Starting with a brief history of the Greek trade union movement, we should say that the struggle for better working conditions in the late 19th century marked the beginning of workers’ collective action to press their demands.
The difficult and exhausting working conditions in industry and crafts forced workers to establish the first trade unions. The first workers’ union was formed in 1879 in the island of Syros – “Brotherhood of Carpenters” in the shipyards of Syros -. It is worth noting that the first most significant worker mobilization was organized in Syros on 17th December 1879 by the shipbuilders working in the shipyards of the island.
At the beginning of the new century, large protests and demonstrations were organized in various sectors and in many cities while new trade unions as well as branch and regional trade union organizations were set up, with a focus on Article 11 of the Constitution on the right to freedom of association and Law 281/1914 on safeguarding the protection of trade union rights.
1918: The idea of a national central trade union organization is gaining ground and on the initiative of the “Thessaloniki Federation” and the Athens and Piraeus regional labour centers, a Panhellenic conference of trade union organizations is convened with a view to establishing a national trade union center. The 1st Panhellenic Labour Congress began on 21 October 1918 in Athens and concluded its work at the Piraeus Municipal Theatre. Delegates from 44 unions representing 60.000 organized workers attended the founding Congress of the Confederation .The Socialists proposed that the GSEE should build upon the concept of class struggle while the other side argued that workers should only focus on their narrow professional interests. Finally, the article of the Statutes was endorsed. The founding Congress of the Greek General Confederation of Labour (GSEE) sets a landmark in the history of the Greek labor movement since it has united organized labour and the proletariat of our country under a supreme leading body.
In the coming years, the GSEE witnessed state interference, repression, confrontations between the Left and the Reformists, internal tensions, splits and divisions. In 1925, GSEE distanced itself from the Socialist Labour Party of Greece (SEKE). Shortly afterwards (1930-1936) numerous strike mobilizations along with a general strike in Iraklion and Athens took place.
Over these years (1934), the 7th GSEE Congress was held in a climate of unity of the fragmented trade union movement. However, nothing has changed because the Metaxas dictatorship was established in the country. In the following years until the 8th Congress (1946) it is worth remembering the 1936 May Day celebration in Thessaloniki and the strike on 9th May a few days later, resulting in bloody clashes. It is a period of financial and ideological dependence of trade unions on the state and of interferences in trade union affairs aimed at curtailing trade union autonomy.
During the German occupation, the GSEE grew increasingly isolated while the trade union movement was guided by ΕΑΜ (National Liberation Front). Finally, the GSEE was the only trade union organization in Europe that prevented the transfer of workers to Nazi Germany. After the liberation, the Central Committee of EAM is appointed as an interim GSEE administrative board. Nevertheless, in 1946 the 8th Congress of GSEE was held, which was then ruled to be invalid by the Council of State -the supreme administrative Court of Greece- while the Reformists – with the support of the U.S. Government and the Greek State – have taken over leadership in the GSEE Administrative Board, driving out left-wing groups.
In the period ahead, some of the dominant trends were the cooperation with state, para-state mechanisms and employers’ associations, the efforts to undermine workers’ collective consciousness and the sporadic, uncoordinated strikes to demand mainly pay increases. Α notable feature in this period is the emergence of paternalist and clientelist practices in the trade union leadership. In 1956, the “Democratic Trade Union Movement” was founded by union officials, who were closely connected with the “United Democratic Left” (EDA).
From 1960 (14th GSEE Congress ) to 1976 (18th GSEE Congress ) some significant developments for the trade union movement are taking place. In 1962, the centre-left forces established the “115 Collaborating Workers’ Organizations” (SΕΟ). At the same time, Centrists have actively participated in the “Democratic Trade Union Change” by jointly organizing a series of strikes in sectors like construction workers, teachers, professors and bank employees. In 1966 the old tried vote-rigging practices were used leading the center-left opposition to denounce Congress fraud and walk away. In this way, the GSEE administrative boards have reflected all internal conflicts between the different key actors of the established system.
After the fall of the military junta, pursuant to Laws 5 and 6/1975 and the L.D 42/74 the administrative boards of the regional Labor Centers and branch Federations have been replaced, while the administrative boards of the primary unions have been maintained. These laws have been strongly criticized for compromising the principle of Freedom of Association, as they perpetuate the same form of dependence of the rank and file on the top leadership. Opposition has fully and strongly rejected Law 330 / 76 on trade unions as an anti-labour law.
Moreover, mass and dynamic long-running strike actions have taken place in the years following the re-establishment of the parliamentary institutions. Industrial workers, miners, bank employees, teachers and public utility workers were in the forefront of these strikes.
At the GSEE level, despite some concessions to workers’ demands, it is the State itself – through the Ministry of Labor – that takes the lead role in shaping the agenda. The left opposition attended the 18th Congress (1976), however, this was not the case for the next three Congresses, as the left opposition refused to participate in the election process alleging falsification of Congress proceedings.
A few years later – in 1982 – the GSEE Administrative Board was deprived of office and a new leadership was appointed in its place – which consisted, in the overwhelming majority, of democratic political forces. By virtue of Law1264 / 82 Low and the introduction of proportional representation as an electoral system, the Greek trade union movement enters a new era for the protection of trade union freedoms. Hence, the next Congress (22th) was the most representative and democratic Congress in the postwar period, leading to the formation of a unitary and representative GSEE Bureau. However, its mandate was abruptly terminated by a judicial intervention one year prior to its normal expiration. After the 1985 cleavage, developments have underlined the need to safeguard the autonomous GSEE action and functions, an objective achieved at the 25th Congress (1989) and further strengthened through the adoption of a new Statute in the 26th Congress (1990). On the eve of the new millennium, the GSEE is committed to the fight to press its demands, defend the interests of a new working class and meet the new challenges of our times.
Entering the new millennium, the GSEE will further extend its action and strengthen its interventions through participating in all tripartite representation bodies (Workers-Employers-State) and presenting scientifically-based proposals on draft laws, employment policies, etc. In order to better coordinate its activities, GSEE has reorganized old specialized structures or created new ones, such as: the GSEE Labour Institute, the Centre for Education Policy Development – Labour Academy -, the Information Centre for Workers and the Unemployed and the Trade Union History Archive.
In 2010, the bail-out agreements (Memoranda) and the new legislation enacted in Greece have halted the substantial work performed by the GSEE at all levels (trade union, institutional, etc). The measures involved losses of workers’ income, reduction or even elimination of the minimum standards to protect workers while at the same time the crisis created a growing army of unemployed and uninsured workers.
Nowadays, GSEE continues the fight against austerity policies embodied in the Memoranda and the neoliberal dogma winning some small victories which could deal a strong blow to the “architecture” of austerity measures taken to the detriment of the wage and salary earners.