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.

Monday, 28 July 2014

The struggle against water privatisation: Victory for Greek union and social movements.

Proposals to privatise the water company in Thessaloniki/Greece were overwhelmingly rejected in a referendum on 18 May 2014 with 98 per cent of votes against. In this guest post, his third contribution focusing on the privatisation of water, EPSU's Jan Willem Goudriaan gives an update of the struggle of Greek workers against the austerity policies imposed upon them.

Sometimes you get an email that really makes your day. Monday 30 June the President of the trade union of the Thessaloniki Water Workers informed us of the stunning victory they had achieved. He just came from the annual ordinary meeting of the General Assembly of EYATH, the Thessaloniki Water Company. There it was announced that the Greek privatisation agency HRADF (also known as TAIPED) will shelve the privatisation of the Greek water companies. It was a formal confirmation of what many expected after the double whammy of local referendum and the verdict of the Greek State Council. And a crushing defeat for the Greek government and Eurozone President Dutch Finance Minister Dijsselbloem.

Resistance in action...

Previously I wrote about the local referendum that the water and social movement in Thessaloniki would be organising to prevent the privatisation of their Water and Sewage company EYATH. Spearheaded by the union of water workers and the Greek water movement it received the support of a broad range of groups going from the archbischop to the mayors of the municipalities that constitute Thessaloniki.  The date of the referendum was announced at the same day as the public hearing on the European Citizens Initiative Right2Water in the European Parliament on 17 February 2014. The date was set for 18 May and would coincide with the Greek municipal elections and just one week before the European elections. The organisers of the referendum were going to ask a simple question: Do you agree or not with the privatisation of EYATH ? EPSU supported it as did many other European groups such as the activisits of the Berlin and Italian water movements, who had shared their experience with organising referenda with the Thessaloniki groups in the run up to the referendum.

---facing up to repression...

It was foreseen that the ballot boxes would be placed in the polling stations, mainly schools. But on the eve of the referendum, the Greek authorities represented by the Minister of the Interior sought to prevent the referendum at the last moment. It was argued that it was illegal to hold the referendum on the premises of the places where the Greek municipal elections were being held on the same day. Another objection was that the organisers would use the electoral register to ensure people were entitled to vote, although this had been agreed with the mayors. The organisers were threatened with police arrests if they would continue.

with a role for international solidarity...

This transformed the role of an international delegation of observers. This group was organised by EPSU and included trade union and other representatives from Bulgaria, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden. It would visit polling stations, report on possible irregulatities and in general monitor if all was going correctly. The group was a mix of national staff and work place representatives of EPSU affiliates as well as a more seasoned observers with experience in monitoring elections. The delegation now found itself in the middle of a media storm. The government attempted to surpress a popular cause which it was bound to lose. The delegation spoke out against the action of the government. The lines of communication were short and EPSU drew attention of European media to what possibly could be forceful repression. EPSU affiliated unions started a social media action in support of the referendum. Last minute and frantic meetings were held with the mayors to consider what could be done in Thessaloniki. It was decided that the organisers could set up the boxes for the vote outside of the polling stations on the public pavements. The municipal citizens' register would be used to ensure people were entitled to vote. It overlaps largely with the electoral register. The next challenge was to get more than 1000 volunteers to staff the polling stations. There were fears that the threat of police arrest would deter people from assisting. This turned out to be unfounded and all polling stations were run by several people.

What happened next was a sign of the defiance and opposition by the Thessaloniki people. Almost 220.000 people took the time to cast a vote to give their view on the future of their water company. This was almost 1/2 of the total number of people that were entitled to vote in the local elections. And their verdict was clear. Very clear. 98 per cent voted NO: we do not want the privatisation of the company. EPSU invited the President of the local union to the EPSU Congress 22 May 2014 in Toulouse. Our colleague Yiorgos explained to a packed conference hall how they had achieved the victory and he thanked EPSU receiving a standing ovation for the courage and determination he and his colleagues had shown. The local union has about 350 members and all recognised what a challenge this had been for the workers.  EPSU unions organising workers in the main companies of the two consortia that were bidding for the Thessaloniki shares passed the message that they expected their companies to respect the results of the referendum.

And then the next blow to the Troika project to sell public companies to the private sector...

The second whammy was the verdict of the Greek Council of State. This verdict came a week after the referendum on 25 May 2014 The Council ruled that the privatisation of the Athens Water Supply and Sewerage (EYDAP) company was illegal. The transfer of a 34.03 percent stake in EYDAP from the Greek state to the Hellenic Republic Asset Development Fund (HRADF) was blocked. The verdict followed a petition by people in Athens. According to an article in the publication Marcopolis (27/5) the Court judged that the constitution was violated according to which the state has the responsibility to care for the health of citizens and guarantee the right to health protection. EYDAP services are a monopoly offered to a large number of citizens through a network which is unique in the Attica region and is part of the company’s assets. Such water and sewerage services are required for healthy living, particularly drinking water, which is deemed a natural good necessary for survival, according to the ruling. It continued that the privatisation might fail to ensure that the company could continue to supply affordable and high quality services when it is not under public scrutiny. This echoes arguments of the Right2Water Campaign and a large body of research build up by PSIRU of the University of Greenwich over the years.  The privatisation agency itself stated the ruling creates a new situation on the issue of privatization of the water companies. The HRADF, respecting the legal institutions, but also the reactions of the local community was to consider what to do next.

