European labor leaders are urging European leaders to recognize that the election of the new Greek government in January was a popular rejection of the austerity measures imposed on Greece by its lenders and to give Greece some breathing space as the country’s newly elected government led by Syriza, the Coalition of the Radical Left, tries to carry out its popular mandate to end the austerity measures that have shattered the Greek economy and caused widespread misery.
“The people of Greece have taken a democratic decision that five years of austerity, of hardship and of pain have failed, and they have chosen a new path,” said Oliver Roethig, a regional secretary for UNI Global Union, an international federation of 900 unions representing 20 million workers in the skills and services industries. . . . “Greece must be given time and space to obtain the financial means to fairly negotiate its debt. A program bridge until June this year is the best pathway to achieving this.”
“The new Greek Government must be given time to put in place new policies,” said Bernadette Ségol, general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation. “It is vital for Europe’s democracy that the Greek people’s clearly expressed wish for an end to austerity is respected.”
Greece in 2010 was forced to implement austerity measures in return for €240 billion in loans to deal with a financial crisis that began when foreign lenders started calling in loans owed by Greek investors.
The austerity measures included a reduction of public spending, lower pensions, cutbacks in public health and health care, and new labor laws that weakened unions and collective bargaining.
These measures were supposed to improve the Greek economy, but since 2010 the Greek gross domestic product has shrunk by 25 percent, the unemployment rate increased to 25 percent (50 percent among the youth), national income is down 21 percent, health and human services have been drastically reduced, and one-third of the population lives in poverty.
Hundreds of thousands of Greek workers have lost their jobs, homes, and access to health care.
Much of the€240 billion that was lent to Greece has been used to pay foreign lenders.
The Syriza-led Greek government wants to restructure the loans so that it can use some of the money being siphoned off to foreign banks to restore basic health and human services and make public investments that can revive the Greek economy.
Greece’s lenders appear to be willing to offer some debt relief, but they are demanding that Greece adhere to the austerity measures imposed by the European Union, the European Central Bank, and the World Bank, or the troika as they have come to be known, as a condition for receiving the loans.
On February 16, European finance ministers demanded that Greece submit by February 20 a proposal for extending the loans that come due on February 28 and that the proposal must pledge that the Greek government will continue to enforce the troika’s austerity measures.
Greece’s Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis said that Greece would not accept such an ultimatum. The new Greek government, said Varoufakis, has drawn a red line that will not be crossed. That red line prevents Greece from returning to the austerity policies of the troika and the old government.
On February 18, Greek Prime Minister Alex Tsipras in a speech to Parliament said that Greece would submit a proposal for extending the loans but do so on its own terms.
Tsipras in the same speech pledged to “end the medieval regulation of the labor market created by the troika to serve the interests of the oligarchs.”
Those regulations have crippled unions and eliminated collective bargaining.
Tsipras has said that strong unions and real collective bargaining are essential to building a prosperous and sustainable economy that can reverse the effects of austerity.
While European leaders continue to pressure Greece to maintain the troika-imposed austerity measures, unions throughout Europe have been expressing support for the Greek government’s stance against austerity.
At a February 15 Solidarity with Greece rally attended by more than 3,000 people in London, Billy Hayes speaking for the British Trades Union Council (TUC) said that, “The TUC both in this country and internationally, has said this: the international financial institutions and European authorities need to respect the voice of the Greek people.”
In Germany where national leaders have taken the hardest line against Greece, union leaders and others have signed a declaration of solidarity with the new Greek government authored by Riner Hoffmann, president of the German Trade Union Federation (DBG, its German acronym).
“Serious negotiations with the new Greek government must get under way, without any attempts at blackmail, in order to open up economic and social prospects for the country beyond the failed austerity policy,” reads Hoffmann’s declaration.
“Anyone who now demands that the country simply continue along the previous, so-called ‘path to reform’ is in fact denying the Greek people the right to a democratically legitimized change of policy in their country,” continues Hoffmann.
In his statement, Hoffmann called for an end to all European austerity policies that have led to anemic economic growth since the Great Recession of 2008.
“The European project will not be furthered by austerity dictates but only by a bottom-up democratic initiative in favor of economic regeneration and greater social justice,” said Hoffmann. “This initiative must be supported now in the interests of the Greek people. At the same time, it will help to kick-start the process of policy change across Europe as a whole. The political upheaval in Greece must be turned into an opportunity to establish a democratic and social Europe!”