May Day, May Day

The title is not a cry for help, just a comment on the fact that Greeks celebrated May Day twice this year, once before the Orthodox Easter and once after it. With May 1 (the day on which workers across the world strike in commemoration of the blood-drenched strike for an eight-hour workday in Chicago in 1886) falling on the Wednesday before Easter, and the officially sanctioned holiday falling on May 7, the following Tuesday, many, many workers celebrated both Labor Day and their own good fortune in being Greek workers by taking a weeklong holiday instead of just a long weekend over Easter. This led to a record exodus of cars from Athens (about 900,000, police estimated), and record queues (of up to 15 kilometers) and long hours waiting for the Rio-Antirio ferry when bad weather closed the crossing between western Greece and the Peloponnese for nearly 24 hours. The number of deaths on the country’s roads – 59 between Lazarus Saturday (eight days before Easter) and the official May Day last Tuesday – was lower than last year. This double holiday was like that wonderful (but almost extinct) habit of watermelon sellers slicing a deep triangle into their dark green wares to seduce the customer with the blood-red dripping heart. In the same way, the pale-green PASOK government was allowed to display, once again, the pale pink of Socialism faded into market-savvy populism. Holidays and civil-sector hirings are the modern equivalent of the Roman bread and circuses. This is great for those who work in the public sector and can afford to exploit the State’s largess – as employees of state-controlled banks did by not only striking on May 1 and May 7 but also by tacking on a 48-hour strike on May 8 and 9. Meanwhile, the other banks’ employees were at work. But it is not the government’s fault. It is simply giving the people what they have become used to getting – state sector workers demand to work little and the rest of us tolerate this. In this, the government is to blame for having institutionalized slacking, on the general understanding that it doesn’t matter if we weasel our way out of work, or take short cuts such as building country houses without permits, or not studying in school or university, or not paying back our bank loans. In order to glean votes, the government will invariably solve the problem in our favor. This is democracy at its finest, when it works to give the people what they want (at the expense of the angst-ridden few – or are they perhaps a silent and invisible majority?). And one thing that most people most definitely do not want is discipline, the tyranny of having to strive for an objective result. That is something that any shrewd government will know and every opposition party will exploit. In this way, the momentum is for people to demand more while providing less. Any perceived effort to oppose this will unite the usually fractious population into a wall of resistance such as that expressed by the huge rallies on May 1 last year after the government presented its abortive pension reform proposals. So, May Day 2002 was an illumination of sorts. Having learned its lesson of a year ago, the government has replaced the technocrat economist Tassos Yiannitsis with the smooth-talking former government spokesman, Dimitris Reppas, as minister of labor. Pension reforms, therefore, are looking likely to cost the state treasury more than they would have done in the past. And if the people want two May Day holidays, let them have them. The whole thing was ostensibly aimed at allowing merchants to keep their shops open in the week before Easter. The joke was that on May 1 most unions held a strike anyway. They also held two separate protest rallies – one with government-allied union members and the other with Communist-led groups – that were small but still managed to choke traffic in Athens for hours because this year the protesters marched to the US and Israeli embassies to proclaim their support for the Palestinians. The extra May Day also knocked the Athens Stock Exchange and banking system out of sync with other European markets, but what is European integration in the face of national distinctiveness? And so, in a nutshell, we had the dichotomy between those who wanted to work (or had to because they were employed by private businesses) and those who could choose to strike and attend protest rallies. We also saw the impressive way in which a religious holiday was used for purely secular ends – doing business and taking a longer holiday with the extension of the Easter weekend. Once again we witnessed the cost to businesses of streets blocked by protesters, preventing customers from getting to shops or others getting to their places of business. This is a war of two worlds that will never end until a government in a future millennium dares to inhibit the Greeks’ God-given right to obstruct their fellow citizens by keeping demonstrations from blocking crucial arteries. This propensity to damn the rest for the sake of our own interests is a pale but persistent echo of the fratricidal mania that seizes the Greeks (and perhaps other nations as well that might not be as well-documented as this one, from Ajax’s rage at Odysseus onward) when the pie that they are fighting over is too small and too specific. Generally, the Greeks get by by splitting their world into little parallel universes. That is why political parties keep splitting rather than adapting (as in the great schism of the Communist Party in 1968 into the party of the more eurocentric «Interior» and the dogmatic one then defined as that of the «Exterior»). All the time, like some ancient sect blinded to all else by the delusion of being closer to the godhead, each faction demonizes those closest to it and therefore most likely to cause it harm by seducing its followers. These parties can all live in great harmony if the political system fits them all in. If it turns into a real winner-takes-all situation such as that which followed World War II, we get a civil war. In other words, it is now a harmless tradition that each year each political party’s student wing presents its own results for the national student elections, because everyone knows that this is a meaningless contest. Similarly, several hundred thousand Greeks still follow the old Julian calendar, celebrating Christmas and other religious festivals 13 days after the rest of us (thankfully, the Old Calendrists and the official Church celebrate Easter at the same time or Reppas might have been tempted to declare a third May Day). These more orthodox Orthodox brothers and sisters are the first to join protests against a common enemy, such as the pope, for example. But when the issue involves some lucrative turf, like a church with an allegedly miraculous icon, then we have something like West Side Story in cassocks. And in the middle of this all came the great Easter holiday, the religious festival that unites all Greeks with the eternal promise of the Resurrection. And this is a deeply treasured feeling among Greeks, who – among their many traits – love life and live it to the full and never go gently into any good night. Easter, the festival of hope and spring, says that even if things get so bad, if death takes us or our loved ones, we will get a second chance. Faith, in other words, defeats every absolute. So, at a more profane level, what could a mere labor minister do when faced with a dilemma in which May Day fell in a busy commercial week? Seeing as he couldn’t tamper with the sacred and change the date of the Resurrection, he gave us two holidays instead. Why fight over one when you can have two? Magic.

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