Greek Universities a Battleground for Austerity

With unemployment among Greek women currently at 31.6 per cent compared to 24.6 per cent among men, the prospect of losing a job in the female-dominated public sector is a grim one.

With unemployment among Greek women currently at 31.6 per cent compared to 24.6 per cent among men, the prospect of losing a job in the female-dominated public sector is a grim one.

For K, who has asked not to be named, the announcement in November that she is among 1,349 university administration staff placed in the government's "mobility scheme" means that she has eight months on reduced pay to find another job, or face the sack.

As the government was required to place 25,000 public sector workers on its mobility scheme by the end of the year as a condition for bailout funds, K doesn't expect to easily find another job. Instead, she is asking questions many Greek people face: How long can will my savings last? Will my partner's income be enough? Should I leave the country?

But what happened to K and her colleagues also reads as a checklist of the frustration, mismanagement and cronyism that Greeks are forced to endure at the hands of its government - a government which is acting at the behest of the so-called 'Troika' - the European Commission, the European Central bank and the IMF.

K and her colleagues had little faith in the scheme from the start: When they followed the ministry of education's restructuring formula, it showed that in fact 500 additional staff were needed.

The minister of education, Konstantinos Arvanitopoulos, ignored such an unscripted response, instead announcing that 1,300 plus administrative staff across all the eight universities were being placed in the scheme. On top of which, 333 people, including security guards, would immediately lose their jobs.

University staff went on strike in September, demanding that the process be restarted and for it to be carried out in a clear and transparent way.

"We didn't disagree that some jobs should go, but we disagreed with the scale of it," says K, who says the cuts would make it difficult for the university to function. "We were willing to pass through a proper evaluation to decide if there are people who can be fired, but not more than half of the administrative staff!"

There had been talk of Arvanitopoulos mobilising the university administrators, a tactic used in earlier in the year to end strikes by metro workers, but instead, when they refused to provide information needed to identify who would be placed on the scheme, his department set up an online platform, requiring the information to be submitted by 22 October.

When it became clear that the striking staff would not cooperate, and with the deadline only hours away, Arvanitopoulos introduced a new law forcing them to. Waiting outside the parliament building with 100 or so of her colleagues, K learnt at 2am that they had until 2pm that day to submit their details or face being taken to court.

At this stage, however, the university staff remained resolute: "We had talked about it a lot in our assemblies and agreed that we were not doing something wrong. When I am on strike I have the right not to fulfill anything to do with my job," she says. "We felt strongly that we had done the right thing."

Despite the fact that the lecture halls, libraries and laboratories at Athens University and the Athens polytechnic had been closed for weeks, the strike had hitherto been ignored by the media.

But the sense of unity that K and her colleagues prized so highly was challenged when Dimitris Sakatos, general secretary of the administrative employee union of Athens appeared on national TV and urged university staff to obey the law.

"It was like a bomb, a total mess, chaos," says K. "People were crying and running to put their information on the platform and there was no time to think, no time to discuss, no time to gather to say 'don't panic, let's think about what the best thing for us to do', to think of a strategy we all would follow."

K believes Sakatos' appearance on TV was intended to cause panic, and that staff made a mistake by submitting the information:

"If you ask me now, I think it was completely stupid. We should have decided, all of us, not to submit the information, because the ministry would have had to take all the administrative staff to the court," she says.

When it emerged that 286 people - a much higher number than at first believed - had held out and refused to submit their details, university staff agreed to continue to strike and to support those colleagues by providing help with legal fees and other assistance.

"We agreed these were difficult days and the attempt to divide us was obvious," says K. "We didn't want that to happen."

But such a stance became more challenging when a draft list showed that 100 people, many of them in senior positions or believed to be close to Sakartos, appeared to have submitted false information.

The extra points placed them at the top of the table, while the names of another 100 people did not even appear on the list. Consequently, K and a number of her colleagues who, based on the scoring system, could reasonably expect to keep their jobs, were pushed outside of the critical portion of the list.

Many of K's colleagues continued to believe that the process was so flawed, it was impossible that the lists would be used. But the minister of education then bypassed the usual procedures for confirming the list and announced it was final. K says she was not surprised:

"I was saying to my colleagues, come on, Arvanitopoulos just wants 500 names to give to Troika and he will just take them, even if he knows they are not correct."

The strike is now about to enter its 14th week. K intends to appeal the decision, and says that despite the best efforts of the government - and claims of divisions among them - her colleagues remain united.

"Even if what's happening to you is unfair, you need to be able to recognise the positive as well as all the negative things," she says. "I don't want to lose sight of the fact that it was because of the individuals there, my colleagues, that I also had some of the most positive experiences."


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