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Forced Privatization of The Greek Port of Piraeus, One Year Later

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Dimitri Lascaris in Greece, speaks with Giogros Gogos, general Secretary of the Dockworkers Union at the Port of Piraeus. The Troika forced the privatization of 67% of Port of Piraeus, this means that the most secure and lucrative asset in Greece, that could have generated money to pay the debt, is now the hands of Chinese shipping company Cosco

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DIMITRI LASCARIS: This is Dimitri Lascaris reporting for The Real News from Piraeus, Greece. We’ve come back to Greece for the fourth time in three years in order to examine the ongoing effects of the most punishing austerity program imposed on an EU member-state, and today we’ll be speaking with Giorgos Gogos, the general- secretary of the Dockworkers Union of Piraeus, which is the largest port in the country. The Dockworkers Union also is a founding member of the International Dockworkers Council. We really appreciate you speaking with us today, Giorgos.

GIORGOS GOGOS: We thank you and you are always welcome to talk with journalists like you.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: So, I’d like to begin with the current ownership of the port of Piraeus. The current government, the Syriza government, back in late 2014 when it was campaigning for the January 2015 election vowed to oppose the privatization program of the predecessor government and in the particular it promised to prevent the privatization of the port of Piraeus. But 18 months later in August of 2016 COSCO, the fourth-largest shipping company in the world, a Chinese corporation, acquired a controlling stake in the port of Piraeus with the approval of the Tsipras government.

First of all I’d like you to talk about the compensation that was paid by COSCO for this stake. Do you and the dockworkers union consider that it was fair compensation that they paid?

GIORGOS GOGOS: No, we think that it was not fair. It was quite a cheap price that they paid for the port. To be precise, for 51% they paid 282, I think, million Euros for the 51%, so it’s quite cheap amount of money because we have to consider that it’s a port of 35, 37 kilometers of coastline with quite new infrastructure that cost about 500 millions in investment the last 20 years for the public Piraeus Port Authority. Apart from this, Piraeus Port Authority had a long-term contract of 35 plus 5 years with COSCO company and especially with subsidiary company PCT, Piraeus Container Terminal and this annual rent, it’s estimated in current values for the total term of 35 years about 20 billion Euros, so the price, it’s quite low.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: And this would be paid by, this rent, by the Port Authority of Piraeus, is that correct?

GIORGOS GOGOS: It’s rent paid by Piraeus Container Terminal, the Chinese subsidiary to Piraeus Port Authority as public company and at the same time as a private company. So, it’s not income that would go directly straight to the Greek state. It was rent paid to Piraeus Port Authority. Now Piraeus Port Authority is owned in majority shares by Chinese, so it’s Chinese that they are paying Chinese.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: Right. In other words, one arm of COSCO is paying another arm of COSCO.

GIORGOS GOGOS: Exactly.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: I see.

So, since the privatization in August 2016 have the conditions for the dockworkers working at Piraeus changed in a noticeable way. If so, have they changed for the better or for the worse?

GIORGOS GOGOS: Yeah, we have to go a bit, 10 years before. It’s a struggle that we had, all employees of Piraeus Port Authority, not only dockworkers but also other specialties, technicians, people working administration, operators of gantry cranes and so on. We had to fight against privatization since 2007. So, it’s 10 years struggles of fighting against privatization. About four governments have passed and their intention, it was to privatize Piraeus Port, especially after memorandums have been established in Greece and I mean in 2010, what happened is that this privatization project was integrated in the second term memorandum.

So, the government of Democratiya in coalition with PASOK and LAOS, at that time it was a three-party government, decided to start a bidding process for the majority shares of Piraeus Port Authority. We were talking about 67% out of the 74 that the state was owning. We have to comment here that state, at the times of memorandum, it’s not the Ministry of Finance, it’s TAIPED, it’s the Hellenic Republic Fund for Development. It’s a fund created just to privatize Greek assets. So, this fund decided to privatize the port and they made the initial bidding process in February, I think it was, 2014.

At that time government wanted to privatize in that way and after that we had the elections in January 2015, and the current government declared and especially the programmatic declarations in the parliament, in the Greek parliament, that they would stop the privatization. This was something that made us happy, that the whole process of privatization would stop and our happiness, it was not because that we would secure our jobs and our labor rights. No, in addition to this, it was that this Greek asset of Greek economy would remain in Greek hands and in public hands. I have to stress here that the Piraeus Port Authority was always profitable. Piraeus Port Authority never had a penny or a Euro of subsidy from the national budget, so-

DIMITRI LASCARIS: A subsidy?

GIORGOS GOGOS: Yeah.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: Right.

