Greek unions promise war but public may turn its back
Published 03/07/2011 | 05:00
Winding its way along the Greek coastline, the picturesque train trip is nonetheless a tough one: plagued by delays, it takes six hours to cover just 110 miles, twice as long as by car.
Apart from the odd tourist with a lot of time to spare, the only contented faces on board are those of the heavily-unionised train drivers, who take home up to €70,000 a year after bonus schemes are factored in -- 10 times what the average Greek earns.
It is, however, on such moribund pieces of state infrastructure as these that Greece's hopes of salvation -- and, ultimately, those of the eurozone itself -- are now riding. As part of the new austerity programme finally passed by parliament last week, the loss-making Hellenic Railways Network, along with dozens of enterprises ranging from casinos to gold mines and power stations to ports, is to be offered for privatisation.
In will come up to €50bn of the €320bn Greece owes the rest of the world and out will go the power base of the country's overpaid, underworked public sector, whose militant unions are seen as one of the main political obstacles to reform.
Given that the network typically loses nearly €1bn a year (a staggering 5 per cent of Greek GDP in all), unloading the entire network into private hands is an obvious money saver. Any would-be investor, though, will face war from the railway union.
"They are trying to do what Thatcher did to railways in Britain, and we will fight this by striking and, if necessary, in the courts," their spokesman said from their Athens office.
"Everything the state has spent on the railway network will be passed on to private investors, and the quality of the services will drop, with fewer trains and stations," he said. "Job security promotes social progress and stability, and it is something we should be promoting across the EU. It should be a union of the people, not the bankers."
If that sounds militant, it is mild compared to the rhetoric at the HQ of the 20,000-strong union of power workers, Greek's toughest union. Responsible for 90 per cent of Greece's electricity, they regularly impose blackouts through strikes, to the point where consumer groups have filed lawsuits accusing them of endangering public safety.
Wandering into their offices is like stepping back in time. Posters show Soviet-style iconography, including a power stack belching out a fist-shaped cloud of steam, while its spokesman is full of populist optimism. "You think powerful unions are a thing of the past?" he asks. "No."
There could be strikes, sit-ins and, if privatisation went ahead regardless, even industrial sabotage. Yet just how much public backing the unions will really get in such a dust-up is open to question. For all the protests in Athens's Syntagma Square, where dreadlocked radicals stage violent demonstrations, patience with the unions among the rest of the public is wearing increasingly thin.
For far too long, Greece's business elite -- from doctors and lawyers through to wealthy shipping magnates -- has got away with flagrant tax evasion, and many feel that the belt-tightening which the government now wants will only hit the lower classes.
"In principle, I don't object to the austerity programme, as we have to pay for what we took," said Yianni Charalampopoulos, a 29-year-old protester who faces paying up to €400 extra in tax on his €1,700-a-month IT worker's salary. "The problem is that while ordinary people can't evade taxes, it is still very easy for the wealthy to do so."
Mindful of such criticisms, the Greek government has set up new teams of tax "untouchables" to probe private bank accounts -- and corrupt colleagues.
Levies are also being introduced on yachts, swimming pools and other items of conspicuous consumption. But progress has been patchy so far, which is not surprising given Greece's general record on law enforcement, says Mr Charalampopoulos.
"Last year we brought in a law banning smoking in cafes, but nobody is enforcing that," he said. "Inspectors come to check if ashtrays are being used, but the owners just provide plastic cups of water for people to put their ash in instead. It typical Greece."
However it goes, the next few years look bleak for ordinary Greeks, who face the Sisyphean task of paying ever more taxes to rebuild a system that could, in the end, still come crashing down again.