National Sections of the L5I:

Greece: Students fight neoliberal education reform!

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The last three weeks have seen a huge rebellion by workers and students in Greece against government plans for neoliberal reforms of higher education. As many as 100,000 students have occupied over 350 university departments over the last three to four weeks. University lecturers have also held a series of walkouts against the reforms.

The neoliberal offensive in Greece

Since it came to power in May 2004, the right wing New Democracy government has sought to implement an aggressive neoliberal reform in the face of mounting opposition from the Greek working class. There has been a war of attrition as each government attack has been greeted with stop-start opposition by Greek workers that has included a series of one-day general strikes. However, like in France earlier this Spring, it has been an attack on the rights and conditions of young people that has prompted a rebellion to shake the whole country.

The New Democracy government sought to bring in reforms of higher education that would:

- Allow for the creation of privately owned and managed universities
- End the restriction on police entering the grounds of higher education institutions (they are currently banned from entry without consent of university authorities)
- Change the management structure of existing universities towards a private sector business model
- Increase the competitive pressures on students by restricting opportunities to re-sit exams and place limits on the time students can spend at university.

The new management structures would completely disenfranchise students from decision making structures and, alongside the new “freedom” for Police to enter universities as they so wish, mark a clear attack on student radicalism.

The changes in university management structure towards a business model were naturally intended as the first step on the road to full scale privatisation: the development of a market and the introduction of the profit motive.

They are rooted in the Lisbon and Bologna neoliberal economic agenda currently being pursued by Europe’s governments that aims to Americanise Europe’s economies by 2010. This means a co-ordinated attack on Europe’s working class: its social rights, welfare and security system geared to increasing the global competitiveness and profitability of Europe’s businesses.

Resistance of the social movements

The mobilisations and forums of the anticapitalist and social movements over the last seven years have played an important role in making Europe’s workers and youth politically conscious of the reactionary character of this co-ordinated bosses offensive.

The European Social Forum (ESF) that took place in Athens at the beginning of May hosted mass student meetings. These brought together militants from the student movements that have emerged across Europe over the last period, and provided an important catalyst for the uprising of the last few weeks.

Between 12th and 16th May, students occupied 16 university departments. By 28th May a national movement had emerged; 8,000 students demonstrated in Athens. This was followed three days later with 194 university departments going into occupation and lecturers across Greece voting in mass meetings to launch strike action against the attacks. Student co-ordinations were established inside universities and at the district level. These drew in striking workers too.

As the movement entered June, the number of university departments entering occupation shot up to over 350 across Greece. On Thursday 8th June 40,000 students demonstrating in Athens were met with violent repression by the police who used tear gas and baton charges. This police repression had the effect of raising the stakes, and further radicalising the already militant movement.

The national co-ordination of students called on the GSEE (the main trade union federation) to launch a general strike against the attacks following the repression of 8th June. More protests and demonstrations are planned for tomorrow (15th June) and are expected to grow larger still.

The internationalism of the youth was clearly expressed by the slogan, “We’re going to do what they did in France”.

The mobilisation is dominated by the forces of the Greek left that supported the ESF. The largest left party, the Greek Communist Party (KKE), that condemned the ESF as a tool of imperialism, has a typically sectarian approach to the movement and has called its own demonstrations rather than supporting those organised through the student co-ordinations. There is however, a major pressure from the KKE’s rank and file to participate, and many have in practice.

Likewise, the Greek Social Democrats (Pasok), who at the national level support the government reform programmes, have split in the universities, with around half their student membership supporting the protests.

This has left the leadership of the movement open to the far left who were already a significant force in student politics but some way behind the KKE and Pasok. For example, in the annual student elections, in which around 70–80% of students usually participate, the EAAK, a coalition of far left groups, polled around 8.5% in the last elections compared to 14% for the Communist Party and 26% for Pasok.

The left reformist party Synaspismos, that polled just 2.5% in the last student elections, and the sister organisation of the British Socialist Workers Party, the SEK that polled 0.3% (under the banner of its front, Genoa 2001), have also been involved.

The movement looks like it is close to an important victory, as the government increasingly appears as though it will back down in the face of the threat of workers’ actions. If it transpires that the movement is indeed victorious this will be a great moment, just as the victory over the CPE was in France, earlier this Spring.

It will be victory that will pose new possibilities. The major question facing the social forces that have mobilised against the neoliberal attacks over the last five years is the question of power: what kind of government should the movement fight for in order to halt the wave of neoliberal attacks?

In Italy recently, the response of Rifondazione Communista to this problem has been to enter the social liberal government of Prodi in the hope that it can mollify the worst components of its attacks. This pressure to enter government in coalition with pro-neoliberal, and even outright bourgeois parties exists in Germany (Left Party), France (Communist Party) and Greece (Synapismos) too.

At a time, when Europe’s workers and youth are showing their will and capacity to fight on the streets to drive back the neoliberal offensive, such governments would do nothing but disorientate the vanguard of working class fighters. They would create an incredible pressure on workers “not to rock the boat”, “to give the government time” as Europe’s social democracy continues to implement the bosses’ neoliberal programme.

The alternative to this is to fight within the working class, its trade unions, the social movements, anti-neoliberal forums, and so on, for the goal of workers’ governments committed to democratic planning, and won through revolutionary action.

The general strike is the key to getting such a government. The student co-ordinations should immediately organise delegations to the factories and offices, the transport and communications centres to call on the workers to bring forward their own demands: for a 35-hour week to soak up unemployment, for real wage rises, for decent public services paid for by the corporations and the rich.

Such a general strike would have to be indefinite, not another one-day protest. It is important the government knows the movement means business. It would also have to be controlled by co-ordinations, which need to be broadened to include workers’ delegates. But it could very quickly force the withdrawal not just of the education “reforms”, but of the whole government, and pose the question of who runs society.

If it does so, then the Greek movement could have even wider consequences for the masters of Europe than this Spring’s French rebellion.