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2. The Historical Development of Greek Trade Unionism

The Greek labour movement has a 120-year history, while GSEE (the General Confederation of Workers of Greece) is already 80 years old. The history of the Greek labour movement can be broken down into five periods. The first one (1879-1918) begins with the outbreak of the first strikes in the island of Syros in 1879 and ends with the founding of GSEE in 1918. The second period (1919-1940) has its beginning at the point of GSEE's founding and subsequent split and comes to a close with the establishment of state- controlled trade- unionism during the Metaxas dictatorship (1936-1940). The third period (1940-1949) includes the years of WW II, the Occupation, Liberation, and civil war that ensued. The fourth one (1950-1974) concerns the course of the labour movement from the end of the civil war until the collapse of the military dictatorship in 1974. The fifth period covers the era of parliamentary democracy from the fall of the dictatorship in 1974 until this day.

The fundamental aspect of the history of the Greek labour movement until the early '90s is a series of strike waves, associated with economic and political developments. Yet the Greek labour movement and its formal representation through trade-union structures does not occupy a central position in the unfolding of nationwide economic and political developments. In recent modern Greek history, while intense social mobilisation and conflicts are not lacking, a presence of the labour movement analogous to that observed in other European countries, with a socialdemocratic tradition, is not evident.

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Period 1879-1918

We may say that the Greek labour movement saw the light of day in 1879, with the strike of shipbuilders and carpenters on the island of Syros in 1879, that emerged as an attempt to counter the effects of the financial crisis that had led to a 30% decrease of their purchasing power. Elsewhere in Greece more strikes followed. They were motivated by current financial problems and pay, but, in the same breath, raised issues of working hours and conditions. There were abiding demands for pay rises, a decrease of the workday from 10 to 8 hours, accident insurance and health care.

During this period activist workers came into contact with politicians and intellectuals, of either socialist or liberal inclinations, who were attempting "to transplant" European- type trade unionism in Greece. Despite persistent efforts on the part of the socialists, those ideas became a preoccupation only for a minority of workers. Apart from the socialists, from 1910 onwards, when the liberalism and reformism of E. Venizelos was in the foreground, in the context of its overall efforts to modernise Greek society, it outdid the labour movement in its claims. Beginning with the safeguarding by law of such rights as the Sunday holiday and the exclusion of employers from membership to the same Unions with employees, it also established a legal framework for regulating accident compensations, work health and safety, and the protection of female and child labour. The Venizelos party did not limit itself to its legislative work, but, parallel to that, it tried to organize the labour movement by the founding of a unified, centralized labour institution, in December 1911, with the founding of the Panhellenic Labour Federation. However, this initiative dwindled under the weight of the labour organisations' indifference. Other attempts followed and once again it was the E. Venizelos government that fostered the formation of GSEE.

The efforts of socialists and reformist - liberals alike to create a labour movement and its central organisation "from above", as it were, points to a different trend from the rest of Europe, where labour unions were merging of their own accord and either gave rise to the emergence of social-democratic parties or, alternatively, directly linked their course to already established socialist and communist parties.

The founding of GSEE in 1918 was the result of the combined efforts of liberal-reformists and socialists, who between themselves represented the majority of labour unions at a time when the labour movement was on the rise as it was struggling against the consequences of the post-war financial crisis. Yet every expression of disagreement among the GSEE leadership led to centrifugal tendencies, and the Confederation's breaking apart was to follow shortly afterwards, when, in 1919, the socialist minority attempted to organise a strike centred round pay demands.

