Why Greek-Style Strikes Can't Happen in America

If you awoke today in Athens – and before you went to bed last night – one of your first duties would be to check the Strike Report so you’d know who’s working and who’s not, what’s open and what’s not. There are so many work stoppages that most TV stations have taken to listing the daily strikes. At one time or another, growing numbers of Greeks angry at austerity measures they say have hit workers and left politicians, tax evaders and the country’s rich elite alone have walked off their jobs – to no avail.

Prime Minister George Papandreou, following the orders of the Troika of the European Union-International Monetary Fund-European Central Bank which is loaning the country $152 billion in rescue loans to stave off bankruptcy, has repeatedly cut the pay of workers, raised taxes for everyone (except tax evaders who don’t pay any) slashed pensions, and – after constant denials he would never do so, has begun the layoff and eventual firing of as many as 120,000 municipal employees.

It was a brewing cauldron of volatile elements. A new wave of tax hikes and pay cuts, bringing the pay of teachers with 30 years tenure below $20,000, has fomented social unrest, demonstrations, protests, and riots, all of which have failed, so desperate workers worried about their jobs and futures have been striking across most sectors. That’s included tax inspectors, taxi drivers, customs officers, air traffic controllers, civil servants, lawyers, pharmacists, transportation workers (closing the Metro, buses, trams, trolleys and trains) hospital workers, prison guards, teachers, garbage collectors and self-employed professionals, making life difficult for everyone as there was no way to get around the city as rubbish piled up. Coupled with news that the poor, those making $6,700 a year will be taxed and the minimum wage of $700 a month net will be scrapped, it was too much for the workers to take. It was all they could stands and they couldn’t stands no more,  so they took a stand.

They are getting little sympathy though because of their reputation as lazy, inefficient lifers in decent-paying no-heavy lifting jobs stamping papers and waiting for an early retirement, but the fat in Greece is marbled in, not layered, so the many decent, hard working civil employees are first in line to be laid off unless they have political backing. Working against everyone is the math: Greece has been spending more than it takes in and the bill has come due for packing payrolls with patronage hires for generations: someone has to go and everyone’s pay had to be cut – unless Greece collected the $40 billion a year it cedes to tax evaders. That won’t happen because they include most Members of Parliament and politicians so they aren’t going to prosecute themselves nor pay up, even while they make everyone else do so and beat their jingoistic breasts.

The best among the strikers say what they want is justice and fairness and are willing to sacrifice for the common good, but are not willing to give their lives, jobs and money to people who abscond with all of it and, as the saying goes, drink wine from their skulls. Their chief enemies are the Troika who control Greece, and Papandreou, who they believe has dismantled the principles of his PASOK Socialist party, although the Prime Minister’s retort is that he is saving Greece from them and for them. But the new focal point of anger is Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos, who has become Papandreou’s pit bull in administering the Draconian measures (why are they never Solonian measures?) In the country which created democracy, built on the right to dissent, Venizelos wants none of that and has attacked the strikers as unpatriotic and undemocratic.

“The picture we have seen over recent days is one of lawlessness,” Venizelos told lawmakers in Parliament in Athens, in comments televised live on state-run Vouli TV. “Some believe that occupations, strikes, blackmail, pressure can lead to the satisfaction of vested interests to the detriment of the national interest.” The problem with that is that Venizelos and his cohorts ARE the vested interests, and the strikers believe what they’re doing is in their best interest, although many among them just want to keep their sinecures, including some very highly paid positions indeed, such as railway and petroleum workers making five to six times the salaries of most municipal employees because they are employed in state-run entities. But with nearly a million public workers in a country of 11 million people, something had to give. Even workers at the Finance Ministry walked out – and then promptly walked back in and occupied the building in protest.

Could this happen in the United States? What would life be like if it did? Because Greece is a small country in population and geographical size, the laws of the land spread fast and wide, as does lawlessness, so it’s unlikely you’d get transportation workers in 50 states in the U.S. to strike no matter how angry they were because there’s no central authority affecting all their pay simultaneously. There is one example though of when it did. In 1981, air traffic controllers at Washington Dulles airport called an illegal strike and were joined by 11,000 others around the country. President Ronald Reagan, who had been in office less than a year – and who had been endorsed by the controllers’ union – fired all of them after getting the sympathy of Americans.

There are no real parallels for nationwide strikes in the U.S. as in Greece, and you won’t see air traffic controllers going on strike again in America. Ditto for customs inspectors and airport security workers who’d be fired in an eye blink if they stopped working. Likewise, it’s inconceivable that all of the country’s pharmacists would strike at the same time and there’s just too many franchises and chain stores to imagine that happening. Taxis are regulated by every separate city and town in which they are located and, unlike Greece, which sets conditions and even fee schedules for closed professions such as lawyers, architects, pharmacists and engineers, guaranteeing them a big profit margin and no competition in the monopolies they enjoy, American professionals set their own fees and services.

Each state has its own version of Civil Service requirements dictating standards for who will be hired, unlike Greece where a phone call from a politician or influential banker or business executive gets someone a job. Amtrak, the national railway system, last year carried more than 30 million people, a record, but Americans can drive, fly or take buses and could get alone just fine if there were a railway strike. Likewise, teachers get no respect in America nor in Greece, but try standing on your feet six hours a day trying to educate students who often are out of reach, do lesson plans, grade papers and prepare classes and see how long you’d last. Still, when American teachers strike, their students parents usually side with management and the teachers know it so they’re unlikely to walk off the job, especially after last year’s experience in Central Falls, R.I. when all the high school’s striking teachers were fired.

In Greece, strikers may or may not be paid under a whimsical system, although teachers always have their pay docked. Other striking workers were getting paid under a loophole that allowed it if they declared their strike a “symbolic protest.” Why didn’t American workers think of that? It’s one Greek export that would be sure to sell.