Wednesday, 25 September 2019

Striking Greek unions accuse government of leaving them powerless

This article was published by Al Jazeera International.
Supporters of the labour union of the Communist Party of Greece marched through Athens on Tuesday.

Greece’s three month-old conservative government faced its first public sector strike on Tuesday, as it presented a bill it says will bring growth and jobs.

Athens city buses and electric trolleys remained parked, as did light rail and passenger shipping. The result was gridlock when commuters took to their cars. Government services were shuttered. Public schools closed and hospitals operated on skeleton staff. The civil aviation authority grounded flights for three hours.

Although Tuesday’s strike was primarily a public sector strike, private sector unions were present. Banks remained closed and some retail, construction and telecommunications workers’ unions joined protest marches to parliament. The private sector will hold its own full-blown strike on October 2nd.

Unions’ strongest objection is to a provision in the law that would allow the government to keep a roster of all their members, and replace paper ballots on whether to strike or not with an online voting platform. Unions fear this would compromise secrecy.

“These are sensitive personal data,” says Dimitris Karageorgopoulos who sits on the board of the General Confederation of Greek Workers, the private sector’s umbrella union.

“If they should fall into the hands of someone who wants to abuse their power, then anyone who signs up with a union in secret will be revealed. We’ve not been told how secrecy will be guaranteed.”

The other great nub of disagreement is a clause forcing unions to justify going to arbitration if collective wage bargaining talks reach an impasse. Unions would have to produce an extensive report backed up by figures usually only available from government ministries.

“These cannot be supplied in under nine or ten months,” says Karageorgopoulos. “Imagine having to set the wages for 2018-20 and having to wait until the end of the year to set them… In effect collective wage bargaining is annulled.”

Collective wage bargaining used to be the norm in the Greek workplace. So powerful were unions, the agreements they struck for their members were automatically applied to non-union labour was well.

Greece’s eight-year recession, which wiped out a quarter of its economy, changed all that. A February 2012 reform abolished collective wage bargaining, effectively silencing unions. Minimum wage dropped by 22 percent to 586 euros ($650).

Τhe last conservative administration, in 2012-14, even effectively eliminated the public sector’s right to strike by ordering transport workers and teachers to work on pain of imprisonment. It cited a law that gave the government special powers to protect the public interest. 

Unions fear that the rights workers lost during the deepest recession in a developed postwar economy will now remain compromised in the name of growth.

The leftwing Syriza party, which came to power in 2015 vowing to end austerity, restored collective wage bargaining this year, but introduced new conditions.

“Employers had to prove they represent more than 50 percent of a given industry in order to sit down and negotiate wages for that industry,” says Yannis Tasioulas, head of the construction workers’ union, who spoke to Al Jazeera at the protest. “If they didn’t prove this, no collective wage bargaining was necessary.”

He says New Democracy is further eroding employers’ obligations. “Now New Democracy is adding a clause that allows exceptions to collective wage agreements even when they are struck. An employer can declare they are bankrupt, for instance.”

Yiorgos Christophorou, head of the workers’ union at telecoms equipment Nokia, describes the cumulative effect of these reforms.

There are fewer wage agreements in the telecoms sector – there used to be five or six, now there’s one,” he says. “Exceptions to wage agreements essentially means everyone can create their own economic zone.”

Like Syriza, New Democracy has vowed to end austerity. Unlike Syriza, it is not attempting this by confronting Eurozone members, who own two thirds of Greek debt and largely set its economic reforms.

Instead, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has promised to double current growth rates to four percent by lowering taxes and stimulating the economy. A key promise is to lower workers’ social security costs from 20 percent of income to 15 percent.

“Over-regulation and asphyxiating oversight in the name of worker protection actually produces the opposite result,” Mitsotakis told the Thessaloniki International Fair this month. “The marketplace reacts by making working conditions over-eleastic… by moving workers to a black labour market or under-reporting their hours.”

Mitsotakis has promised to come down hard on employers who don’t pay their workers’ full social security costs and protect workers’ rights. But unions believe that should be their job, not the government’s.

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