Strikes in Greece Civil Servants Rebel Against Austerity Measures
Greece's swollen bureaucracy is taking the hardest hits as the country struggles to fix its failing economy. Civil servants are responding with massive strikes. But critics say the country's public sector is inefficient, expensive and hopelessly overstaffed.
Kostas Papantoniou is no revolutionary, but the 59-year-old's determination to stand up and fight the Greek government has grown considerably in the last few weeks. Papantoniou, who is deputy head of the civil servants' union ADEDY, has a picture of Che Guevara hanging on the wall next to his desk. It features Che's famous slogan: "Hasta la victoria siempre" ("Until the everlasting victory").
The members of Papantoniou's union are angry. When the Greek government presented its massive savings program on Sunday, deep cuts to the country's swollen state sector were at the top of the list. State employee benefits, already targeted for a 12 percent cut in a previous plan, will be cut by a further 8 percent. Employees will also lose special payments on holidays that could amount to losses of more than 3,000 ($3,940) per year. And on top of all that is a three-year public sector hiring freeze.
Civil servants in Greece are widely seen as a privileged group. They make, on average, more than employees in the private sector, and their pensions are often generous.
Papantoniou is furious with the cuts. "We're disgusted with these measures," he says, adding that it's time to "clear up some myths." Papantoniou, who is an economics teacher by profession, fishes a sheet of paper out of his stack of files that gives a breakdown of Greece's budget. Everyone always talks about a million state employees, he says, but in reality there are only 650,000.
"Look at this list," he says. "You only get to a million if you count people who work in companies the state owns stocks in." Besides, all this talk of supposedly high salaries for bureaucrats isn't true, he says: Eighty percent of state employees make between 700 and 1,500 a month. Only the top 20 percent make between 1,500 and 4,000.
There was a special meeting of the union council on Sunday just after the government released its plans. The decision was quick: A general strike on Tuesday, in addition to the strike that was already planned for Wednesday. Schools, ministries, public hospitals and government offices will come to a standstill for 48 hours. On Wednesday, the General Confederation of Greek Workers (GSEE), an umbrella grouping of private-sector unions, will join in.
The public sector union is already trying to come up with other forms of protest. From demonstrations to street blockades, there are lots of possibilities, Papantoniou says. "We're going to be protesting constantly from now on."
European Protest Capital
Athens is already arguably the European capital of protests. In perhaps no other European metropolis are there quite so many strikes and demonstrations. Gessthimani Grafidou wants to be a part of the action. In the past, the 47-year-old elementary school principal says, she almost always took part in strikes and protests. This time around, Grafidou wants to take to the streets to publicize her loss of income. After 28 years of service, she was making 1,800 net. Then came the savings package in March, which cut her salary by 125. The upcoming cuts will probably cost her another 75 a month. Her husband, who used to work for the now-privatized Olympic Airways, is unemployed and looking for a new job. "We don't have any financial wiggle room," Grafidou says.
The country feels humiliated. "The Great Sacrifice," runs the headline in Greek newspaper Ta Nea about the cuts that the government was forced to make to acquire 110 billion in credit from the EU and the International Monetary Fund. "The Great Odyssey Begins," writes the business newspaper Kerdos.
There's hardly a Greek citizen not complaining. There's a feeling of bitterness that average citizens have to pay for the crisis while tax cheats are spared. That politicians made the mistakes that got Greece into this mess, but the people are now the suckers. That the country still spends outrageous amounts on its military. As a result of tensions with Turkey, Greece spends around 14 billion on defense annually. Even despite the cuts, it is still planning to spend 6.7 billion in 2010.
Criticism of Public Sector
There are also, however, critics of the country's expensive public sector. Yannis Stournaras is not the type to complain about his country's situation. He prefers to take a sober look at the facts and figures. The 54-year-old, who was chief economist for the government of former Prime Minister Kostas Simitis, teaches economics at the University of Athens, heads the economics institute IOBE and is the best-known independent economist in Greece.
Sometimes, Stournaras wonders about his country. Why do all the museums close early in the afternoon? Why is the island of Delos, named to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1990 and inhabited only by guards, only open until 3 p.m.? "These are foolish decisions," he says. "We're a country that depends on tourism. We should be making twice as much money on things like this."
The public sector in Greece is totally inefficient, Stournaras says, adding that Greece needs to be further deregulated. The conservative government of former Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis, who was voted out of office in October, made promises along those lines, he says, but instead kept expanding the public sector.
'Giorgios, Wake Up!'
Stournaras also has harsh words for the new socialist government of Prime Minister Georgios (George) Papandreou. They took action too late, he says. Although the government corrected the predictions on the national deficit, from 6.7 to 12.7 percent, soon after the election, there were no consequences, because the Socialist party was too busy giving out positions in the new government, he says. At one point, Stournaras wrote the prime minister a letter: "Georgios, wake up!"
Now Stournaras predicts tough times. The recession will get worse, he says, and consumption and investment will drop. "But now we have no choice," Stournaras says. He's not, however, expecting vocal protests from a broad segment of the population. The cuts mainly hit the public sector, he says: "The people have suffered because of the bureaucrats' privileges."
Kostas Papantoniou will be at the head of the march when the government employees take to the streets. "We're going to take up the fight," he says. It sounds like something Che Guevara might say.