OPINION

Divisive unions

If anything goodis to come of this crisis, it will entail the end of the selfishness and self-destructive behaviors that caused it in the first place. We are entering a period in which every institution, every group and every individual will have to redefine itself with regard to society as a whole. The economic crisis is the greatest catalyst for change since the military dictatorship of 1967-74 took right-wing authoritarianism to extremes, discrediting it totally as a political and social option. The government of Costas Karamanlis functioned as the junta’s opposite: A democratic and utterly timid leadership allowed our culture of entitlement and complaint to run unchecked for so long that it exhausted the country’s resources. The trade unions have played a leading part in destroying Greece. It is easy to see how: First, the two biggest groupings – ADEDY and GSEE – represent only the most sheltered of all Greek employees: people on the state payroll. ADEDY is the civil servants’ federation, whereas GSEE is nominally the confederation of private and public sector employees; in reality, GSEE is controlled by the public sector employees and unionists because people working in the private sector cannot afford the time nor the money to be involved in union activity. Secondly, the unions are controlled by political parties, which means that their primary interest is the furthering of the party’s political interests as well as the advancement of senior trade unionists within the party, often leading to a seat in Parliament. Thirdly, they are often controlled by the most populist, activist factions within parties – that’s why PASOK-controlled GSEE brought the PASOK government of Costas Simitis to a standstill in 2001, when he had the temerity to try to reform the social security system. In representing workers of the civil service and broader public sector, the leading labor organizations have leveraged their members’ job security (they cannot be fired) to stage demonstrations and strikes that force the rest of the country’s workers to participate, strengthening the hand of those who run the unions. Private sector employees have benefited from collective labor agreements that set minimum wages and benefits but this has been offset by the need for them to pay higher taxes and social security fees for the even greater benefits that public sector employees kept getting. That is why labor is so expensive in Greece and why our products are not competitive – not because Greeks don’t work but because their income is lost in the black hole of public sector salaries, pensions and other benefits. As with the Public Power Corporation employees who have been on strike since Monday, causing a series of power outages across the country, pressure groups have never been too shy to exploit the power given them by their jobs to impose misery on the rest of society until they achieve their demands. Because every government has consistently given in to such blackmail, society has become a patchwork of privileged and underprivileged workers and pensioners. And everyone went along with this, as if empowered minorities were entitled to get whatever they could at the expense of the rest of society. Looking out for the privileged at the expense of private sector wage earners and the unemployed, the unions have killed the goose that laid the golden eggs. They will either have to begin looking after the long-term interests of all workers – employed or not – or continue to live with their delusions. They will have to see themselves and their role in a completely new light. This will not be easy: Already we have seen the more extreme leftist groups trying to dominate the debate, through demands for total opposition to the government’s austerity measures and with the assault on GSEE president Yiannis Panagopoulos at a protest on March 5. The unions must now take a hard look at themselves and decide whether they will contribute toward Greece’s reformation, with all that this will cost employees, or whether they will keep shouting and marching into irrelevance – at far greater cost to workers.