By Panos Petrou
The resistance to austerity and social crisis in Greece has united behind a workers’ occupation of the state TV and radio station ERT after the government — for the first time since Greece was ruled by a military junta–tried to shut down the broadcaster. For more than a week, thousands of people have gathered on the grounds of the ERT headquarters to defend the occupiers from an assault by riot police.
The ERT occupation and the solidarity movement defending it represents the strongest challenge yet to the government of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras of the center-right New Democracy party. New Democracy won a very narrow victory in two national elections a year ago over the Coalition of the Radical Left, or SYRIZA. It leads a coalition government that has included PASOK, the main center-left party in Greece, and the smaller center-left Democratic Left. Samaras and his regime have continued to push through austerity measures demanded by the “troika”–the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund–in return for a “rescue” of Greece’s financial system.
Panos Petrou, a member of the Greek socialist organization Internationalist Workers Left (DEA), one of the groups that co-founded SYRIZA in 2004, explains how the ERT occupation has shifted the political situation in Greece–and created new opportunities for the left.
Image: Supporters of the ERT workers’ occupation rally outside the headquarters in Athens (Panos Petrou)
LAST NOVEMBER, a 48-hour general strike and mass demonstrations outside the parliament in Athens failed to prevent the signing of yet another round of austerity measures. Since then, the leaderships of the main union federations practically withdrew from organizing any struggle.
Many activists were demoralized at some level. They had used strikes and demonstrations over a period of three years, they used the ballot box in May and June 2012 to give the Coalition of the Radical Left, or SYRIZA, more than a quarter of the vote, they returned to the streets in November, and yet waves of austerity policies continue to crash down on their lives.
Many comrades in SYRIZA concluded that people are desperate and aren’t willing to fight anymore. The leadership of SYRIZA adapted a tactic of waiting for the government to fall under the weight of its own contradictions, focusing on parliamentary tactics in order to maneuver for an electoral victory when the time comes.
All these factors were reasons for a relative downturn in the struggle in Greece, at least in comparison with the militancy we witnessed the previous years.
Of course, there were important struggles during the months that followed last November. Workers in many sectors tried to organize militant and ongoing strikes–transport workers, shipworkers, government workers, teachers–but they all faced an escalating authoritarianism.
In a matter of just a few months, Samaras used a government back-to-work order–an extreme measure used just three times since the fall of the military junta in 1974–in all four cases to break these strikes. In the last case, when the teachers union announced its decision to go on strike during national exams, Samaras took an unprecedented step for authoritarianism: He ordered union members back to work pre-emptively, leading the union to call off the strike.
These successful uses of government power against strikes has created the image that Samaras is a strong leader who is moving forward. Meanwhile, a barrage of media propaganda about the supposed accomplishments of the government added to the picture. The prime minister and his allies are claiming that they are presiding over a “success story.”
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IT WAS against this backdrop that Samaras decided to shut down ERT, the state-run television and radio broadcast. This unprecedented decision–no civilian government has ever shut down the state TV station–was the result of overconfidence. Samaras believed his own myth that he could crush the working-class movement and apply any policy he wanted without fear of serious resistance.
The closure was also the result of constant pressure from the troika. The government had pledged to fire 2.000 public-sector employees in a month, and since it had failed to meet this pledge, it thought the easy way to do so was to shut down ERT, firing 2.600 workers in a single move. Since ERT has been constantly targeted by the private media barons as a place of wastefulness and corruption, the government apparently thought the shutdown would be a popular decision.
This mixture of arrogance and outside pressure led to the move that would turn the whole situation upside down in Greece.
On Tuesday, June 11, the government announced that ERT would stop broadcasting at 11 p.m. And so it happened–anyone watching ERT that night saw their screen go blank, and anyone listening to an ERT radio station suddenly heard silence.
The sudden shutdown of the state TV station was a shock to large numbers of people. Anger against authoritarianism had been building some time now, expressed by a popular slogan: “Bread, education, freedom [the slogan of the 1973 uprising against the military dictatorship]–the junta didn’t end in 1973.”
At the same time, the Greek people enduring austerity have been looking for a chance to fight back during this whole time–for a “spark” that could start the fire. Those two factors came together in the powerful popular response to the shutdown of ERT, which quickly became a symbol of resistance.