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Period 1919-1940

Over the course of the second period (1919-1940), from the founding of GSEE until the end of the Metaxas dictatorship, while GSEE was prey to successive splits, crises, and state interventions, strikes by salary and wage earners spread and intensified. Tobacco workers, streetcar drivers, and railroad workers played a leading part in them, taking over the lead from the shipbuilders, mechanics, and miners of the 1879-1918 period. The social opposition between employers and workers was especially sharp due to the conditions of industrialisation in the interwar period. Increased supply of labour (related to the Asia Minor crisis and the influx of 1 million refugees), rising unemployment and the closure of the immigration outlet constituted a new framework for the expansion of unionism. The intensification of social inequalities between employers and workers was accompanied by great tension in the relations between the labour movement, on the one hand, and the state on the other. Trade-union activities were the object of intense political persecution. Strikers constantly came up against the police and army. Strikes were accompanied by continuous organisational efforts aiming at the stable functioning of labour unionism within conditions of political instability and political repression.

Strike waves in the interwar period brought about acceleration in the adoption of social policy measures. Up to 1928, social security was not an important or principal demand for the labour organisations. Social security was initiated on a professional, occupational or craft basis, owing to the initiative of trade-unions consisting of employees who had steady jobs and were relatively secure concerning their employment. After 1928 the initiatives for the establishment of Social Security Funds became more intense and specific. At the same time, strike waves were accompanied by the speeding-up of measures for the regulation of salaries and wages by collective agreement. Those measures were completed by the Metaxas dictatorship. It is noteworthy that collective agreements were provided for by Law 281 of 1914. But in the wake of the establishment of the Metaxas dictatorship in 1936, nationwide collective agreements were signed and a minimum wage level was instituted, mandatory arbitration was introduced, a Social Security system (IKA) was set in motion, and the Workers' Housing Organisation (Ergatiki Estia) was created. Strict adherence to labour legislation was aimed at, yet the right to go on strike was abolished.

The measures taken by the Metaxas dictatorship altered the position and features of the labour movement. Trade-unionism became under direct state control and, in parallel, state intervention in the

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regulation of labour relations widened. These two aspects governed the postwar/post-civil war course of the labour movement as well.

Period 1940-1949.

The third period (1940-1949) is the period of the German occupation, the liberation, and the civil war, and demonstrates the far-reaching impact of political relations on the shaping of the Greek labour movement. The conditions under which liberation was achieved resulted in an unprecedented expansion in labour movement activities and workers' organising into unions, as well as to an overcoming of state-controlled unionism, and to its heavy politicisation with an EAMic orientation (EAM was the National Liberation Front that led the resistance movement against the occupation). It is telling that during the civil war (1945-1949) the legally elected left-wing GSEE leadership was ousted by judicial order. The political clashes of the civil war period and the conflicting political relations that took shape over its course, affected the shaping of labour relations in the post-civil war era. The roots of official trade - unionism of the latter period are to be found both in the Metaxas dictatorship period and the civil war settlements.

Period 1950-1974

The fourth period of the labour movement (1950-1974) begins with the end of the civil war and the establishment of the post-civil war political system, and comes to a close with the political changeover of 1974 (establishment of parliamentary democracy). During this period and until the proclamation of the military dictatorship in 1967, bakers construction workers, printers, teachers, civil servants and employees of state-owned companies (such as bank employees, telecommunications workers, postmen, etc.) took the lead in terms of trade-union activity and mobilisation.

To demands having to do with pay (in the early period connected to the high inflation rates of 1946-1953) were added ones putting in doubt state policies concerning the regulation of dismissals, contracts, compensations, contributions to unions and the limits of labour unionism's freedom and rights. The framework for engaging in trade-union activities took shape in the context of a "state-of-emergency" political situation. The state intruded into the organising of trade-unionism during the whole period, from the civil-war up to, and including, 1974, and tried to achieve direct or indirect control over it. The Judiciary was continually mixed up in GSEE leadership changes between 1948 and 1966, during the military junta (1967-1974), but immediately afterwards as well. This resulted in there hardly ever being a GSEE leadership

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comprising a majority of members clearly opposed to the political orientation of the government of the day. Yet this state-unionism system did not manage to put an end to, or curtail, the outbreak of strikes. Salary and wage earners employed in the sector of state controlled companies engaged in trade-union activities. Those employees, such as banking and telecommunications employees, teachers, and postal workers, were capable of organising strikes at the company level and thus gave voice to the active layers of salary and wage earners.

