• The Ugliest Face of Neoliberal Employers

  • By Sissy Vovou | 20 May 09
  • Returning home 12 o’clock at night, two days before last Christmas, 42-year-old Konstandina Kouneva, cleaning worker, trade-unionist, single mother of an 11-year-old boy and immigrant from Bulgaria, was the victim of an assassination attempt by means of acid thrown at her face, head, left shoulder, and subsequently inside her mouth. She spent 45 days in the intensive care Unit of Evangelismos Hospital in Athens, and then was moved to the semi-intensive care unit. 

    Kouneva was the victim of employers’ terrorism, as she was the General Secretary of the Attic Union of Women Cleaners and Home Personnel (Greek initials PEKOP), which was fighting under terrorist conditions to defend workers rights. Being an immigrant, she was especially exposed to the terrorism rampant in the cleaning and subcontractors sector, and had repeatedly been threatened by anonymous phone calls. Her colleagues in the leadership of the trade-union denounced the attack as a crime coming from the camp of the employers, and even Kouneva herself had the courage to scream in that horrendous night, chasing her attackers while the acid was burning her face and head, that “They did it because of my trade union activity”.


    PEKOP’s press release of December 25, 2008, Christmas day, stated: “Konstandina and the Cleaning Women’s Union have been insistently trying in the last few years to pull the curtain and expose everything that is hidden behind outsourcing contractors, especially in the public sector. Silence!! The state is sleeping and does not understand! The leaderships of the institutions, companies, hospitals, sleep and do not understand! The official trade-unionism does not understand! Small and big crimes are committed every day, human rights are violated as well as human dignity, and nobody understands. All of them answer in the same way, the minister, the director of the hospital, the president of the institution, ‘It does not concern me’.”

    A strong movement of solidarity emerged a few days after the attack, from all kinds of political groupings – trades unions, women’s organisations, immigrant groups – demanding first and foremost that the attackers as well as their instigators be found and indicted, and secondly demanding trade-union rights, especially of the most vulnerable sectors working for subcontractors (outsourcing) of the public and private sector.

    The Feminist Initiative for Solidarity with Konstandina Kouneva said in its leaflet: “It is certain that Konstandina Kouneva, being an immigrant, was chosen to pay the price for her courage to speak out publicly and demand basic workers rights for herself and her colleagues. The unprecedented manner of her ‘punishment’, with obvious archaic and sexist connotations, points to a dark world of inconceivable savagery, whose laws impose the literal ravaging of the face and stifling of the voice of a woman who dared to disobey. On this question, the responsibility of the competent state institutions as well as those of the official trade unions are incalculable.”

    Struggle against terrorism

    The heart of the matter is the total arbitrariness of the companies supplying outsourced work like cleaning, security and others. Any breaches of labour law, even with its minimum standards, is common, while the fear of unemployment of the most exploited and unskilled workers makes them acquiesce to any trampling of workers rights, hours, payment, overtime and social insurance stamps.

    The cleaners trade-union was quite unusual in the context of today’s workers rights ethics. Created in 1999 and covering a broad geographical area with many companies or individual employers, it grew to 1,700 registered members by the middle of the present decade with 600 to 700 active members (voting in the elections of 2006). It was connected with PASKE, the majority fraction in the trade-union movement (allied with the PASOK party). The union subsequently weakened, due to employers’ terrorism, distanced itself from PASKE’s umbrella and protection, because of PASKE’s lack of support for it, and followed a more militant path incompatible with PASKE. It shrunk to no more than 150 active members in 2008. A company, stooge trade-union was created in the meantime, in 2004, by the major employer of the sector, OIKOMET (who was also Kouneva’s employer), which added to the intimidation of the members of the militant cleaners trade union and of the workforce. 

    Upper strata trade-unionism

    We could add here that there are 40 unions in the cleaning sector alone. The number of trade-unions in Greece is huge: there are 70 federations in the private sector (belonging to GSEE) and 45 in the state sector (belonging to ADEDY). There are also 82 Labour Centres in the country, connecting unions by geographical areas.

    PEKOP was a member of the Labour Centre of Athens and of the Federation of Private Employees of Greece.

