The purpose of this blog is to provide analytical commentary on formal and informal labour organisations and their attempts to resist ever more brutal forms of exploitation in today’s neo-liberal, global capitalism.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Contentious strategies and union revitalization: the Hellenic Halyvourgia Strike

Greece is the country, which suffers one of the worst neo-liberal attacks in Europe (see The Imposition of Austerity). And yet, Greek workers have not given up. They continue to challenge and resist capitalist restructuring. In this guest post, Giorgos Bithymitris from the Panteion University of Social and Political Sciences in Athens discusses how steel workers at Hellenic Halyvourgia have not only been able to sustain a long strike, but also succeeded in providing encouragement for Greek workers more generally.

The strike of Hellenic Halyvourgia (H.H.) Union at Aspropyrgos plant has already been recorded as the longest strike of post-dictatorial Greece (it counts so far 269 days). The previous most emblematic strike action of Greek unionism was taken in 1978 by the same union at the same plant. The context though was quite different: Greek industrial relations system was shifting from a prolonged authoritarian model to a more democratic collective bargaining system, with unions being at the forefront of people’s struggle for democratization and social justice. The collapse of the dictatorship a few years earlier (1974) allowed the predominance of a militant, class-oriented unionism, the actions of which were mainly located at concentrated, protected economic units.

The present socio-economic context bears little resemblance if any. After two decades of growth the Greek economy has entered an unprecedented vicious circle of recession. Governments’ austerity measures have also contributed to a violent dislocation of employment relations, challenging the foundations of the free collective negotiation framework, while the social impact of the crisis – unemployment, health impoverishment, education cuts, mass poverty, homelessness - has been severe. For example, the official unemployment rate for the first three months of 2012 is 22.6 per cent, with the Institute of Labor (GSEE) predicting a staggering 24 per cent by the end of the year. Besides, it is not only the economic structure that alters the current context of collective action. The adjustment of the majority of Greek trade unions to the premises of social partnership during the Europeanization era, coupled with an ongoing union bureaucratization, undermined their mobilization potential, alienated their rank-and-file and led to a representation crisis vis-à-vis the individualization and fragmentation of the workforce.

Such was the situation on 31 October 2011, when 353 steel workers of the main plant of Hellenic Halyvourgia (H.H.) – one out of three bigger exporting steel industries in Greece – voted for sit-down strike against management’s intention to impose wage cuts and dismissals. The employer side proposed that workers should work for five hours a day, as the production from a full eight-hour shift at both plants Aspropyrgos and Volos ‘could not be absorbed’ (Kousta, 2012). The union at Aspropyrgos plant called immediately a general assembly, proposed continuing strike action until the employer withdraws his claims and convinced a great majority of steelworkers to vote for strike.

After seven months of relentless strike action, 18 assemblies and election of a new union board (May 2012), 80 per cent of employees continue to be firmly committed to the strike (among them as primus inter pares the union president - an exemplary figure of H.H. with undisputed working ethos and a radical political stance). The opposition who accuses the union leadership for “strike obsession” and political affiliation (notably to the Communist Party of Greece-KKE) represents approximately 20 per cent of employees. Part of the union opposition, supported by the employer, has formed the forefront of anti-strike efforts against the picket lines of the strikers. Alongside its extensive coverage in the media, this core ranging from 30 to 50 employees (mainly executives, supervisors, clerks and a few workers) has proved to be the generator of the counter-discourse, which has legitimized the extended police coercive violence against the strikers in the name of “the right to work” quote by the Greek prime minister A. Samaras.

Regardless of the final outcome, the case of H.H. Union represents a case par excellence of contentious unionism, the strategic choices of which have already been revitalizing Greek trade unions more generally. The H.H. strike is based on a record of 18 general assemblies, in which membership confirmed, adjusted, or challenged leadership’s intentions. Dozens of collective actions, ranging from demonstrations, campaigns and concerts, to meetings with government and political parties, were constantly renewing the commitment of H.H. steelworkers. The rank and file participation, the cornerstone of a revitalizing strategy, was achieved through appropriate organizational patterns that the union formed (Solidarity Committee, Unemployed Committee, Women Committee). This social movement orientation utilized the broader sense of injustice and generated a unique solidarity wave towards the H.H. strikers: hundreds of unions, contributed with money, food, supplies, or supportive announcements. During the numerous protests of Greek employees against austerity measures a slogan echoes firmly the diffusion of solidarity: “Let’s turn Greece into an H.H.” International solidarity was not less important either: more than one hundred unions and organizations from all over the world, declared their solidarity with the H.H. steelworkers.

Two interrelated aspects should be highlighted as the main explanatory factors of this labour upsurge: the collective identities which are forged while a widespread sense of injustice is growing and the issue of agency. As the case of other plants of H.H. have shown, the challenging of employers’ demands should not be taken for granted. At Aspropyrgos plant, the co-existence of a popular organizational leader with a radical collective leadership constituted by activists and unionists from other unions (mainly affiliated to PAME, a communist-led union front) broadened the “reservoirs” of militancy and activism and resulted in a typical “outsider-within” case of leadership. A coherent contentious strategy with revitalizing effects could hardly be attainable without these certain leadership qualities. 

To sum up, the fundamental renewal success of H.H. strikers is that they managed to imagine themselves as leading actors whose actions are not indifferent to them and others. H.H. Union and its radical leadership re-invented the union’s role as a “sword of justice” and thus occupied a pivotal status at the collective imaginary of Greek people.  Considering the volume of recent state strikebreaking coercion in front of the H.H. plant, this struggle concerns a broader range of economic and political elites too.  In addition to the H.H. strike, other intensive strike events have also emerged in telecommunications, the metal industry, recycling industry, etc., not unrelated to the H.H. struggle. A “silent” majority of employees in the private sector have chosen to accept wage cuts without taking industrial action. Clearly, the activation of worker consciousness during times of economic hardship is a complex and multi-factor issue. Nevertheless, the workers at H.H. have shown that resistance to capitalist restructuring and austerity is possible.

Dr. Giorgos Bithymitris,
25 July 2012

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