Period 1975-1999

The labour movement's image changed during its fifth period, after 1974. The establishment of parliamentary democracy in 1974 (which occurred in the wake of the Cyprus crisis) took place with no labour union involvement whatsoever. The existing unions were, in their majority, under the direct control of the military regime. In the wake of the political changeover, Laws 5 and 6 of 1975 were issued, and the governing bodies of Labour Federations and Labour Centres and of GSEE itself were replaced. The collapse of the military regime initiated a period of successive waves of social mobilisation with record levels of strike activity (see Table 2.1)

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TABLE 2.1 Strike Activity in Greece




Hours Lost





























































































Source: Ministry of Labour

The period following 1974 was marked by the accession of new labour movements such as the factory movement in industry and the federations movement in state-owned companies (public sector utilities). In the manufacturing sector, in the period, before the military dictatorship, the possibilities for the flourishing of trade-union activity were limited. The great supply of cheap labour due to the influx of rural populations into the cities (1950s, 1960s) on the one hand, and the increase of unemployment on the other, narrowed the potential for development of industrial trade unionism. This changed in the early 1970s, with the rapid industrialisation during the 1967-74 period, unemployment levels below 2%, soaring two-digit inflation after 1973 and the new political climate with the return to parliamentary democracy. Trade-union mobilisation emerged also in areas of the economic structure where, while the concentration of employment was

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low (i.e., employees were distributed among a great number of small production units), there was a certain level of work specialisation. This category included printers, construction workers and bus drivers. In earlier periods, before 1967, in the same category belong the bakers, shoemakers and tobacco workers. These were traditional branches of Greek unionism with a long history of organising on an occupational basis (i.e., trade-union organising of salary and wage earners of the same profession).

A special characteristic of the 1960s, until the military dictatorship was established, was the gradual development of the political factions of the labour movement and the trade-unions. Even though their orientation was declared to be strictly trade-unionist, their differentiation and classification, as well as their activities, were determined by political and partisan considerations. In conjunction with occasional collaborations between primary-level and secondary-level trade-unions, which, as the occasion might arise, opposed the GSEE leadership of the day, these factions gave rise to unofficial tertiary-level trade-union coordinating bodies. They thus constituted a parallel structure of labour movement functioning, oriented towards both activities of a political nature and the organisation of common activities (campaigns, petitions, strikes). This tendency towards third-level collaborations did not result in the founding of another official General Confederation, but functioned under various forms as the unofficial GSEE of the political opposition parties.

After the establishment of parliamentary democracy, in parallel, the active role of political factions of the trade - union movement was consolidated. These factions were linked to the political parties that formed the post-1974 political system. Thus, in the mid-90s, following the latest developments in the political system and the political party scene, the situation has been as follows: PASKE is the labour movemenfaction associated with PASOK, DAKE is linked to the New Democracy party, ESAK to KKE (the communist party), and Autonomous Intervention is connected to the Left-wing Progressive Coalition (Synaspismos).

In a nutshell the developments with regard to Greek trade unions in the period 1975-1999 can be subdivided to the following subperiods:

  • 1975-81 : with a militant labour movement at the company level in manufacturing and in public sector utilities.
  • 1982-85 : with the election of a socialist government (PASOK)

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    in October 1981 came the recognition of trade-union rights (Law 1264/82), the consolidation of trade-union activities and the expansion of trade-union membership.

  • 1986- 90: with the adoption of a stabilisation programme, and deindustrialisation trends, came a period of conflict and retreat for the trade-unions and, in parallel, started a period of experimentation with new roles for trade-unions (legislation on participation at the company level with Law 1568/85 on health and safety at work and Law 1767/88 on workers councils).
  • 1991- 1999: with falling bargaining power and trade-union density parallel to the development of collective bargaining more independent from the state came a period of trade-union involvement in social dialogue practices and institution building at the national level.

© Friedrich Ebert Stiftung | technical support | net edition fes-library | Mai 2000

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