Greece, Spain: The rise of workers’ assemblies
Faced with the avalanche of attacks now raining down on the working class - unemployment, cuts in services, police repression - we are seeing the beginnings of a very widespread response from those under attack.
The December outbreak of open rebellion by students, workers and the unemployed all over Greece following a police murder was the most spectacular expression of this response, but it was preceded or accompanied by other revolts by young people in Italy, France, Germany, Lithuania and elsewhere.
One of the clearest signs that these were indeed movements of the working class and not a series of headless riots was the tendency towards self-organisation which they brought to the surface. In Greece, where the official trade union organisation, the GSEE, openly sided with the regime against the protestors, ‘insurgent workers' occupied the union HQ in Athens and turned it into a centre for holding general assemblies open to all students, workers, and unemployed. This is how the occupiers explained the reasons for their action:
We decided to occupy the building of GSEE
- To turn it into a space of free expression and a meeting point for workers.
- To disperse the media-touted myth that the workers were and are absent from the clashes, and that the rage of these days was an affair of some 500 "mask-bearers", "hooligans" or some other fairy tale, while on the TV-screens the workers were presented as victims of the clash, while the capitalist crisis in Greece and Worldwide leads to countless layoffs that the media and their managers treat as a "natural phenomenon".
- To unmask the shameful role of the trade union bureaucracy in the undermining of the insurrection - and not only there. GSEE and the entire trade union apparatus that has supported it for decades and decades, undermine the struggles, bargain our labour power for crumbs, perpetuate the system of exploitation and wage slavery. The stance of GSEE last Wednesday is quite telling: GSEE cancelled the scheduled strikers' demonstration, stopping short at the organisation of a brief gathering in Syntagma Square, making sure at the same time that people will be dispersed in a hurry from the Square, fearing that they might get infected by the virus of insurrection.
- To open up this space for the first time - as a continuation of the social opening created by the insurrection itself - a space that has been built by our contributions, a space from which we were excluded. For all these years we trusted our fate on saviours of every kind, and we end up losing our dignity. As workers we have to start assuming our responsibilities, and to stop assigning our hopes to wise leaders or "able" representatives. We have to acquire a voice of our own, to meet up, to talk, to decide, and to act. Against the generalized attack we endure. The creation of collective "grassroot" resistances is the only way.
To propagate the idea of self-organization and solidarity in working places, struggle committees and collective grassroot procedures, abolishing the union bureaucracies"
The practise of using occupations as a basis for holding general assemblies was by no means restricted to this example. Following a vicious acid attack on a cleaning worker employed by the Athens metro, both the offices of the Athens metro and the local union HQ in Thessaloniki were taken over and used as a base for assemblies. The assembly held in the union building declared:
"Today we are occupying the HQ of the trade unions of Thessaloniki to oppose the oppression which takes the form of murder and terrorism against the workers...We appeal to all the workers to join this common struggle...the assembly, open to all occupying the union office, people coming from different political milieus, trade union members, students, immigrants and comrades from abroad adopted this join decision;
To continue the occupation;
To organise rallies in solidarity with Konstantina Kuneva
To organise actions to spread information and to raise awareness around the city
To organise a concert in the city centre to collect money for Konstantina".
This assembly made its opposition to the official trade unions very clear: "Nowhere in the platform of the trade unions is there any reference to the causes of inequality, poverty and hierarchical structures in society...The general confederations and the trade union centres in Greece are an intrinsic part of the regime in power; their rank and file members must turn their back on them and work towards the creation of an autonomous pole of struggle directed by themselves...if the workers take their struggles into their own hands and break with the logic of being represented by the bosses' accomplices, they will rediscover their confidence and thousands of them will fill the streets in the next round of strikes. The state and its thugs are murdering people.
Self-organisation! Struggles for social self-defence! Solidarity with immigrant workers and Konstanitina Kuneva".
The Athens Polytechnic, symbolic centre of pitched battles against the police state of the Colonels in 1973, was used in the same way: occupation and the holding of open assemblies, which insisted that decisions about the conduct of the struggle (including when to make a tactical retreat in the face of overwhelming state force) would be in their hands:
"The general assembly and the assembly alone will decide if and when we leave the university...the crucial point is that it's the people occupying the building and not the police who decide on the moment to quit.
