Greek riot police in the early morning of Jan. 25 stormed the Athens subway train depot, where striking workers had barricaded themselves in attempting to continue their 8-day strike. Police broke through the gates and removed dozens of strikers. Authorities blocked off roads leading to the depot in western Athens to prevent hundreds of strike supporters who began arriving from getting to the depot. No violence was reported although the head of the workers union said they were prepared to resist.
Later in the day the Metro system began operating, as did the tram and train systems, whose workers also had gone on strike in sympathy with their colleagues. Service was intermittent but officials said they expected normal operations later in the day. Legal return-to-work orders were delivered to 80 percent of the system’s 1,300 workers during the day. They had to obey or face being fired. Police left the site of the Metro depot in western Athens some hours after the pre-dawn raid.
The operation came after the government issued an emergency order to force them to end an eight-day strike in an escalating standoff over austerity measures. “The Greek people have made huge sacrifices and I cannot allow any exceptions,” Prime Minister Antonis Samaras said in reference to the metro workers’ insistence that they be exempted from the public sector wage structure.
“Everyone should understand we will not repeat the mistakes of the past,” he said. Parliament workers though have so far been exempted from more pay cuts and Samaras has yet to keep his vow to bring their salaries in line with other public workers.
The government’s decision to issue a civil mobilization order led to a swift backlash, with all other public transport workers declaring immediate strikes that left commuters stranded and forced to walk or take taxis home through traffic-clogged streets on Jan. 24. With the prospect of more road chaos looming, and after the union defied both a court edict and government orders to return, Samaras ordered in the police to break the strike.
Earlier, the head of the metro workers’ union, Antonis Stamatopoulos, proposed that employees call off their strike if the government agreed to pay them according to their collective contract, which lasts until April, while holding wage discussions.
Stamatopoulos accused the government of being a “junta.” Greece’s main private sector union, GSEE, also backed the action. Two senior members of the major opposition party Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) MPs, Panayiotis Lafazanis and Dimitris Stratoulis, visited the workers depot to express support for the strikers and their opposition to the government’s decision. The government invoked emergency powers issuing a civil mobilization order against the metro workers who have been protesting salary cuts.
Government spokesman Simos Kedikoglou told state-run NET television he expected the metro to be operating “as soon as possible,” estimating that trains would begin running again during the weekend. Defending the government’s decision to invoke a rarely-used law to end the strike, Kedikoglou insisted the new austerity measures must be implemented. “We are a society, an economy, at a very difficult time,” he said. “People can’t ask for exceptions.”
He added that, “The duty of the government is to enforce the law so that society does not suffer.” Responding to opposition claims that the government’s intervention to end the metro standoff amounted to “unchecked authoritarianism,” Kedikoglou remarked that authoritarianism is, rather, “the total disregard for judicial decisions, indifference in the face of the law and of society as a whole.”
The civil mobilization law, amended in 2007 to deal with “peacetime emergencies,” has now been used nine times since the 1974 collapse of a military dictatorship in Greece – three of those in the past two years in strikes related to austerity measures imposed in return for international bailouts. Defying the order to return to work can lead to arrest and jail terms of between three months and five years.
Unions and the radical left main opposition SYRIZA party accused the government of using dictatorial tactics. “The government is dressed in khaki. It’s a new coup against this country’s constitution to mobilize working people on strike on the subway with military-style methods to try and break their struggle” Syriza lawmaker Dimitris Stratoulis said Thursday. “The aim of the government is to scrap collective wage bargaining rights for a China-style reform of labor rights for workers in the private and public sector.”
Evangelos Venizelos, head of the PASOK Socialists who are one of the coalition partners with Samaras’ New Democracy Conservatives, defended the action saying the strike was unacceptable. The other partner, the Democratic Left, said it objected to the order but would also support it.
The Metro workers are protesting more cuts in their pay that would reduce their salaries by about an average of 20 percent, less than the reductions for many other civil servants as part of punishing austerity measures imposed by the government on the orders of international lenders. Those defying the order and refusing to return to work risk dismissal, arrest and jail time according to Greek laws.
(With information from AP and Kathimerini)