These two events, on the one hand the popular vote on a concrete case of privatisation of public services and on the other hand the verdict of the State Council underline the bankruptcy of the Troika project executed by the coalition government of the conservative party Nea Demokratia (part of the European People's Party) and Pasok, the now almost defunct social-democratic party (member of the European Socialist Party) after many of its members and supporters defected and have joined the ranks of other parties, most notably Syriza. The government had hoped to collect several hundreds of millions of Euro with the sale of the shares in a move which was welcomed by the Dutch Finance Minister and President of the Eurozone Jeroen Dijsselbloem in December 2013. Progress with the programme of privatisation was seen as one of the milestones against which the Greek government's performance would be judged to provide it with another tranche of funding. Will the government now come with new proposals ?

The Thessaloniki fight is part of a broader struggle - the privatisation of the electricity company PPC

It will not be so evident for the government to come with new plans. It has also run into problems with the privatisation of the Public Power Company PPC, the Greek electricity company. The unions organised in GENOP-DEH have over several years fought against the privatisation of the company and opposed the introduction of extra taxes via the electricity bill. Its leaders have been arrested. The union was ready to ward off the latest attempt to privatise the company by the government. It called for a 48h strike as a Parliament Committee was considering the sell-off on Wednesday 2 July and indicated it was prepared to organise further strikes. For fear of disrupting the tourist season the government sought to prevent the strike and then ordered the workers back to work. Laws dating back to the days of the Junta were used for this. The governmental printing house worked during the night to be able to issue all workers with the order to come back to work. The civil mobilisation has been used in the case of teachers, seafarers and transport workers, with the government claiming national emergencies. But a former trade union leader Nikos Fotopoulos stated: “Without us, the cogs will not turn. Without us, there is no electrical power" and he urged PPC employees to “tear up” the back-to-work orders

This struggle will continue as the union executive made known in a statement on ending the strikes on Sunday 6 July. "We are requisitioned but not defeated and will fight on in others ways." One of these actions will be pursued in the Greek Parliament. Syriza the main opposition party has called for a referendum to be organised on the issue of the privatisation of the electricity company. To do this, the party needs the support of 2/5 of the MPss or 120 to put a referendum on the agenda and it then needs 3/5 of MPs or 180 to demand the President to organise the referendum. Based on reports from the Greek press this might be possible as the government parties only hold a very slim majority. Syriza has also pledged to turn such decisions around when it comes to power in a warning to investors that public utilities are not ordinary assets. And to allow governments and municipalities to change such decisions EPSU and many other organisations are deadset against including the so-called Investor State Dispute Settlement procedure in the new generation of free trade agreements like those between the EU and Canada (CETA) or between the EU and the US (TTIP). That procedure would allow a foreign company to sue a municipality if it was to reverse a privatisation decision for the loss of (potential) profits in a arbitration court outside of the jurisdiction of the country of the municipality. The claims against a local authority could be huge.

....and a wave of action in July 2014T

The PPC union organised a rally against the mobilisation and was joined by members of ADEDY the Greek union organising workers in local and national administration as well as in hospitals, 9 July.  They had been out on strike that day against the forced dismissal of several hundred workers, also part of the Greek government's austerity plans.

Portuguese workers were organising rallies 10 July over pay, pensions and working hours, demanding an end to the government imposed measures. And interestingly further strikes and actions took place on 10 July as in the UK over a million public workers held a one day strike. Local government workers, teachers, firefighters and public administration workers organised in the FBU, GMB, NIPSA, PCS, Unison and Unite union came out to strike with pickets and rallies across the country. The Cameron government was refusing to negotiate over pay increases despite the fact that many workers in public services had lost 20 per cent in purchasing power due to the pay freezes imposed as part of austerity measures. The firefighters were asked to accept cuts in pensions with higher contributions as well as later retirement, working longer for lower pensions. The firefighters continued their actions with further strikes that started on 14 July and which received support by EPSU and unions across Europe and beyond.  The vindictive Prime Minister Cameron retaliated against the striking public service workers, which includes hundred thousands mainly women with low pay and wages below the living wage. He is seeking to make it even more complex and difficult for public service workers to hold strikes by arguing that the threshold for approval of industrial action should be raised to 50 per cent of the members that have to approve an action. None of the UK Tory MEPs received that level of support in the European elections of 2014.  And his spokesperson said that strikes of public service workers should be prevented all together. And as if to underline that the right to strike is in danger across austerity Europe, Spanish unions organised their actions in defense of the right to strike also on 10 July.

15 July and the election of Juncker - change to come?

This July is turning out to be a very interesting one. Jean-Claude Juncker, the former Luxembourg prime-minister and head of the Eurozone was elected to be the next President of the Commission. In his speech he said that “it is unacceptable to me that workers and retired people had to shoulder the burden of structural reform programmes, while shipowners and financial speculators became even richer. In the future, we need a more democractically legitimate replacement for the Troika, and thorough social impact assessments for any new support programme.” I like to believe him. His tests will come quickly though. Just some issues related to the Greek water struggle: On the same day as Juncker was elected the Greek government definitely confirmed it would not privatise the water companies. But it is said that the officials of the Troika are not happy about this.  As the government misses so-called milestones on the basis of which progress is judged with the structural reform agenda and which would lead to further funding being made available to Greece. Will Juncker call the dogs off? 

Another test will be what the Commission President will do with the ECI Right2Water. He has supported it. Will he now instruct the Commission services to introduce the necessary legislation to implement the human right to water and sanitation? And a third test will be on the content and transparency of the negotiations on CETA and TTIP. Will he publish the CETA documents? Will he remove the ISDS procedure? Chances are yes, based on what he has said in his speech to the European Parliament, the massive number of responses received to an EU public consultation on ISDS and the pressure of a new ECI to stop TTIP. Will it be a fundamental shift? Unlikely! He was clear that he does support the transatlantic trade and investment partnership. He has said that he does not believe in deficits and debts and last but not least: he does come from the conservative party.

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