    The employer’s trade-union has been trying to register with the Labour Centre of Piraeus, and was also connected with PASKE. It was often invited in official tri-partite negotiations with the Ministry of Labour to “represent” workers. It has many hundreds of active members (meaning the number of voting members), obligated to the employer who wants to avoid their workers’ organisation in any independent trade unions.

    The trade-union movement in Greece is strong in the sectors of state employees, teachers at all levels, public companies (many of which have been privatised or are in the process, or under  threat, of privatisation), banks, hospitals and airports. When decisions are taken to organise an action, they mobilise part of the membership, rarely the whole workforce. In the private sector the movement is weak, mainly in terms of mobilisation potential. No more than 28% of employees are unionised in both private and public sectors, while the percentage differs between men and women, especially in the private, the latter being less organised in trade-unions since they are in the weakest positions and the movement is male dominated and present mostly in big companies and the public or state sector. Trade-union density in Greece is lower than the median in Europe.

    The General Confederation of Labour (GSEE), with a PASKE majority in its leadership, is indifferent to the new strata of workers in the flexible and deregulated sector, again mostly women. According to official calculations unemployment is 9%, while in gender distribution women’s unemployment is about 16%, and men’s about 7%. The double figure of unemployment for women has held for more than 16 years now. This reflects the official sector of the economy, while the unofficial sector, the black economy, is estimated to be about one third of the total. Needless to say, most immigrants, who are at the bottom of the scale of skills, wages and rights, have a far greater percentage of participation in the super-exploited black economy. Immigrants in Greece are calculated to be more than 13% of the labour force.

    Neoliberal deregulation

    Deregulation of work conditions is thriving in Greece, as everywhere under neoliberalism, and there is a series of relevant laws enacted from1985, the “good” days of PASOK, to the present. All these laws were voted in Parliament by PASOK (in the 19 years of its rule) and New Democracy (the party ruling since 2003). As a consequence of PASOK policies and the process of neoliberalism of which PASOK was the champion, the trade-union movement was greatly weakened, with workers becoming hostile to state trade-unionism expressed for many years by the trade union fraction related to PASOK. The two parties of the left, SYRIZA (formerly SYNASPISMOS) and the Communist Party have, in the course of all these years, voted against all the laws promoting deregulation, flexibility and flexicurity. Despite this, their trade-union alliances and fractions have not established any systematic policies that would support in practice the new layers of flexible and deregulated workers, and no serious moves have been made toward unionisation of the new proletariat, which we call the precariat. Ideologically, decades ago, part-time and flexible work was at first supported, using the “argument” of the reconciliation of family and work for women. This excuse is never absent from the public debate, since the “role” of women, as we know, is first and foremost “sustaining the family”. Today it is no longer only women who suffer these kind of work conditions; the deregulated, part-time and flexible sector is expanding, and, if the present tendency continues, it will not be long before it outstrips the regular work force in dependent employment.

    As a result of the indifference of official trade-unions, of their male domination and of the neoliberal process, this new proletariat, mainly women, young people and immigrants, are at the mercy of the employers, indeed in a period of rising unemployment.

    In the spirit of December

    This horrendous employers’ attack stirred up a dormant potential which emerged in December, during the youth revolt in various ways, including but not limited to the occupation of the building of the General Confederation of Labour on December 17. Many trade-union leaders were thrown out of their offices, and there was a five-day occupation with assemblies, activities, cultural events, discussions and planning. This occupation was organised and carried out by some small unions of precarious workers and by anarchist and autonomous political forces, but it was embraced by many “disobedient” workers and youth who participated in its activities. 

    Their statement said:

    “We, the manual workers, clerks, unemployed, precarious, both indigenous and immigrants, who are not television consumers and who are taking part in the clashes with the police, the occupations of the Centre and of neighbourhoods since the assassination of Alexandros Grigoropoulos (…), have decided to occupy the GSEE building in order to turn it into a space of free expression and a meeting place of the workers.”

    “We have done this to counteract the myth promoted by the media that the workers have been and still are absent from the clashes and that the rage expressed in the last few days is the work of 500 ‘hooded’  ‘hooligans’ and other fairy tales, while the television presented the workers as victims of  the clashes, at the same time as the capitalist crisis in Greece and all over the world is leading to hundreds of thousands of dismissals which are reported by this very media as a ‘natural phenomenon’.” 

