By Matt Waine

NO ONE was happier to see 2008 come to an end than Greek Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis. The brutal shooting in cold blood of a 15 year old school student by police in Athens on 6 December unleashed an enormous wave of anger that threatened to bring down his New Democracy government.

Greece shaken by riots, strikes & mass protests

By Matt Waine

NO ONE was happier to see 2008 come to an end than Greek Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis. The brutal shooting in cold blood of a 15 year old school student by police in Athens on 6 December unleashed an enormous wave of anger that threatened to bring down his New Democracy government.

However, unfortuntely for him, 2009 has begun with mass demonstrations and continuing occupations of schools and universities by students and while the violence and anger has subsided slightly, the future remains very uncertain for the government which is intent on implementing severe attacks on Greek workers and young people.

After the shooting of Alexandros Grigoropoulos, whose “crime” was to throw a plastic water bottle at a passing police car, Greece has been crippled by mass protests, demonstrations and strikes. His murder has served as a rallying point for all those angered by the corruption, poverty and unemployment endemic in Greek society. Unemployment is running at 8.4% and over a third of young workers live on E600 a month. Karamanlis’ governmernt has been plagued by corruption allegations over the last period and as the economic recession gathers pace, workers are the ones who are paying the price.

In this context, there has been an explosion of anger. In the weeks after the shooting, the government faced daily protests of workers and students. Some of these protests have turned violent as police clashed with angry youth. It is claimed the riots caused E1 billion worth of damage.

The government attempted to use this violence to discourage workers from taking to the streets on 10 December for a general strike of public and private sector workers. The government even spread the rumour that they were considering calling a state of emergency and calling the army onto the streets. However, such was the anger among workers, that the unions leaders refused to call off the strike and tens of thousands marched in Athens and other cities. This was the fourth general strike in a year.

Takis Giannopoulos, a member of Xekinima, the Greek section of the Committee for a Workers’ International explained the mood, “Many people went to rallies for the first time in their lives. We had the examples of managers or owners of small firms joining the rallies together with their employees. We had examples of chemists giving free masks and medicine to demonstrators in case of police attacks with tear gas and other chemicals. There was a very militant mood, in complete contrast to the speeches of the leaders of the trade unions.”

A second shooting of another teenager on 17 December added to the anger and tension in society. Over 20,000 marched in Athens, while teachers took part in a 24 hour strike and a three hour stoppage in the public sector. By the end of December, the police had run out of tear gas and were ordering more from Israel, while 200 out of 400 university departments and 700 schools were being occupied.

In this movement, the failure of the trade union leaders to advance a programme and way forward has meant this weak government with a majority of only one is still in power.

As a warning to what may happen unless a clear strategy to take the movement forward is offered, a police officer was seriously wounded by shots fired by two gunmen on 5 January, the second such shooting in two weeks. The danger of frustrated youth embracing the failed and dead end methods of individual terrorism are a warning to the workers’ movement. These type of attacks can actually strengthen the government giving it the ability to regain some lost support.

The trade unions must mobilise workers and youth in a mass movement against the cutbacks and attacks of the government, opposing the action of the police and advocating a social programme to deal with unemployment and poverty. However, a political alternative must also be offered. The latest opinion polls show 12% support for SYRIZA (recently formed left alliance) and 8% for the KKE (Greek Communist Party). Xekinima has put forward the slogan “Down with this government of murderers” and for a workers’ government of SYRIZA and the KKE. But Xekinima is also arguing for a socialist programme as the only way to defend the conditions of workers in the context of the economic crisis.