Greek university workers' five week strike

Submitted by Matthew on 16 October, 2013 - 12:41

After closing the state broadcaster ERT, laying off thousands of workers, putting the padlock in hospitals and other public services, the Greek government now plans to sack about 1,700 university administrators.

The government faces a budget gap in higher education. They want to find a 33% cut and have decided workers must pay. The workers will all be sacked if they cannot first be redeployed (which, given the extent of the cuts, looks unlikely).

Administrative workers at eight Greek universities in all the main cities have been on strike for five consecutive weeks. The government plans are part of broader attacks on the Greek public sector, which aim at redeploying or sacking 25,000 public sector workers by the end of December. By the end of 2014, the government wants to have eliminated 150,000 jobs in the public sector.

These measures will render Greece’s universities effectively dysfunctional. According to the newspaper Eleftherotypia, layoffs at the University of Athens the layoffs will amount to 37.2% of non-teaching staff, making the number of students per non-teaching staff member more than six times higher than that of an equivalent British university.

The last four weeks have also seen university senates voting to shut down operations. In response, the Minister of Education filed a suit with Greece’s Supreme Court, charging the rectors of those universities with misconduct. The Ministry has also filed suits with local prosecutors to force university authorities to comply with government policy by submitting the lists of staff that are to go into redeployment. So far, university authorities have refused to do so, and rectors have launched a legal challenge.

The strike shows that, in principle, continuous and lengthy strikes can be done. This strike was in fact the only way to prevent the announcement of the staff lined up to be sacked. Without that list the government cannot proceed.

In response to a government request to identify surplus staff, university authorities identified a lack of human resources (even with today’s degraded operation of universities and based on the criteria proposed by the Ministry). The government then proceeded to “re- establish an evaluation commission”, which, unsurprisingly, identified the need for thousands of redundancies from all universities.

Hence the admin workers in the universities of Athens, Patras, Thessaloniki, Ioannina, Crete, Thessaly and the National Technical University of Athens, with the support of the majority of lecturers and students, continue to protect public, free higher education. Rectors have had to suspend the operation of these universities, as it is obvious that they will not be able to function without the administrative and support staff. For example, the National Technical University of Athens is set to lose 45 % of its admin staff.

The sacking of admin staff will pave the way for the privatisation of university education, further orientation to business, and commercialisation.

Whole sectors are to be dismantled, with the abolition of all positions in every university. For example, all night guards and caretakers are to be pushed out. This will open the door to private security companies. This follows the subcontracting of university cleaning services during the last few years, leading to dramatic reductions in wages and worsening conditions for cleaners, an increase in the cleaning budget of the universities, and a substandard service.

Libraries have been hard hit at two major universities — University of Athens and Aristotle of Thessaloniki. Private companies are ready to take over the running of libraries but will cherry-pick those where they can make a profit.

Neither the use of private companies nor subcontracting are “news” for the higher education sector. They have both been invading universities establishments since 1997. But now we will see the transfer of almost all the work and services of universities to private companies and outsourcing.

Sacked university admin workers will try to be re-hired by the private, subsidised sub-contractors. Their salary will not exceed €500, their jobs will be non-unionised their rights non-existent.

Cuts will also mean hikes in undergraduate tuition fees. The business-orientated university, where the right to study is directly linked to the parent’s income, will be a reality.

The Education Minister announced this week that he will provide interest-free loans to students!

During the memorandum years, funding for higher education has been reduced by 52.5 % which is more than twice the shrinking of the Greek economy (25%). The crisis is pushing through the disappearance of public education.

The “symbolic” shutdown of the universities by the rectors was really a way to apply pressure on the government to distribute already-approved resources from the EU Funds for Cohesion (EPSA), money they wanted to spend on restructuring the universities. €1 million for the Panteion and €1.5 million for the University of Crete had been allocated. This would enable the state to withdraw from its obligation to fund universities and public education, reduce budgets by up to 40%, make irrelevant Article 16 of the constitution (which prohibits private universities) and impose tuition fees. In effect the privatised, entrepreneurial university is already here!