Workers at ERT decided to occupy the ERT building and continue broadcasting their own program, while demanding the immediate withdrawal of the law that shuts down the station and laid off thousands of employees. They organized marshals to defend the occupation and cleaning groups, and they used the signal of ERT to send a message of resistance to all the people.
The riot police were sent to other buildings, where the transmitters are located, and shut down the signal from ERT. But dozens of websites started broadcasting the strikers’ program. With the occupied ERT broadcasting “illegally,” the parallel with the 1973 uprising against the junta–which started when students barricaded themselves in the Polytechnic and started broadcasting from a pirate radio station–was complete.
Starting around midnight on June 11, thousands of people flooded into the grounds of the occupied building in Athens in order to prevent an invasion of the riot police. Since then, every day, all day and night, people have been demonstrating outside ERT.
Anti-government slogans are raised. The speakers of the occupied building play popular left-wing songs from the 1970s, anthems from the anti-Nazi resistance of the 1940s and the Italian partisan song “Bella Ciao.” Dozens of bands and artists have volunteered to play in solidarity concerts in the yard of the ERT building, along with the ERT orchestras that perform concerts for the people gathered around the building.
On the grounds, it looks like the bitter lessons were learned from the struggle against the government strike-break this year, when there was a lack of organized solidarity–plus there is the expertise learned from the “squares movement” in spring 2011. There is a massive physical presence to defend the strikers and the occupied building against the police, co-existing with outdoor assemblies, large discussions, collective kitchens and so on.
Of course, the center of the struggle is Athens, but the picture is the same in Thessaloniki, in the occupied building of the local ET3, which broadcasts programs about social struggles, or in any town there is an occupied ERT radio station that tries to continue broadcasting.
The issue of ERT had become a focal point of the struggle. Dozens and dozens of solidarity statements have been issued by unions and are read out at the occupied building. The shutdown was so provocative that even mainstream international media declared their solidarity with ERT–some French newspapers, for example, published with black front pages. Support demonstrations have been organized in London, Paris and other European cities.
There have also been solidarity strike actions. Under enormous pressure, leaders of the two major union confederations were forced to declare a 24-hour general strike on Thursday, June 13. The strike demonstration was called for outside ERT, instead of the traditional route to Syntagma Square in front of parliament, so tens of thousands of people were gathered outside the occupation. Media workers were on an indefinite strike for days, allowing only the broadcasting of the ERT program.
Many media barons organized scab operations and managed to publish their newspapers. As a response, striking journalists published the union’s strike issue–a tactic used for the first time during a strike in 1975.
The most spectacular aspect, outside of the occupation in Athens, has been the unity in action among all the left-wing forces. There were thousands of demonstrators in the yard, but the heart of the mobilization was left-wing activists.
For the first time in years, you could see the party flags of SYRIZA and ANTARSYA, of the Communist Party-affiliated unions and of the anarcho-syndicalists and anti-authoritarians, waving side by side. Members of SYRIZA, ANTARSYA, the Communist Party and the anarchist movement were standing shoulder to shoulder to protect the occupation.
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THE OCCUPATION and protests have caused a huge crisis for the government.
First, PASOK and then the Democratic Left (DIMAR) publicly disagreed with Samaras’ handling of the situation, and after three meetings among party leaders, DIMAR decided to pull out of the coalition government.
DIMAR had served as merely a left fig leaf for the coalition government, but now it was left without even that fig leaf. New Democracy and PASOK remain united in government, discussing the details of a coming reshuffle of the cabinet and a new agreement on political program. On the question of ERT, they seem to agree on re-launching the TV station, but in a new “reformed” format–which means the layoff of about 1.500 employees and a new national TV station that will be far worse in terms both of working conditions and of the relative independence it once enjoyed.
In fact, the Ministry of Finance has announced that the “new ERT” is about to start operating, and workers will receive compensations soon–meaning that the layoffs are a reality.
What is more worrying in the ministry’s announcement is a call for “ERT workers to evacuate the building in order for the new orders to be applied.” This implies the threat of an attack by riot police. The union representing ERT workers responded that everyone would stay inside the building, and has called for solidarity demonstrations.
Samaras seems like he will survive for now. PASOK leader Evangelos Venizelos has declared that political and government stability is his top priority. DIMAR members seem dissatisfied with leaving the government–the official position of the Democratic Left will likely be critical support for the parliamentary majority.
