595 Women Cleaners show the way after an 11-month battle against government and Troika, writes Sonia Mitralia
After 11 months of long and bitter struggle, 595 public sector cleaners have become the embodiment, the symbol, the soul, the life itself of the most ferocious resistance against the politics of austerity in Greece.
These women have subsequently become a political force and become the leadership of the current resistance movement, daring to confront such powerful enemies as the Greek government, the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the IMF.
And yet, after 11 months of struggle, having defied the government and the troika and become their main enemy, after having short-circuited the implementation of austerity measures and maintained a strong media presence, these fighting women cleaners are not always considered as a distinct political force by those opposing the politics of austerity.
The fact is that, from the moment the Troika-imposed austerity measures were inflicted, women came out en masse on the streets and their resistance seems to have its own quite distinct dynamic, rich in political lessons.
In the four years of austerity politics which have transformed Greece into a pile of social, economic and above all human ruins, people have spoken only a little about the lives of women and of course even less about their struggles against the diktats of the troika. Therefore public opinion has been surprised by this exemplary fight which is conducted exclusively by women. But is this fight really so surprising?
Women have participated en masse in the 26 general strikes. In the “movement of the indignant” they occupied city squares, set up camps and demonstrated. They mobilised in the front line in the occupation of the television channel ERT which the government had summarily closed and they were involved in continuing the independent running of ERT. Acting in an exemplary way, they became the soul of the strike committees of the universities’ administrative staff fighting against the “reserve pool” policy, (ie transfer at 75% of normal salary to a pool for 8 months and then the sack). 25 000 public servants, the majority of them women, will be the victims of staff cuts in public services. And it is also women who are the vast majority of volunteers in the Social Solidarity Movement and the self-managed solidarity health dispensaries which are trying to deal with the humanitarian crisis and the collapse of the health services.
The mass participation of women in the resistance movements against the destruction of the welfare state by the politics of austerity, is not surprising and did not happen by chance. First, as we know, the position of women sits in the eye of the austerity storm. The destruction of the welfare state and of public services, is throwing their lives up in the air: since the majority of public sector workers are women and women are the main users of public services, it is women who are being doubly hit by cuts of all types. They have therefore a thousand reasons for not accepting this historic regression in their position as women, which would equate to a veritable return to the 19th century!
It is true that in the early phases women did not identify themselves as a distinct political force, sharing as they did the same demands and forms of struggle as men in the movement. They were there in very large numbers—that was it.
However, women very quickly distinguished themselves by their forms of struggle and their radicalism, within the pioneering struggle against gold mining in Skouries, in Chalkidiki, Northern Greece, taking on the Canadian multi-national Eldorado Gold. Even if the press and public opinion ignored the significance of their gender in the way they were fighting, the police did not! In fact the riot police targeted women quite specifically, using ferocious and selective repression in order to terrorise the whole population through the women and in order to annihilate all disobedience and the whole resistance movement. Criminalised and imprisoned, women were subjected to humiliating violence, sexual violence too, specifically ‘tailored’ to their bodies and their gender.
In the second phase, women develop initiatives and forms of struggle of their very own
It started when, in order to implement the harshest part of the austerity programme and comply with the terms imposed by the “lenders”, the government targeted as first priority the women cleaners at the Ministry of Finance, Inland Revenue and Customs offices. In August 2013 it moved them into “the reserve pool” (which meant that for 8 months they would be paid only 75 % of their salary of 550 Euros per month, and then be sacked). The government followed exactly the same strategy as in Skouries. The objective was to attack first the weakest and those with the least chance of getting support, i.e. the women cleaners, and then follow it up by attacking the bulk of the employees, making 25,000 civil servants redundant. And it was timed at the moment when the resistance movement was getting exhausted by the relentless austerity measures.
The government believed that this “category of poor women workers from the lowest class”, paid a meagre 500 Euros a monthwould be dealt with quickly and squashed like flies. It assumed the women were not very intelligent, which explains the origin of the cleaners’ slogan : “we are not stupid bitches, we are women cleaners”.
The aim was to privatise the work of the women cleaners to make a gift to private cleaning companies. These mafia-like companies, known for being champions of tax-fraud, would then re-employ them at 200 Euros a month (i.e. 2 Euros an hour), with partial insurance, no employment rights – conditions akin to semi- slavery.
These women decided not to give in. They had been sacked from their jobs, sacrificed to the demands of the troika; they were between 45 and 57 years old, many single parents, divorcees, widows, in debt, responsible for children or unemployed husbands or caring for disabled dependants; they had no access to “early retirement” pensions and that after 20 years of working ; they had no chance of finding another job. So they decided to take control of their lives and take their lives into their own hands.
It was this small group of women who decided to change the established forms of action adopted by traditional trade unions. They have taken the initiative to self-organise, with a nucleus of women cleaners at their core, who had already fought and won battles 10 years ago achieving long term contracts. They have worked hard, like the proverbial ant and like the spider, they have patiently woven a web of national scale.
Because these women employees of the Ministry of Finance had been thrown on to the street and there was no longer any point in going on strike, they decided to build a human wall on the road in front of the main entrance of the Ministry of Finance on Syntagma Square, the central Athens square which is the most emblematic location of power.
It is not by chance that it is women who have created these imaginative forms of action.
Overlooked because of their gender and social class, marginalised by the unions and having no links with the traditional organisations of the Greek Left, they were forced to make a lot of noise so that they could be noticed and heard. They had to create an image in order to become visible.
Instead of passive strikes and short-lived ineffective days of action, they chose direct collective action. They use non-violence, humour and spectacle. Wearing crowns of thorns on their heads at Easter, nooses around their necks outside the party offices of New Democracy, with music and with dance, they are demanding the immediate reinstatement of each and every one.
These are novel actions in Greece. The women have occupied and blocked the entrance of the Ministry of Finance and they chase the officials of the troika when they want to enter the Ministry, forcing them to flee and use the back service door with their bodyguards. They confront and engage in physical skirmishes with the special police units. Every day they are devising new forms of action, which are reported in the media and are attracting the attention of the whole population. In short, they are breaking the isolation.
In this way, things that are usually presented as lifeless and soul-less statistics, with numbers describing record levels of unemployment and poverty, all these abstract concepts, become human, acquire a human face, become real women in flesh and blood, who moreover have strong personalities and their own political will. They have names like Litsa, Despina, Georgia, Fotini, Dimitra… And through their example, their courage, their perseverance and their determined rage to win, they are giving back hope to all the victims of austerity.
But… it is important to be aware that the riot police are bullying these women almost every day to make an example of them, because their bosses fear that the women’s actions might spread. The whole country is watching this sad spectacle of the women, many of them older women, who day after day are trampled on, manhandled and injured by the police “Rambos”, who could be their sons. Why? The simple reason is that the troika itself wants to break them, because they are an example, a model, to be followed by all those who are oppressed; because they are at the front line of the rejection of austerity politics, not just in Greece, but everywhere in Europe; because their fighting spirit could become infectious…
More than ever, the struggle of these 595 heroic women cleaners, is also our struggle. Let’s not leave them fighting alone. They are battling for us, let us battle for them too. Let’s organise European and International Solidarity.