The cutbacks in education are part of government's austerity plan laid out in the 1998 budget, which the parliament, dominated by the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK), passed December 22. It includes a virtual freeze in public sector wages and pensions, with a ceiling on annual raises of 2.5 percent when inflation exceeds 5 percent a year.
The social democratic administration of Prime Minister Constantinos Simitis justifies the austerity measures by pushing for acceptance into the European Monetary Union (EMU). Greece is currently not expected to meet the EU criteria for joining the "common currency" before the turn of the century, but the government hopes to join in 2001. The country's budget deficit stands at 4.4 percent of Gross Domestic Product, well above the 3 percent required for joining the EMU. The government measures have intensified the class struggle over the last year. Social protests have included a wave of walkouts by sailors and teachers and highway blockades by farmers last February, a one-day general strike December 18, and the student occupations.
Militant reporters Georges Mehrabian, Bobbis Misailides, and Natasha Terlexis sent the following reports.
ATHENS-It was a dark, cold, and windy December 9 as we approached the large complex that houses the Philosophy School at the University of Athens. All the access doors were closed for the night. Large banners hung in front: "Student Occupation. No To The Arsenis Plan." We were met at one door by a student guard of about six.
Surprised at two workers coming to show support, the students welcomed us warmly as they opened the door for us.
There were about 50 students on site that night, the large majority of them women. Maria, a language student and an acquaintance of ours, spotted us and took us over to talk with the group she was sitting with. "The government's plan, by removing the seniority list for hiring of teachers, will leave most of us jobless," explained Vasso. Graduates of this faculty generally become language and history teachers in secondary schools. Under the new law, the names of graduates will no longer be put on a list and guaranteed a job - even if after many years and at inadequate wages - as had been the practice. "Not only that, but those that have jobs will be regularly tested, supposedly to check their qualifications. This is a way to do away with tenure in the public schools and get rid of `troublesome' teachers."
"The best teachers, the most imaginative, will be fired from the high schools," Maria added. "They will have just yes men. Imagine what that will do to the teachers' union."
"The other issue is that they will change entrance examinations. In effect they will make your last two years of grades count before you can qualify for university. Now it depends on your national entrance exam," explained Vasso, making university entrance more restrictive.
Asked about the participation of students, Maria said, "The occupations are taking place in about a dozen campuses now. Here, we have about 12,000 students. Over 700 participated in the general assembly. That was a significant first step against the Arsenis Plan. This happened despite the opposition of all the political parties including the KNE," the youth group of the Communist Party.
As dozens of students flowed in and out of the theater, representatives of the various youth organizations took the floor to state their position on the new education law and what to do about it, and then answered questions. "This is a fight for free public education," the representative of the Left Coalition of the Philosophy School (SAF) shouted into the microphone. "We have begun a movement capable of defeating the government's plans. Why stop now? In the past, it has been movements of occupation that have netted us gains."
This position was contested by a representative of the Communist Youth of Greece (KNE). "We are opposed to the law," she said, "but the occupations involve a small number of people and by closing down the schools they prevent students from participating in protests against the law." Many applauded, but others heckled and commented from the floor, "Then why don't you participate in the protests that are going on? Why are you siding with the government?"
To the same mixed and rowdy response, the representative of the youth organization of the ruling Social Democratic Party of Greece (PASOK), accused those supporting the occupation of being irresponsible and not participating "in a genuine effort to modernize Greek education" and holding on to a "mistaken reading of Marx." Representatives of two right-wing student groups also spoke. In the end, a proposal to continue the occupation was narrowly defeated.
The high school contingent was visibly in a militant mood. Among them were students from the 15th High School of Kipseli in central Athens, who took part in a defense team in a demonstration that faced riot police. The students chanted to onlookers in busy shopping districts to "join us to fight for free public education." Many people walking by called out their support.
"The administrative personnel, as well as the union of the maintenance workers at the dorms, have voted not to support us," said one of the occupation organizers. "They even stopped taking out the garbage. We have had to organize tasks like that ourselves." The actions here are broadly supported by those living in the dorms. Weekly general assemblies draw 500-700 students. The main issues are the fact that the new law calls charging rent at the dorms of up to $65 per month, as well as new disciplinary regulations on students housed here.
"What is the meaning of free education if we have to pay
for the dorms?" asked Sophia as she gave Militant reporters an
update of their struggle. Sophia is an activist in the
Committee of Struggle, which meets every day to coordinate
however many students who want to participate. "We only apply
general assembly decisions," she said.
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