ATHENS: A century ago, Greek civil servants secured jobs for life after decades of protests at a central Athens location named Klafthmonos, meaning the Square of Tears, because this was where they bemoaned their plight.
Now, a Socialist government struggling to spare the country from bankruptcy, is determined to start firing state workers to cut spending and please international lenders. That has brought a new generation of protesters back to the historic square.
“History repeats itself but this time as a farce. On top of all the cuts, we may now lose our jobs,” said 54-year-old Maria Bavgiadaki sitting at a cafe on Klafthmonos Square before an anti-austerity rally. “We don’t know what will happen to us.”
In the late 1800s, Greek politicians hired and fired civil servants at will in a corrupt political spoils system that saw many people dismissed from the state sector whenever a new government won elections and hired its own supporters instead.
For decades, those fired would gather in the leafy square, now lined with shops and cafes, to lament their economic hardship until 1911, when the constitution was changed, allowing labor unions to organize and granting state jobs for life.
These days, civil servants are returning to the square to fight for the right won 100 years ago. Greece’s 730,000 public sector workers face redundancies and their constitutional right looks set to be dismantled because of the colossal debt crisis.
Bavgiadaki has worked for 27 years in the civil service. Her salary has been cut by 20 percent and her bonuses scrapped. Her eyes fixed on colleagues gathering in the square to protest against wage cuts and lay-offs prescribed by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, she cut a sad figure.
“We are not all innocent, but if Greek governments wanted to tidy up the public sector they could have done it by now. Instead they are still hiring people,” she said, worried that the redundancies will not be implemented in a just way.
The country is bitterly divided between private sector workers who say a bloated state bureaucracy is strangling Greeks and public servants who blame the crisis on political corruption and tax evasion by those making money in private business.
Over the years, the public sector grew so uncontrollably, that in 2010 the Socialist government had to conduct a census to find out it was employing almost a fifth of the country’s 4.2 million workforce.
“Our private sector colleagues should realize that we are not enemies,” said Bavgiadaki, who said she and her colleagues were victims of political decisions beyond their control.
The public sector has long been a safe haven in Greece. Parents would steer children toward it in order to secure their future.
Coast guard officer Vassilis, who did not give his full name for fear of losing his job, recalled the petty corruption often associated with getting in the door and onto the state payroll.
“In 1989, when I became a civil servant, one got a state job by offering as little as a can of olive oil, a lamb or fresh fish,” said the 46-year-old father of three, whose wife is also a public employee. “I wish they had never hired all these people. We are now losing everything overnight.”
While private sector workers say cuts may be the price that must be paid by some people for having it too good for too long, civil servants blame a political elite who used the system to secure votes for themselves, often just before elections.
Prime Minister George Papandreou, the eldest son of late premier Andreas Papandreou who expanded the civil service and promoted a generous welfare system, has been forced to set aside socialist ideology to pull the country out of the huge crisis.
His PASOK party pledged to cut 150,000 state jobs by 2015 as part of the austerity plan to deal with a 360 billion euro ($483 billion) debt and secure an EU/IMF fund lifeline to fend off bankruptcy.
To persuade sceptical lenders it is willing and able to make the cuts, the government has said that 30,000 state workers would be placed on a path to redundancy by the end of the year.
“Until now, this was inconceivable for Greek reality,” government spokesman Ilias Mossialos said last week, referring to the job cuts.
“What is common practice in the private sector … does not exist in the public sector.”
Analysts say the public wants the government to overhaul the state sector. But these measures have caused uproar among labor unions, traditional backers of the Socialists, which have staged repeated strikes since Greece asked for foreign aid.
Along with facing down street protests, the government needs to find a legal way to proceed with the lay-offs, which are prohibited by the constitution, and may be challenged in courts, possibly costing the government more than it might save.
“Public sector lay-offs are a taboo,” said pollster Costas Panagopoulos of the ALCO agency.
“So far, no one wanted to touch this issue and the necessary preparation for such measures was not done. Now we’ve reached point zero and don’t know whether the measures can be actually implemented.”
The government has also pledged to abolish dozens of state organizations and put in force a new wage scale which will eventually cut salaries by 20 percent on average.
Citing rising unemployment and blaming austerity policies for the country’s deep recession, the main public and private sector unions, representing 2.5 million people, have called two nationwide strikes for October, when the measures are expected to be voted on in parliament.
State sector reforms have generally proved difficult and challenging in a country where unions are strong and corruption is persistent.
Along with these hurdles, the Socialists are facing resistance within the governing party and are lagging behind the conservative opposition in opinion polls.
“The process is painful and this makes the government hesitant,” said Theodore Couloumbis of the ELIAMEP think-tank. “But they need to proceed with reforms to send a message to the world that sacrifices are paying off.”
On the Square of Tears, however, Maria Bavgiadaki feels the pain of reversing a century-old victory for employees is being unfairly applied. “It is not the workers’ fault that the public sector grew so much,” she said. “These are political decisions.”
For the politicians, though, there is little alternative to painful decisions. As Deputy Prime Minister Theodoros Pangalos put it this week: “We must make up our minds at some point.
“Does the public sector waste bother us or do we want them all to keep their jobs? Because … we can’t have both,” added Pangalos.