International Workers’ Day: Sylvia Koilakou

Sylvia Koilakou, Greece
Sylvia Koilakou, Greece

Sylvia Koilakou works as a civil engineer in a technical enterprise. She is active in the union of technical employees and is a member of the Board of the Labor Center of Athens. She is a member of the anti-capitalist coalition ANTARSYA, on whose ticket she stood as a parliamentary candidate in the recent elections:

“The SYRIZA-ANEL government is oriented towards a deal with the country’s borrowers, having accepted the obligation of paying the debt as well as the inviolable terms that the EU and the Euro-Zone have imposed. Thus, this year’s May Day is an important milestone for grassroots unions, in order to organize the counterattack of struggles against the new anti-popular agreements and in order to restore workers’ victories”

LeftEast: May Day was once a symbolic day of struggle for the labour movement and then an official state holiday. How is it commemorated in Greece today?

Sylvia Koilakou: May Day in Greece is a day of struggle for trade unions, with demonstrations all over Greece. In Athens, three demonstrations are called. One by the tertiary confederations (GSEE and ADEDY), one by PAME (All-workers Militant Front, unions and unionists adjacent to the Communist Party of Greece), and one by the grassroots unions, marching towards the parliament and the EU offices. The forces of the anti-capitalist Left, ANTARSYA and autonomous labor collectives participate in the latter. These grassroots unions carry the logic of independent class unionism and grassroots coordination, which is far removed from the GSEE’s logic of unionism, which subordinates itself to the existing system, as well as from the partisan unionism of PAME.

Protests in Athens

Demonstrations of honor and memory are held at Kaisariani, where people commemorate the execution of 200 communists by the Nazis, on May 1st, 1944. Similar demonstrations also take place in Thessaloniki, in commemoration of the tobacco workers strike of May 1, 1936, which was bloodily repressed.

This year’s May Day in Greece finds a labor movement that has faced 5 years of attacks on labor rights. At this instant, capital, the EU and IMF forces, maintain a rigid stance aimed at the signing of a new memorandum, which will include strict anti-labor measures. The SYRIZA-ANEL government is oriented towards a deal with the country’s borrowers, having accepted the obligation of paying the debt as well as the inviolable terms that the EU and the Euro-Zone have imposed. Thus, this year’s May Day is an important milestone for grassroots unions, in order to organize the counterattack of struggles against the new anti-popular agreements and in order to restore workers’ victories.

LE: The post-1989 transformation led to changes in the role of the unions in society in large parts of South East Europe. Could you tell us a bit about what it was like before and what it is like now? Was the collapse of communism referenced in Greece? In particular, how would you say that these dynamics have impacted on the left, considering that traditionally Trade Unions have acted as the backbone of left mass movements?

S.K.: The labor movement in Greece undoubtedly bears a long history of militant and effective struggles. However, the “collapse” of 1989 signaled a decline of labor movements and the Left in Greece as well, where a dramatic realignment of forces in favor of capital has been effected, both at the social and ideological/cultural level. The participation of the Left in governments in collaboration with traditional bourgeois parties, which accelerated the rise and consolidation of neo-liberal parties and ideas, has contributed to this negative correlation of forces.

Since the early 1990s’, capital, having succeeded in a strategic attack against the communist movement and the Left more broadly, has attempted to reduce labor cost and to increase working class exploitation. The Left and the trade union movement have failed to successfully respond to the changes that capitalism has induced in this period. Capitulation, class collaboration and “dialogue” with governments and employers have been the main strategy of most large unions. The latter have accepted the neo-liberal strategy, whilst remaining attached to traditional forms of protest and fully accepting bourgeois legality. A caste of syndicalist bureaucracy has formed (mainly in the public sector), which has fed the castigation of unionism. Trade unions have remained “closed” structures, without being able to connect to workers’ aspirations for more democracy. Workers have been distanced from trade unions, especially in the private sector, leading to very low rates of union density and participation. However, the labor movement in Greece has managed to conduct important struggles and strikes, while significant efforts have been made to diverge from the official tactics of the unions. Many grassroots unions attempt to form a different, class unionism.