    The assassination attack came only a few days after all this, while the opposition, protest and solidarity was still burning with the December fever. “Acid on the face, bullets fired to kill, we are living in war, each and every day” this was one of the slogans in the many demonstrations organised for Kouneva during January and February, showing the way the connection of the two major repressive events was perceived.

    Reaction and action

    The first major reaction to the attack on Kouneva was the two-day occupation, beginning on December 27, of the headquarters of the public city train company, HSAP, for which Kouneva, employed by the subcontractor, was working. It was organised and carried out by anarchists, autonomous leftists, the Network for Political and Social Rights and others. Subsequently, several demonstrations were organised, by various political and autonomous forces and by feminists, while local committees were created for systematic solidarity work in many parts of Athens and throughout the country.

    One initiative in Athens, based on four small trade-unions formed in mid January, co-ordinated several actions and very soon grew through the inclusion of other rank-and-file unions, also in collaboration with the leadership of PEKOP, Kouneva’s union. 

    Another committee formed in Athens on January 17, comprising trade-union cadres, social movements, immigrants and feminist groups in the form of a social forum also coordinated actions and participated in actions organised by others, while at the same time working inside larger trade-unions for solidarity and for confronting the problems of flexibility and employers terrorism.

    Meetings all over the country were organised by left forces, in order to sensitise the broader public, collect solidarity money and organise relevant actions on the spot.

    All of this consciousness-raising and the mobilisations could not have occurred if it was not for the December youth revolt, which was a spontaneous response to police brutality and the bleak future of the younger generation, especially of teenagers, made desperate by the educational system and the work insecurity awaiting them after school or university, who encircled police stations from one end of the country to the other, demonstrated and fought in the streets, occupied public and trade-union buildings, media, theatres and the concert hall. An “invisible” section of society occupied the public space with various radical activities, without being directed by anyone, challenging the system in many of its forms. 

    The spirit of December has been expressing itself in a more organised way in the wave of solidarity with Kouneva, which confronts the issue of work deregulation, flexibility and unemployment. 

    What is the next step?

    Deregulation and unemployment is everywhere. It is easy to become paralysed and not to know where to begin in the face of the magnitude of the phenomenon. And yet, innovative actions were invented and articulated, expressing solidarity and creating mobilisation – like mass presentations and protests in front of the Ministry of Labour, in front of the office of the subcontracting company that employed Kouneva, in front of the city train company for which Kouneva was working, many trade-union meetings in public and state companies for sensitisation and addressing the problem of outsourced personnel, creating interest and solidarity. 

    The question that arose and needs to be answered, is how to proceed and how to create new collectives, unions, strengthen the existing ones, how to create bonds among workers that will help them overcome their fear. Several tactics emerged in the last two months, one being the aggression and the show of force (which was a minority strength) and the other the building of the solidarity of the “secure” and regular work force, especially in the public companies where the actions are taking place, and the use of the strength of regular and unionised workers in helping those who are non-unionised and exposed to employers’ threats. This second path is likely to help strengthen and broaden the Women’s Cleaners Union. 

    Nevertheless, shock therapy is also necessary to wake up the “secure” and insecure work force. Acts like “civil disobedience”, aimed at the trade-union organisation and bureaucracy could create a different climate and bring about a regeneration of the trade-union movement which is at present sleeping and bureaucratic, male dominated and, in its own way, part of the establishment, due of course to its leadership or to the majority of it.

    The connection in real terms of the social movements to the immigrants movements and communities within this struggle is an absolute necessity. It developed to some extent in the course of this recent struggle and it could deepen and produce mass mobilisations in the future. In any case, the hardcore working class in Greece at present are the immigrants, who are at the bottom of the barrel, and no real breakthrough in the trade-union movement can ever take place without the unity of indigenous workers and immigrants. 

    This could become the other side of the coin of increasing racism and xenophobia, which is leading sections of the native working class, and poor layers more generally, into the arms of the extreme right. Under conditions of intensification of the economic crisis, such struggles are the only progressive way forward.