But no matter what the party leaderships decide, it’s obvious that the government is now in a deep crisis, after just one year in office.
The battle of ERT is not yet finished. We can’t predict the final outcome, but it was definitely a devastating blow to Samaras. The image of the all-powerful prime minister and his “success story” was overcome by the government’s crisis, the demonstrations outside ERT and the international outrage about the shutdown.
When he faced a serious challenge from below, Samaras proved what he really is: the leader of the hardline right faction of New Democracy, unable to control the coalition or even his own party–there are rumors about sections of ND that question Samaras’ ability to lead and are discussing the possibility of replacing him–without conflicts. ERT was the event needed to prove that the goal of defeating the government is a far more realistic perspective than many people thought.
But it must be clear that we should not place our hopes in parliamentary maneuvering between party leaderships. The battle of ERT had opened a new opportunity for the left to organize a social and political movement against the government. All forces and activists must be engaged in this goal.
This means campaigning in workplaces and neighborhoods, building support for the ERT and agitating for the need to generalize the struggle, organizing solidarity actions, calling for general assemblies, pressing the union federations for new general strikes, etc. Some forces are trying to organize in this direction–this must become the norm for left-wing activity.
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NO MATTER what the outcome of the battle of ERT, there are some conclusions we should keep in mind the coming weeks and months.
First, the fragility of the government will remain an issue, even if it survives this round. One reason is the economic reality. Behind the myth of its “success story” lies the true impact. The crisis is deeper than all predictions–the economy shrank by 5.6 percent in the first quarter, compared to the year before–and Greek economy had been downgraded from “developed” to “developing.”
After all the austerity measures, the government debt in 2014 will be the same it was in…2009. The effort to push through privatizations has been blocked by geopolitical antagonisms between Russian, American, European and Greek would-be “investors” who are sabotaging each other. The government will be forced to push through new, unbearable austerity measures, without offering even the promise of a “way out,” since both a balanced budget and a viable public debt look like a pipe dream right now.
Second is the example set by the battle of ERT. Any school or hospital about to be closed, any public enterprise about to be privatized, any public service facing “reform”–all now have a “model” of resistance to follow.
The battle of ERT also revealed the limits of the government’s iron-fist tactic. This may be the only viable choice left to the government, but if it cracks on one front, it will be a threat to the whole establishment. When advisors to Samaras argue for the prime minister to handle the ERT crisis as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan handled democracy protests, they should remember that thousands of activists in Greece are inspired by the Taksim Square demonstrations.
Samaras is prepared to rule “with an iron fist” in order to implement the ruling class agenda, and we must show a similar determination and dedication to militant tactics in order to bring him down, instead of hoping for a parliamentary solution some day in the future. The social forces to accomplish this goal are present.
ERT dispelled the myth that “people are tired of struggling.” The “subterranean fire” of the struggle has continued burning, and it is up to the union militants and the political left to organize it into action.
In the strikes since last November, what went wrong was the lack of such organized initiatives, not a general unwillingness to fight among the working class. The left must focus all its energy and efforts on social mobilization. Strikes, occupations, demonstrations, solidarity–this is where our strength lies.
These initiatives require unity in action if they are to be accomplished. The inspiring united front we experienced in the occupation of ERT must become a conscious, systematic political choice by the leaderships of all left groups. In the battles against privatization, in defense of public schools and hospitals, and against cuts in wages and pensions, left-wing unity in action can provide the “backbone” for sustained struggles.
Fighting shoulder to shoulder in these united fronts around immediate anti-austerity demands will help generate a frank and comradely discussion about broader issues, like our attitude towards the eurozone, the public debt and the goal of a left-wing government.
This does not imply that we need to ignore serious political issues. On the contrary, the proposal of left-wing unity in action is a first step toward addressing these issues. The direction we take is not a parliamentary calculation about winning seats, but a militant united front of the most advanced segments of the working class.
In this sense, it gives a more concrete meaning to the term “left-wing government.” This is a government that will arise out of the extra-parliamentary struggles of the working class, with its activists rooted in these struggles.
The ruling class will try its best to overcome the current political crisis. It will do so on both the parliamentary level, with efforts to reshape the party system, and the extra-parliamentary level, with a counter-offensive that has ideological, political and repressive dimensions.
Our response must be just as determined. The ruling class parties aren’t leaving on their own. We must force them to go–by any means necessary.