Three years into austerity, it may seem like just another strike — but a labor action of equivalent scale in the U.S. would be unprecedented.
As the Greek economy continues its freefall, the country’s top unions have called for a nationwide general strike this week to protest government plans to axe 15,000 public sector jobs and suspend another 25,000 as part of economic austerity reforms. Previous general strikes brought 100,000 workers to the streets of Athens and a similar number could take to the streets this week.
The action is the latest in a long series of general strikes and smaller demonstrations by Greek labor unions and unemployed citizens who have seen their jobs eliminated and benefits cut over the past three years.
The effects of soaring debts were exacerbated by the 2008 global economic downturn, causing the Greek government to accept a €110 billion ($146 billion) bailout loan from Eurozone countries and the International Monetary Fund. Since the start of the crisis, citizens have carried out a dozen general strikes and hundreds of smaller mobilizations.
The two-day strike planned for this week reportedly will be carried out by hospital doctors, high school teachers and lawyers, among others.
A general strike: what it would look like in the U.S.
“Today I am getting fired, tomorrow is your turn. Everybody out in the streets to fight austerity,” read banners waved by protesters in front of the Parliament building ahead of the strike
Austerity has been on the minds of everyone in Greece for the past three years. The formula varies from country to country but usually includes cuts to the public sector, tax hikes or a combination of the two. In Greece, it’s mostly taken the form of public sector cuts following a sovereign debt crisis. Mounting government debts that far outstripped gross domestic product led to a downgrading in Greece’s credit score. The panic among investors in the wake of the 2008 recession made it nearly impossible for Greece to obtain loans or generate new investments that could turn the situation around.
As a result, Greece accepted an IMF-EU bailout loan in 2010 that was supposed to right the ship. Cutting public sector spending, including layoffs and salary reductions, were key conditions of the bailout loan. The average Greek citizen has been asked to absorb the cost as unemployment has soared. The Greek statistical authority reports that pushing unemployment rates have increased to 27.9 percent in June according to the latest statistics.
The layoffs and the stagnant economy have disproportionately affected young Greek workers. According to the latest statistics published by the Hellenic Statistics Authority, unemployment for job seekers ages 15 to 24 reached 65 percent last month.
General strikes have increased in frequency as the economic crisis deepens across the country.
A general strike in Greece held in 2011 shortly after the bailout brought 100,000 citizens into the streets of Athens.
Similar mass demonstrations have taken place following each successive round of austerity cuts carried out by the Greek government in an effort to reduce spending. For the past two years, general strikes have rocked Greece, a relatively small country, with a little over 10 million citizens.
To give these actions a sense of proportion, a general strike of proportionate size in the U.S. would draw roughly 3.14 million people to the streets.
Numbers for a U.S. general strike could be significantly higher if large labor organizations like the AFL-CIO backed the action. With 12 million union members in 54 unions, an AFL-CIO endorsement for a nationwide general strike could bring the U.S. economy to a virtual standstill.
Even though union rates reached a 97-year low across the U.S. last year, a coordinated general strike would still bring the U.S. economy to a halt, especially in sectors with higher union rates.
In the U.S., 39 percent of all teachers, 27 percent of utilities workers, and 21 percent of all transportation and warehouse workers are represented by a union, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics. A coordinated strike among workers in these respective sectors would have a major impact on the economy.
The U.S. has not had a major general strike in recent history, but a look back at the Oakland, Calif. general strike in 1946 shows the effects of coordinated action in the Bay Area.
Describing the strike, labor historian Holly Kernan wrote in 2002 that as the U.S. was transitioning from a wartime to a peacetime economy, female workers at two department stores in downtown Oakland initiated a strike.
Workers across the city followed suit, bringing the city to a standstill when a quarter of the city’s population, about 100,000 people turned out in support of the strike, with many walking off the job in solidarity.
Poverty in Greece
The relevant point of any strike is its ability to change corporate and state policy. Thus far, Greece has continued to march forward with austerity policies, pushing down the country’s standard of living.
Not only has unemployment increased sharply over the past few years, poverty and hunger have spread across a country that not long ago boasted a highly developed economy. In Athens, lines for soup kitchens and shelters have become a common sight.
“The truth is, if I didn’t come [to a soup kitchen] I wouldn’t have the means to feed my children,” said Antonis Antakis, a former floor layer, to the Guardian. “Three years ago, when I was the boss and had two employees, the idea of going anywhere to collect food would have been inconceivable. Back then, I was earning €3,000 a month and the fridge was always full.”
The Greek Orthodox church feeds an estimated 55,000 people a day while municipal authorities distribute another 7,000 meals at soup kitchens around Athens. “Normally we wouldn’t close but the women volunteers who cook in church kitchens all over Athens need to have a rest,” said Father Timotheos, spokesman of the Holy Synod, the church’s ruling body, to demonstrate the influx of need.
Back in 2011, reports of malnutrition among Greek schoolchildren were already surfacing. “Our pupils faint due to starvation. We see our pupils coming to school with holes in their shoes. They don’t even have money to buy food from the school canteen,” a report from the Greek teachers union states.
The government response has fallen well short of meeting the growing demand for aid, according to local reports. The Greek Reporter says the current government has “almost no programs to help the poor.” Concrete proposals aimed at alleviating some of the poverty have failed to garner enough support, including one recent plan that would have allowed citizens who can’t pay their bills and loans because of pay cuts to restructure their obligations.
Despite the growing crisis, the current government has promised a return to prosperity by staying on the present course. Prime Minister Antonis Samaras says he expects a full recovery by 2019.
“According to most [experts], we will not need a couple of decades, not a couple of generations, but only six years,” Samaras said in a recent speech.
Similar economic debt crises have resulted in major demonstrations across Spain, Portugal, Italy, Ireland and Cyprus.
In June, the Associated Press reported that thousands took to the streets of Madrid and Lisbon in local iterations of anti-austerity protests seen in Greece.
At least 15,000 gathered outside the IMF’s headquarters in Lisbon, many shouting “IMF, out of here,” according to reports.
Like Greece, Spain suffers from a high unemployment rate of 27.2 percent unemployment rate, more than 50 percent for citizens under the age of 25.