By Meryl Simon for Unions Matter
As a person who loves Greece—its literature and magnificent works of art—and has studied its language and rich history, I’ve been tremendously affected by the intense suffering of its people as a result of actions by the Troika (the European Commission, the Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund). In 2005, the Troika lent the newly elected conservative government desperately needed money on the condition that it carry out a harsh austerity program in order to pay back its lenders. Consequently, thousands of well-paying government jobs disappeared and the remaining workers were stripped of benefits fought for and gained by their public sector unions. Great numbers of jobs in the private sector have also been lost. The Greek government was forced to privatize what formerly belonged to all Greeks, including the Port of Piraeus and the oil and gas utilities.
The agony that followed is described by the International Union of Food and Allied Workers’ Association (IUF) which represents 12 million workers in 125 countries:
“At the Troika’s insistence, the minimum wage was reduced by 22%, and 32% for workers under 25. Collective bargaining has been shredded, in blatant violation of international and European Union law. Public services have been gutted and there are shortages even of basic medicines. Economic output has declined by 25% compared with pre-crisis levels, a level of destruction normally associated with war. A quarter of the work force is jobless, with unemployment over 50% for young people. Malnutrition and infant mortality are on the rise….Austerity is…a conscious blueprint for expanding corporate power.”
As a retired teacher and member of the United Federation of Teachers, I’m profoundly grateful for the fact that unionized workers are able to live with decency, including in retirement. And I respect the IUF’s compassionate and exact description of the enormous pain and humiliation imposed on the people of Greece. I am glad that country got new hope from the recent election of the SYRIZA party, which has as its motto one word:“dignity.” In his first speech before the new parliament, the elected prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, leader of SYRIZA, promised “emergency measures to deal with the humanitarian disaster, [including] reinstatement of labour legislation, disbandment of unjust land taxes, fiscal reform to make the rich pay,…a rehiring of the sacked public sector workers, and a stop to the auctioning off of public assets…such as Greece’s ports and energy.” The new government has also begun to make a justifiable case for the revocation of the crippling debt to the Troika. International negotiations for this purpose are continuing.
The leadership of international trade unions, including in Germany, are supportive of the new government. I was very stirred to learn of a powerful statement linked to Labour Start, signed by seven of the nine presidents of the major German trade unions:
“We highlight once again the criticism already voiced on many occasions in the past by the trade unions: right from the outset, the key conditions under which Greece receives financial assistance did not deserve the label ‘reform’. The billions of euros that have flowed into Greece have been used primarily to stabilise the financial sector. At the same time, the country has been driven into deep recession by brutal cutbacks in government spending that have made Greece the most heavily indebted country in the entire EU.
“The rejection at the ballot box of those responsible for the previous policy in Greece is a democratic decision that must be respected….Anyone who now demands that the country simply continue along the previous, so-called ‘path to reform’ is in fact denying the Greek people the right to a democratically legitimised change of policy in their country.”
While conditions are different in the United States, there are some similarities. The destruction of Greek unions, massive job losses, and brutal impoverishment of its people has, to a lesser degree, happened here in America–and if some persons were to have their way, it would be entire. There are relentless efforts by corporate America, aided by some municipalities and states to weaken and ultimately destroy unions. This is being gone after by people who have a huge stake in ensuring that profits earned by American workers go not to the men and women who do the work, but instead to companies and their investors—who do not do the work.
The reason for this is explained by Eli Siegel, founder of the education Aesthetic Realism. Beginning in 1970, he showed with wide-ranging evidence that our economy—the profit system–had failed, and would never recover. He stated there would be efforts to keep this crippled economic system going by paying the American worker as little as possible—what, in effect, has been done in Greece: impoverishing people, making them desperate for jobs and willing to accept a pittance as pay. And for this to happen, labor unions have to be made powerless, even done away with. As Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education, has been showing in issues of the journal The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, this is continuing with ferocious determination. In a recent issue entitled “Shame, Pride, & Economics,” she writes with passion about one form the impoverishment of people has taken in Greece and Spain:
“Today, the word austerity is being used as a euphemism for making people homeless, impoverishing them, forcing children to be hungry and malnourished, making infants die of disease. That is: the word is being used to cover a desperate and vile attempt to keep the profit system going. This is one of the foulest instances of euphemism in any language.
“Austerity, as we find it in the press and statements of economists and government officials (particularly European), is the cutting down on government expenditures, as a means of lessening government debt. And the expenditures to be slashed are for such things as school lunches, assistance to the unemployed, medical aid, pensions. Many of these expenditures are part of what has been called ‘the safety net.’ Now, ‘the safety net’ in itself is an admission that the profit system is a failure: that profit economics cannot provide the people of a nation with that which they need to live. So in an attempt to make up for some of the suffering inflicted by the profit system, various governments provided ways of having people get a bit of the money, food, housing they need….
“Aesthetic Realism explains that the source of all injustice is Contempt, the desire in every person to get an ‘addition to self through the lessening of something else.’ The use of human beings for someone’s private profit is a form of contempt. Eli Siegel was passionate about this matter, and his passion was at one with logic. ‘Man,’ he said, ‘was not made to be used by man for money.’
“And it is contempt that has a person cloak a hideous thing with pretty nomenclature. Once, child labor was described by some as a means of teaching young people responsibility. The present use of the word austerity is in the same tradition. No matter how smoothly government leaders and economists engage in that use, it is an insult to and a mockery of humanity.”
As someone who cares deeply about justice coming to all people, I believe humanity will be seen with the full respect it deserves only when this question, first asked by Eli Siegel, is answered honestly by people everywhere: “What does a person deserve by being a person?”
Meryl Simon is an Aesthetic Realism consultant and anthropologist.
This post was originally posted on Unions Matter here.