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Greek healthcare workers show the way to fight

Kostas Katarachias

May 18, 2021
Kostas Katarachias, a doctor at Athens’ largest cancer hospital Agios Savvas, is also president of his union. His firing for challenging the hospital’s disastrous management of the pandemic sparked a large fightback. He recently spoke about the struggle of Greek healthcare workers on a panel titled, “Pandemic, protest and policing”.
It is very inspiring for our struggle to participate in your online meeting about the pandemic and the fight during a very difficult period, which however simultaneously carries so many opportunities for the working class. 
To begin with, the current pandemic wave is anything but finished, while the weapon of the vaccines will not be effective enough to restrict the virus to endemic waves. The reason is that the vaccines are not available for the biggest parts of the world population and that vaccine nationalism, combined with competition for profits, are effectively destroying this breakthrough.
Greek government and COVID
In Greece, the conservative government of New Democracy with PM Mitsotakis for more than one year has been an absolute disaster with regards to managing the pandemic. For more than two months now, we have faced the worst escalation in the numbers of new infections and of patients who need hospitalization in ICU. The daily deaths per million are among the world’s highest rates and we have had more than 10,000 deaths from the beginning of the pandemic. 
For more than 14 months the government did nothing to avoid this catastrophe. No mass recruitment of healthcare staff, no important increase of hospital funding and ICU beds. 
The vacancies in staff were more than 40,000. Nothing was spent for the protection of high-risk groups, such as seniors in nursing homes, the working class in big industries and crowded workplaces; and of course, no budget increase was ever designated for public transport.
All this period, they eagerly increased funding for the capitalists, airline companies, the mass media, private clinics, the tourist industry. At the same time, however, poverty and unemployment surged. Funds for the public healthcare system were declining, with this dangerous government’s only measure being a useless lockdown, one of the longest and harshest worldwide; a lockdown imposed only on the working class and the poor, with curfews and restrictions of their leisure. Moreover, the government used the lockdown and the fear of the pandemic to repress civil rights, give power to the police, ban demonstrations in an effort to isolate the left and the movement. And they failed!
The resistance did not stop during the pandemic and the lockdown. On 7 April 2020, the workers in the hospitals organized assemblies in every hospital on the initiative of unions controlled by the anticapitalist Left like Agios Savvas, where I have been president for more than 8 years. So, the message to all the Left was that we can have struggles, and the escalation of strikes in hospitals is the only way to save lives – demanding mass recruitment, permanent jobs for hitherto short-term staff (like me), tests and personal protective equipment (PPE) for safety in the workplace. Every week, every month all this year the strikes of the hospitals were the meeting point of all the working class expressing their hatred for this government.
The strike movement spread to the tourist industry workers, the art workers and teachers during last summer and autumn. On October 7th the huge anti-fascist demo outside the court led to the conviction of Golden Dawn as a criminal organization showing to all the Left that we can win, even under seemingly difficult circumstances. After this victory, the antiracist movement emerged stronger against the government’s racist policies, with long-lasting campaigns for open borders and open cities for the refugees, healthcare for all and vaccines for the immigrants and asylum seekers. That’s why March 20th was a great demonstration which echoed the world antiracist movement’s demands.
Protest banned
On November 17th the government banned the commemoration demonstrations for the uprising against the 1974 coup in the polytechnic university. That was a big provocation to the anticapitalist left and all the left people. After the initiative of revolutionaries (SEK) and the anticapitalist left to ignore this ban, there was a big united front of the left to defend the right to demonstrate. Despite clashes with the riot police the demos eventually took place in the centre of Athens and all the major cities of Greece.
 That was a crucial turning point where the government began being all the more isolated. Then we had the Greek #MeToo scandal, with officials of the conservative party, artistic directors in theatres and sports tycoons involved in sexual harassments and rapes of young women and men. The rage against the government was escalating so the 8th of March, the strike for women’s rights was another uprising with the unions spearheading this battle.
So, all this situation with the courageous initiatives of our revolutionary party radicalized people. When the riot police tried to restrict people inside their homes this March, they assaulted a youth at the local square of a suburb of Athens and the video of this police brutality incident went viral, thus transforming the rage to a big explosion of demonstrations in this suburb. In response, the government couldn’t afford but to withdraw police forces from the neighborhood—another victory for us.
The Government knew that in the core of all this resistance was the anticapitalist left and the unions controlled or influenced by SEK and our initiatives, like the coordination of hospital unions created by Agios Savvas for years. For example, in autumn we organized demonstrations and strikes at my hospital – the biggest cancer treatment hospital in Greece – for two months in a row against the unit’s disastrous management, which resulted in the uncontrollable spread of coronavirus infections among staff and patients. There was big publicity about this and it was clearly revealed how little the government cared for healthcare workers and the patients themselves. That was a big blow to them.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that I was targeted due to my union activism (organizing strikes that ridiculed the government) and the ministry of Health began a prosecution against me and my role as the union’s president. I had been working as a doctor in this hospital for 5 years on short-term contracts, and they tried to get rid of me with clear intention to dissolve our union. There was a huge battle against them for more than 2 months which united all the left and all the unions nationwide with big strikes and demonstrations called by the public sector unions, and the solidarity was astonishing. The issue was even brought to Parliament and several conflicts about my case took place between right-wing MPs and all the left.
 At the same time, there were demonstrations in solidarity in Italy and Germany. On March 30, my last day at work, we organized a big militant demonstration toward the ministry of Health where we clashed with riot police, who had the nerve to hit nurses and doctors. The rage after was huge.
Government defeated
Ultimately, the government was defeated, and I returned to the national healthcare system as permanent staff. 
The victory was so big that thousands of people celebrated, acknowledging that we are fighting with our unions for the health of the many and that the unions must be defended.
During the year of pandemic, young workers and new segments of the working class massively organized in unions – with the actors being a telling example – or even created new unions. This tendency made unions stronger as they emerged as the only real alternative in everyday life against this government. 
The hospital unions were pioneers in organizing the fightback in this crucial sector for the pandemic and Agios Savvas was the core of this movement.
On April 22, after championing the right to have the unions we want, we had a new successful strike across the healthcare sector. Now we are organizing a general strike for May 6th (the 1st of May overlapped with Easter) with confidence that their plans to attack our unions and the 8-hour-day will fail as well.
We can get rid of this government of disaster depending on the labour movement and the demands we have because it is up to us, the working class, to create a get away from barbarism.

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