Greek unions at crossroads

The squabble inside PASKE, the PASOK-affiliated union, as well as in the Socialist party itself, reflects the dilemmas and paradoxes challenging some deep-rooted perceptions about unionism. These are hardly exclusive to PASOK-affiliated unions. The recent Hellenic Telecommunications Organization (OTE) deal to ease the virtually permanent employment status in force to date spurred no reaction from the New Democracy-affiliated unions. But resistance may well erupt in the future. The conservative prime minister, Costas Karamanlis, is determined to move on with structural reforms – a campaign that will likely come with some social tension. The premier wishes to build a political and social consensus in order to ease the path for reforms. But desire alone won’t do it. Meanwhile, in the Socialist camp the OTE agreement on future staff hirings brought to the surface internal political divisions that had so far been masked by airy-fairy generalizations. It is an open secret that if the Greek economy is to survive the intense competition in a globalized economy a series of structural reforms must be made first. But that is easier said than done, especially when even self-evident reforms meet resistance from social groups that perceive change as a threat to their vested interests. In other words, this is a tough task that will almost certainly entail some short-term political cost. This is not just a challenge for political parties, but for union leaders as well. Union action is still about pressing for better wages and working conditions. But economic and social conditions are too complex to be simply reduced to that. Labor representatives have to take new factors into consideration; most importantly, the competitiveness of the company that they represent. Competitiveness has become a sine qua non for survival. It is so simple. The agreement between OTE’s all-powerful PASKE signaled a new era for unionism, as OTE’s needs were combined with the interests of the employees. The belated reaction of Christos Polyzogopoulos, chief of the General Confederation of Greek Labor (GSEE), and partisan pressures to cancel the deal prove that the route toward a more modern form of unionism is littered with obstacles.

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