The steelworkers guarding modern-day Thermopylae

by Leonidas Oikonomakis on July 21, 2012

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If Spain has the miners of Asturias, Greece has the steelworkers of Aspropyrgos. Their 9-month strike symbolizes the workers’ struggle in neoliberal Europe.

Thermopylae

Honor to those who in the life they lead
define and guard a Thermopylae.
Never betraying what is right,
consistent and just in all they do
but showing pity also, and compassion;
generous when they are rich, and when they are poor,
still generous in small ways,
still helping as much as they can;
always speaking the truth,
yet without hating those who lie.

And even more honor is due to them
when they foresee (as many do foresee)
that in the end Efialtes will make his appearance,
that the Medes will break through after all. 

C.P. Cavafy

Translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard

(C.P. Cavafy, Collected Poems. Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Edited by George Savidis. Revised Edition. Princeton University Press, 1992)

If Spain has the miners of Asturias, Greece has the steelworkers of Aspropyrgos. Their nine-month strike symbolizes the struggle for the defence of labor rights, worker’s solidarity, and the government’s role in today’s neoliberal Europe.

It all started nine months ago.

The ownership of the factory of  Halyvourgia Ellados  (Steelworks of Greece), under the pretext of the financial crisis, announced to the 360 workers that they had two options:

Either to accept an horizontal 40% salary cut and five-hour-shift workdays, or the layoff of 170 of them. The workers assembled and decided to reject the blackmail. Very soon thereafter, the owners of the factory announced to 120 of the steelworkers their layoff. The workers assembled again, and decided to go on strike in solidarity with their fired co-workers, demanding their re-employment. And they have not worked in the factory ever since. Until Thursday night.

While the negotiations between the ownership and the workers where ongoing, the ownership announced to the Minister of Labor that they would close down the factory of Aspropyrgos and fire the remaining 240 workers, unless the strike would break. Obviously the nine-month struggle of the workers had started to make an impact on the owners’ profit. A nine-month strike which, to understand the context, has been maintained with huge efforts by the 360 steelworkers and their families, who of course have been left without income throughout this whole period of time. Of course this heroic struggle attracted the solidarity of Greek (and international) civil society, which through numerous initiatives has been providing support to the Greek steelworkers.

Their struggle has been viewed nationally as the modern-day Thermopylae, where a few workers and their families have been defending the labor rights and the dignity of the working population of the country. If the neoliberal logic would pass through the “Gates of Fireof the Steelworks, then nobody would be left to defend labor rights in this country.

And the steelworkers were holding well, until the ownership of the factory found its own modern-day Efialtes in the face of Antonis Samaras’ government, who had no problem to play that role. Yesterday at dawn, like a proper Efialtes, it sent the riot police to break the strike, under the pretext of “protecting the right to labor” of the workers who wanted to go back to work. In reality, protecting the interests of the factory’s ownership.

Solidarity demonstrations have been and are still being organized in Athens and Thessaloniki ever since, and the steelworkers have announced that despite the fact that the factory re-opened, they are determined to continue their strike.

The incident described above is not just a story of a strike that was broken. It is much more than that. On a symbolic level, it shows what’s the role of government in today’s neoliberal Greece and Europe, and whose interests it is protecting. And it is not coincidental that the government decided to intervene to break this strike, just like it was not coincidental that Xerxes decided to break the resistance of the 300 Spartans and the 700 Thespians at Thermopylae: they were both expecting that if they could make it through the Gates of Fire, there wouldn’t be much resistance left to beat.

What the Greek government forgets, though, is that the sacrifice of the Spartans and the Thespians at the Battle of Thermopylae did not go in vain. It gave the necessary time to the remaining Greek army to reorganize itself, and finally beat the army of Xerxes in the battles that followed: that of Salamis, that of Plataea, and that of Mycale…

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Michael Kenny July 22, 2012 at 13:31

What Mr Oikonomakis is actually saying here has nothing to do with the Aspropyrgos steelworkers. He is in fact admitting that the attempt by US neocon supporters to hijack the Greek protest movement has failed. Just as the attempt to hijack the protest movement in Spain, the Arab Spring, the US occupy movement and the Irish referendum failed. People are not stupid. When extremists suddenly pop up offering no serious alternatives and arguing only in pretexts, people are naturally suspicious and draw back.

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Leonidas August 18, 2012 at 20:22

Not even close.
What I am actually saying is that the government intervened in this case to safeguard the interests of the factory owners, not of the workers on strike. Which clearly shows “which side they are on”. And also indicates what we are to expect from this new neoliberal government.

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