By bringing the occupation of the Polytechnic School to an end after 18 days, we send our warmest solidarity to everyone who has been part of this revolt in different ways, not only in Greece but also in many countries of Europe, America, Asia and Oceania. For all those we have met and with whom we are going to stay together, fighting for the liberation of the prisoners of this revolt, and for its continuation until the world social liberation"
The closing words also show the internationalist spirit of the movement, which saw immigrant and Greek-born workers, students and unemployed fighting side by side, and which saw itself as part of a much wider international response to the open crisis of global capitalist society.The idea of assemblies as an alternative to the dead hand of the trade unions also appeared on a smaller scale during a recent struggle by mental health workers in Alicante in Spain1. This mobilisation was provoked by the non-payment of wages by the local public authorities. The workers involved got together with patients and their families and organised in general assemblies which were not restricted to those most directly involved but were open to all workers. This was a direct consequence of the workers' rejection of any narrow, sectionalist attitude. As they put it in their leaflet: "We don't think that this struggle is ours alone. Our situation is the product of a situation of general crisis and bankruptcy on an international scale, as well as of the poor management of the public administration in particular. All of this is part of the general attack on the living conditions of the workers and the population in general".
We are publishing here a series of documents voted by the general assembly of AFEMA (Alicante Family Association for the Mentally Ill) workers:
For a general assembly on 27 November
We, the workers of AFEMA, have entered into struggle to defend our living conditions and for free, decent services
We know that this situation is a general problem for the whole working class which every day sees its living conditions under attack. We think that the only solution lies in the unity and extension of our struggles so that they become one combat. This is why we are calling for a general assembly of workers
We propose the following agenda, while remaining open to your proposals:
- presentation and sharing of the particular situations of each enterprise or each comrade;
- analysis of the general situation;
- proposals for joint solidarity actions;
- permanence of the assembly as a space for workers to come together;
We hope to meet everyone on Thursday 27 November at 18.30 at the Loyola Centre
This assembly is open, we invite you to extend it to all workers and comrades
Platform of workers from the social and health services
NB: although this invitation has been sent to diverse political and trade union organisations, our approach is a unitary one, we see the working class as a whole which has to act together according to what's needed. This is why we think it is not the place for a confrontation of organisations or for the exposition of particular programmes.
Leaflet distributed by the workers
The administrations attack the rights of mental health users and workers
The users (people with mental health problems and their families) and the workers of AFEMA are also experiencing the crisis. Because of the disastrous management of mental health services by the public authorities for years, our situation today is frankly very difficult.
Like other associations, AFEMA is an NGO which runs publically subsidised services and centres. These are services for people with disabilities. The administrations have never paid much, they pay late and poorly, but today the situation has become scandalous.
The delays in payment and the absence of subsidies are threatening the existence of the already meagre resources allocated to these people, just as they threaten the workers with the loss of their jobs. We are already having a hard time getting our wages on a regular basis, with all the problems that leads to.
We have therefore decided to mobilise ourselves. We don't think that this struggle is ours alone. Our situation is the product of a situation of general crisis and bankruptcy on an international scale, as well as of the poor management of the public administration in particular. All of this is part of the general attack on the living conditions of the workers and the population in general.
This is why we think that our struggle is the struggle of everyone:
- because of the danger of the disappearance of the social and health services needed by the population;
- because of the repeated attacks on the living conditions of the workers
Poster drawn up by the workers
Users without resources, workers without wages!
Users and workers of AFEMA in struggle for decent and free services!
The administrations are no longer paying us and are neglecting the health services.
The users and their families are in danger of finding themselves without any resources.
We, the workers, aren't getting our wages and we are at risk of losing our jobs.
For a free, decent service for people with mental health problems.
For the rights of the workers and users of mental health services.
Support our mobilisations!
Wednesday the 19th at 19.00:
Information meeting open to members, families, friends, workers, professionals... Loyola Centre
Friday 21 at 11.00:
Protest demonstration in front of the PROP building of the Rambla (Alicante)
Demonstration in Valencia (to be confirmed)
Association of families and mental health patients in Alicante
Platform of workers from the social and health services
1. Since the 1970s there have been numerous examples of Spanish workers organising in general assemblies. In 1976 the workers of Vittoria, during a general strike, not only formed assemblies in the various workplaces but also elected a delegate assembly which more or less took over the running of the town. In Alicante itself, in 1977, a large movement of workers in the shoe industry also adopted this form of organisation, in open opposition to the trade unions: see http://libcom.org/history/reflections-shoe-industry-strike-assembly-movement-alicante-1977; and in Vigo in 2006 the steel workers held massive public assemblies to bring together the workers from a number of small steel factories and to open their struggle to other sectors of the working class: see http://en.internationalism.org/wr/295_vigo