By the end of the year the government will reveal new structures for the 36 universities and polytechnics which will involve merging or closing down whole university departments. Former Education Minister Anna Diamantopoulou has said there should be one university per region and a reduction in student admissions by 30% by 2015.

This is connected with high school reforms and the imposition of further exams and greater competition to get to university. New barriers to working-class youth, fewer students, less lecturers and administrative staff — this is the memorandum vision of education. An undereducated workforce which will be compliant and prepared to oscillate between unemployment and absolute destitution and zero contracts with zero rights jobs — that is what they want.

In most universities, striking admin workers have coordinated well with the rest of the university community (students and lecturers’ unions) as well as rank-and-file trade unions from the wider public sector. They have elected a strike committee to take charge of the organisation of the strike, its defence, and transmitting information.

In the last meeting of the admin workers in the University of Athens it was decided to create a strike fund, to issue an invitation for coordination of the struggle to all public sector workers, organise the closing of roads, organise a welcome and information event at students’ fresher fairs, organise an anti-fascist demo, a rally, and a concert.

The attitude of the rectors and the university authorities is hypocritical; they are issuing vague statements of support for the admin workers’ struggle while declaring that the university’s duty “is to remain open and running.”

The striking workers and the student movement must rely on their own strength, putting every possible pressure on senates of universities to support their struggle. On the other hand, the student movement is not in the best condition. Despite some of the student assemblies’ decisions for occupations and attempts to coordinate struggles with the admin workers, the majority of assemblies and demonstrations are relatively small.

Greek teachers and public sector workers have taken action but have now retreated. In this situation it is vital university admin workers maintain their forces. The strike must be directed politically and demand the overthrow of the government and its politics. A decisive answer can be given only by the coordination of struggle by the admin workers, lecturers, university students — throughout the university community. But it is essential for the high school teachers and the primary school teachers as well as the council workers and the health workers to review the suspension of their recent strikes and add their valuable forces to avoid losing public services altogether.

The resurgence of a combative working-class movement in both the public and private sector could initiate a general lasting strike in opposition to the inertia of the unions. After dozens of general strikes and militant sectorial struggles from the beginning of the crisis, a large chunk of workers have reached the correct conclusion that under the conditions of deep crisis of capitalism, where the living conditions of the working class are challenged hard, sectoral strikes (no matter how militant or heroic) are unlikely to have significant effects. Any gains will be fragile, and there is no guarantee that they will last even for months.

Lasting victories can only be won in the political field. The slogan for a general political strike has recently won significant support in the labour movement.

But the impact of successive defeats makes it extremely unlikely workers will spontaneously start a general strike. The left and the rank-and-file trade unions have an even more important role to play.

The vast majority of workers and the unemployed are looking to Syriza as their political leadership, and expect an action plan and a program of workers’ power. The leadership of Syriza should openly acknowledge the need for a continuous general political strike and organise for it, starting with the federations and unions where the left has the majority. The members and supporters of Syriza should put resolutions to their workplaces, calling for a serious preparation of such mobilisation. In each neighbourhood, a committee of struggle should be formed in order to rally youth and the unemployed.

At the same time there needs to be the necessary criticism of the Syriza leadership . Their passive support of the protests has proven hopeless; Syriza should now be determined to launch a truly “uncompromised” struggle both in the political and in the trade union community field until the fall of this hated government.

One image of the future of higher education in Greece comes from the School of Fine Arts in Florina, where no student has been able to enrol this semester. Not because of mobilisations and a university shutdown, but because there is a shortage of university lecturers and therefore courses cannot be run. The militancy of the mobilizations of the administrative university workers provide us with a golden opportunity: to link the struggles of all the affected areas of the public and the private sector. Then we will have a serious chance of success.

The realities that concern us — that define the lives of the many, the working class, the poor popular strata, the youth, the migrants — are constantly getting worse.

The political leaders of the left need to prepare together with the militant rank and file unions a well-organised general strike to overthrow the government and establish a government of the left with a clear socialist program.

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