LE: Many commentators feel that globalization has had an important effect on worker organization (race to the bottom and threat of outsourcing, the rise of services, precarity, anti-labor legislation, etc). What are some challenges you have noticed and how have unions responded to these?

S.K.: Globalization has modified the working and living conditions of the working class to a large extent, and has led to flexibility of labor relations and increased unemployment as well as migration. At the same time, the structures of institutions of capitalist totalitarianism, such as the EU, have led to an assault on labor’s earlier victories which had been won within individual nation-states, and have sought to impose several anti-labor measures. The Left and the trade union movement have failed to respond to transformations imposed by globalized capitalism. Forces that dominate the larger unions have not been willing to include in their ranks new sections of the working class created by the new situation (eg. temporary and flexible workers, the unemployed, migrants), whilst they have insisted on defending the EU and its policies.

At the same time, in the context of globalized capitalism, internationalism acquires new dimensions in labor struggles. The labor movement has not been able to respond to a number of significant challenges; issues referring to international solidarity structures, coordination of workers in multinational enterprises, effective labor struggle against multinational enterprises or organizations such as the EU or the IMF, remain open. The current period of the global capitalist crisis and of the memorandum, has found the labor movement in Greece unprepared to resist this attack of historical dimensions. However, important struggles and conflicts have developed, as well as great national strikes and demonstrations of hundreds of thousands in all the squares of Greece. The coordination of grassroots unions and the forces of the anti-capitalist Left and of ANTARSYA have decisively contributed to the organization and escalation of these mobilizations.

LE: The states of Eastern and South Eastern Europe are both sending and receiving countries for migrant labor. What campaigns have been made in your country on migrant work either in reference to workers in diaspora, or to new migrant workers?

S.K.:In Greece, several campaigns, events and mobilizations against racism take place, protesting for full and equal rights for all migrants who live and work in our country, as well as demanding the granting of asylum to refugees. Recently, a campaign demanding the attribution of citizenship rights to all children of migrants has also been initiated. On March 21, a massive demonstration was organized, against the Evros “fence”, in favor of migrants’ legalization, against the neo-nazis of Golden Dawn and against racist and fascist acts. During the last several months, mobilizations were held all over Greece demanding the SYRIZA-ANEL government close the migrant detention centers. A few days ago, in response to the recent mass death of refugees in the Mediterranean, ANTARSYA called for a demonstration against anti-migrant EU Treaties and against imperialist interventions, demanding the dissolution of FRONTEX.

At the same time, ANTARSYA thinks of migrants as part of the working class, and fights against the effort of dividing workers, against fragmentation and against the internal civil war that the bourgeois class attempts to induce. Thus, ANTARSYA fights and campaigns for equal rights, decent working conditions for migrants, and their inclusion in trade unions.

LE: Female work – and especially care work – has been one of the main “exports” of Eastern and South Eastern European countries. At the same time, women who have stayed in the region have often been hired as domestic or unskilled workers by outsourced factories. Have the unions in your country addressed these issues, and has gender been a topic of their work?

S.K.: In Greece, this issue has first been addressed in response to the murderous attack against the cleaner Konstantina Kuneva, by her employer’s thugs. Kuneva was the secretary of the Attica Union of Cleaners and Domestic Personnel (PEKOP). As part of PEKOP, since 2000 she has constantly been uncovering the real working conditions hidden behind the outsourcing of this labor, especially by public services: administrations of organizations, hospitals, bureaucratic trade unionism have in effect supported the slavery of migrant women by private contractors. During this time, Greece saw an unprecedented wave of solidarity form, with upwards of 100 trade unions constituting a coordinated campaign. This was an initiative of struggle against contractors’ slavery which stretched beyond the scope of the GSEE and organized several mass demonstrations. It was during this period that the news was revealed that the GSEE itself had been using private cleaning service contractors, which are based on overexploitation of migrant women workers.

The consequences of the crisis have also led to the intensification of domestic work. At the same time, in diverse enterprises women workers are illegally fired during their pregnancy, whilst we have also seen incidents of working women being beaten. Practical solidarity in such cases of extreme employer arbitrariness is mostly organized by grassroots unions and other collectives.