands of degrees earned by Greeks in EU universities. University evaluation and reform would have proceeded years earlier. 

Such bold reforms would have benefited students and helped Greece become an education exporter, which its highly educated population supremely equips it to do. The man who drafted them as chairman of the National Council on Education, Professor Thanos Veremis, was so dismayed by union resistance, that in 2009 he declared that no consensual reform was possible. In his words, a reformist government would have to “break some eggs” to get anything done. 

The government has announced 15,000 layoffs this year and next, as part of a broader effort to slim the public wage bill by 150,000 over four years – a commitment to Greece’s creditors. The majority of dismissals have not been decided upon. OLME may well feel the Damoclean sword dangling over it, and this may have triggered its streetfighter reflexes. But Prime Minister Antonis Samaras is also an able streetfighter with few options and little to lose. By going on strike during the exam period, OLME aimed to maximise its leverage. It may instead have handed the government a switchblade.

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