Kleanthis Antoniou of OKDE-Spartakos reports on strikes and demonstrations in Greece following the deaths of 57 people in a train crash at the start of March, a culmination of neoliberal cost-cutting policies on the recently privatised railways. Commentators have compared the crash and its causes to the Grenfell Tower fire in London in 2017, where 72 people died after inadequate flammable cladding was used in a bid to reduce building costs.

Protesters in March with a sign reading ‘Our lives matter’, 8 March 2023. Photo credit: Marios Lolos.

At the start of March, a train accident in Greece took the lives of at least 57 people. The death toll is still unclear, as there is a chance that undocumented travellers lost their lives as well. The accident happened due to a chain of failures that have revealed the frail condition of the Greek state and the criminal behaviour of the railway company Hellenic Train, which was privatised in 2017. 

The details of the accident are horrifying. The first two carriages of the passenger train and the first carriage of the freight train almost disintegrated. With them, numerous lives were lost, among which were all of the workers on duty at the time. The vast majority of deaths were of young people going home after a carnival bank holiday. 

The initial response of the government added more fuel to the fire of public rage, as they blamed a sole train conductor for the disaster. Meanwhile, the PM, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, was caught on camera receiving orders on how to frown and bow his head to look sadder. 

Along with the government response, the media stood valiantly on the side of the criminal train company, blaming the unions for not calling out the lack of safety measures that would prevent something like this from happening. The incident was so sudden that they didn’t do their research before deploying these arguments. In reality, the poor performance of the company that now owned the railway was already widely known internationally. The unions had already complained in various statements about the condition of the service. They had tried numerous times to go on strike over the last few years over cost-cutting in the sector, but they were prevented by a law that was passed to quell strikes by calling for larger majorities to participate in the ballots, similar to recent laws and proposals in Britain. 

Also, last month, prior to the accident, the union (Σωματείο Εργαζομένων Προσωπικού ΤΡΑΙΝΟΣΕ) had declared that they ‘object to becoming an accomplice to accidents that are simply waiting to happen’. A year ago, Christos Katsoulis, responsible for maintenance of the publicly-owned train line, quit Hellenic Train over concerns that he would be accountable for any accidents. It was also revealed that the EU had already sued the government for not implementing European-funded security measures on the railway. 

Elections were supposed to take place on 9 April, as the current conservative government, elected in May 2019, was finishing their term. Elections are now delayed until late spring. The day of the accident, the PM was actually supposed to make a statement at a building used to control the railway traffic automatically, advertising something that could have prevented crashes but had not actually been implemented. 

Telecommunications union banner, 8 March 2023.

Background and context

Privatisation is one of the outcomes of EU-proposed austerity that was imposed on Greece after the financial crisis in 2008. In many cases, cuts in public spending led to selling whole swathes of infrastructure, like all of the country’s airports now owned by FRAPORT, or the port of Piraeus now owned by COSCO. Selling the trainline was the 2012 government’s idea, trying to benefit from the climate at the time, when people had already been so through so much that they seemed to accept any coming reform.

Greece has seen a lot over the last decade, and the last four years have not been easy. The pandemic and its repercussions impacted on a working population that had already learned to live under a hard normality of extreme austerity and depression. The pandemic hit a crashed healthcare system, leading to one of the highest death rates in the world, and the cost of living crisis emerged into a privatised energy sector, making Greece a country with one of the highest prices per KWh of energy last year. 

At the same time, thousands of migrants have been put into camps away from urban areas where they barely survive. A series of femicides have made it clear that sexual violence is a crucial social issue, leading to feminist mobilisations across Greece. On December 2022, police shot a 16-year-old Roma in the head during a car chase after they dodged a 20€ gasoline charge at a petrol station. A similar incident had ended with the killing of another Roma teenager in December 2021. Tensions between the people and the state have been growing for some time.

Students assemble outside the Prytaneia. Credit: source, Facebook group: Μένουμε Ενεργοί – υγεία, συλλογικότητα, αλληλεγγύη.

The accident brings people to the streets

Contrary to popular belief, a shock doesn’t always result in numbness, and the train accident was such a shock. The immediate response from the left and the working class was to point at the company and the government, calling them out as murderers, responsible for a crime. We pointed to neoliberal greed for continuously growing profits, and capitalists’ willingness to create corpses to reach that goal. 

Street actions were called by unions, political organisations and student assemblies, the first being several hours after the accident in front of the offices of Hellenic Train in Athens and Thessaloniki. The police attacked the crowd with tear gas in a way that was reminiscent of anti-austerity protests of a decade ago.

The initial feeling of numbness faded away very quickly after we faced the government and the media response, which insisted that sometimes sacrifices are necessary for progress to take place. Rage bubbled over, and demonstrations continued day-in day-out during the week. Thursday’s call got a good response despite heavy rain, but Friday was the largest day of action during the week. The call for Sunday 5 March brought tens of thousands to the streets. Around 70 demonstrations around Greece took place on Sunday. 

The unions took this opportunity to call for a general strike on 8 March, International Women’s Day. Unions in the public sector decided to call a national strike while the federation of unions for the private sector voted for a strike in Athens, where half the country’s population live. It was a general strike in all but name. 

On Wednesday in the early morning, the university students occupied a prominent administrative  building – Prytaneia – in the centre of Athens and formed an assembly there, calling for unions to participate after the demo was over. 

Though there was a sense of triumph about the scale of the protests, the crowds were still furious,  determined to bring down the government. Police locked all the subway stations in the centre of Athens to prevent crowds from forming. About 100.000 joined the demo in Athens and many more marched around the country. In every town, big and small and even on the islands, the demonstrations suggested Greece is entering a new phase. 

The slogans focused on the murderous character of privatisation and the responsibility of the Greek state, and due to International Women’s Day, there was no shortage of feminist slogans. Four hours after crowds had assembled in Athens, numbers were still strong. Heavy police presence meant there was a lot of chasing and tear gas, but police showed some restraint as elections are only several weeks away. 

Attempted raid of the Prytaneia after a few hours of occupation. Credit: Marios Lolos, Youtube

What’s next for the Greek left?

What happened in the last week was a strike called from below, as the enemy became clearer and there was greater trust in our weapons: unionising and protesting. It sets an example for struggles to come – and it’s certainly not over yet. Demos are still called for this weekend, and now a formal general strike has been called for 16 March.

The fact that elections are coming means that many on the left recently have been arguing that we need to address the big issues and forget the streets. ANTARSYA, the anticapitalist group I participate in, has called out this stance as disastrous. Even just a few weeks ago, many on the left were not convinced a strike this large could happen, even though the groundwork was already laid.

The opposition, SYRIZA, sit comfortably on their poor polling figures, not hugely eager to take the helm of government during a period of war and tensions with Turkey. SYRIZA’s opposition the last year has been almost totally focused on 2022’s wire-tapping scandal, in which it was uncovered that the PM was spying on all of his ministers and major state officials, as well as opposition politicians and journalists. This issue, however shocking, wasn’t significant enough to inspire strikes, and didn’t help SYRIZA in the polls.

We were headed for elections with no real debate, and yet now there is one, and it’s no longer a debate about which party will govern. It’s a debate about a monstrous, murderous state that gives private companies everything they ask for in exchange for innocent people’s lives. The left is winning this public debate right now, but we need this situation to last and move us forward into a stronger position. 

The horizon looks hopeful for the working class movement in Greece. I wish I hadn’t seen people I know losing their lives for that to happen. 

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