As massive crowds flooded the streets of Rome, New York, Madrid and other cities across the world on Saturday, Athens’ Syntagma Square drew only a few thousand protestors, a far cry from the enormous anti-austerity demonstrations held this summer. But the relative calm here was an anxious one, a temporary peace before the real storm hits—on Wednesday, Parliament will take up another package of austerity measures and the nation will come to a standstill as it begins a 48-hour general strike.
“This is maybe the most crucial week for Greece and Europe,” Prime Minister George Papandreou said. Though it is increasingly rare these days, Papandreou is speaking the truth in this case—it is near certain that Greece will be forced to default on its debt if its lawmakers are unable to pass the latest austerity measures, required for the next batch of EU-IMF bailout funds. The passing of the measures though is far from a foregone conclusion, with members of Papandreou’s own party already citing concerns and fears that the government will not be able to withstand the mass opposition such measures will generate.
The proposed cuts may be the harshest yet: 30,000 state workers will be placed in a labor reserve and earn only 60 percent of their salary for a year (if they are unable to find employment after a year, they will be laid off), pensions that exceed 1,000 euros a month will be cut by 20 percent, and pensioners below 55 years of age will suffer a 40 percent wage cut, the country’s biggest pension fund will be cut between 20 and 30 percent, and lump-sum payments to public sector employees upon retirement will be cut by between 20 and 30 percent. Finally, and perhaps most astonishingly, the nation’s tax-free threshold will be lowered from 8,000 euros to 5,000 euros—directly taxing the nation’s poor.
It’s safe to say that these measures, if passed, will push tens of thousands of ordinary Greeks into poverty. This was a common message at Saturday’s Global Day of Action organized by the Take The Square movement.
“People with a 700 euro [per month] salary—they will be starving in about two months …They ask for taxes we can’t pay,” said Matina Bavea, who attended the protest with her son Alexandros. “We have to pay for this [crisis], like punishment. I don’t know what we did?”
The Baveas live in the middle-class Athenian suburb of Nea Smirni, where they’ve also been organizing with the Take The Square movement for the last few months. Martina said that while austerity has dug into her husband’s small pension, her family can still find ways to make ends meet. This is not the case for everyone.
“We consider ourselves lucky because we have a house to live in. But there are people with 400 euro per month or unemployed. I don’t know where they want us to find the money from,” Bavea said. “The [government] wants us to go and steal? Or to get a loan from the banks? They don’t care anymore. I don’t know what they have in their minds. We are middle class people and we’re suffering. Imagine the people who have no house, no jobs.”
While the two biggest umbrella trade unions—private-sector GSEE and public-sector ADEDY—are sticking to the two-day strike on Wednesday and Thursday, others are planning for striking longer. Several unions have already been on strike for days now—the mounds of garbage piling up on street corners, for one, are prime olfactory evidence of the municipal garbage workers’ two-week long strike. Transport workers have also been on periodic work stoppages and the Ministries of Labor and Finance are both under worker occupation. In a stunning display of symbolism, the Ministry of Finance’s hulking office building in central Athens is currently draped in a large black flag and a banner reading OCCUPIED.
Anger appears to be at an all-time high, and it seems common knowledge on the streets of Athens that the national debt is illegitimate, the current government is in the pockets of the financial industry, and the political class needs to be replaced.
“These people are the ones who created the problem and now they’re the ones providing the answers? How can that be possible?” demanded Christos Sideris, who proudly carried a large Greek flag with him at Saturday’s protest. “We want them to get out of Parliament. We don’t want the [top] 0.1 percent of the population to control the vast wealth. We want the people to take power.
An activist with the popular I Won’t Pay Movement, who introduced himself as Chris, shared similar views. The movement, which began in January and refuses to pay tolls on highways and tickets for buses or metros, has been mounting in popularity—evidence of the crisis’ radicalizing effects on the Greek populace.
“We want free roads for all the Greek people because we have paid since the time of our fathers and grandfathers. We want free means of transports. We want direct democracy,” he said. “We want this corrupt government to go to hell. We want a free start. We want a state of equal rights and justice for all the Greek people.”
When asked whether he thought if the majority of Greeks shared his views, Chris responded confidently.
“It’s crazy not to agree with us… We don’t buy this crap. We resist.”
Background info, details of proposed measures and quote from PM: http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/10/17/greece-strikes-idUSL5E7LH29720111017
Interviews conducted on Oct. 15 at Syntagma Square