GIORGOS GOGOS: So, it was something that would be a tool in the hands of Minister of Finance in the further development of Greece and get out of the current crisis. Unfortunately, after the signature of the second memorandum, the current government decided to continue privatization and under the dictation by troika, they just changed the initial bidding process from 67% to 51. So, they made the 51% privatization and within a period of five years and supposing that they’re going, the Chinese I mean, will continue a project of improvement of the port with about 300 million Euros invested in infrastructure. They will undertake in 2021, I think, the rest 16%.

So, so far we have 14 years of experience living with the Chinese. Last year, in June 2016, we had one month strike against the privatization. It was something that, it was coming to an end, but at the same time we were fighting for our labor rights. What we succeeded at that point is that to secure fundamental things of our labor relations, and these are the general regulation for the personnel and the collective bargaining agreement. So, in the relevant law, it is passed that we have, they have and we have as workers and employee, we have to deal and to negotiate for these two fundamental and core things.

So far after 14 months of establishment of Chinese management, what we saw is that we didn’t see to bring more job. We didn’t see the expectation that was discussed in public opinion, in newspapers, that they will increase the volumes of Piraeus Port Authority. This happened in a level of 5, 10%, but I think this is not enough. Piraeus Port Authority has more perspectives because of the geostrategical position and at the same time because of expertise of the personnel that we work here.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: What about wages? How have the wages-

GIORGOS GOGOS: Wages, so far, we didn’t have any reductions. The problem we had in our wages it was in 2012, it was passed a law by the that-time Greek government, that it made cut-offs at the level of 35, 40%. It was applied in every public company and all public sector in Greece.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: You say cut-off, you mean there was a reduction in compensation for public employees?

GIORGOS GOGOS: Yes.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: Of 35%.

GIORGOS GOGOS: Yes, exactly.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: And so that remained in effect right up until the time SYRIZA came to power.

GIORGOS GOGOS: This remains.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: And since then you’ve not seen any increases in your compensation?

GIORGOS GOGOS: We didn’t see any increases and on the contrary, we were expecting that after being Piraeus Port Authority private company, it would stop this restriction because this law, it’s clear that these cut-offs refer to public companies. Now we’re not anymore public company. So, we were expecting that the new owner would stop this cut-offs.

In the negotiations we started they told us, “Okay, maybe you are right,” but what we found here, it’s this amount of money for salaries. It’s this cost for us so we cannot go back to the salaries of 2009 when it was signed the last collective-bargain agreement. Anyway, to make the long story short, we started negotiations for the general regulation for the personnel. It took about five months to conclude. This was made through the process of dialogue and negotiation. This was gained by ourselves with our strike and the fight to secure these basic things and we concluded to a new general regulation. As a union, we passed it through our general assembly and then it was unanimously approved by our members.

So, we have something secured and general regulation for the personnel, it’s the institutional things in labor relations. Now, we are going to start the negotiations for the new CBA, for the new collective-bargaining agreement where we will see how Chinese management see this thing. How they think the cooperation and how they appreciate the labor force and the efforts of the people working in the port. These negotiations have been late about two months. Chinese management, they say that they will start this negotiation, that they will sit in the table our negotiation and we will have positive results according to their opinion. So, we are expecting to see the results of this dialogue.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: Okay, so you mentioned that, you know, you’ve had occasion to strike, your union, since Syriza came to power. The labor movement generally within Greece has been very active in demonstrating against the austerity measures and oftentimes the Greek police have been criticized quite severely for the brutality that they employed in order to suppress public protest against austerity. Have you noticed a change in the behavior, has your union noticed a change in the behavior of the Greek police, particularly when it comes to protesting a government action or inaction since Alexis Tsipras came to power?

GIORGOS GOGOS: Yes, we think there is a change in this, gradually. We had many manifestations and general strikes in the period between 2010 and 2014, really big manifestations and the response from police, it was quite brutal. What we saw, especially in the month when we had our strike in the port, it was actually no presence of police and anyway, we were working people asking for our rights. So, we didn’t have problems from our side to create problems, damages, you know. I don’t know how it’s called in English but to create problem to other groups of people, for example, throwing stones in windows and so on. This is not the way that the worker is manifesting for his rights. In general, I think situation with the attitude of police is better and gradually.

Unfortunately, the last two years we don’t see many manifestations taking place from trade unions in general. This has some explanations. To my opinion is that situation is not the same during the last two years and before the last two years. The measures that were taken in the period before 2014, they were quite radical and quite immense and right-targeting labor class. The last two years, actually, it’s accumulated an anger of Greek people and it’s not that much the measures taken by the government but they are accumulated with the previous measures.

The second reason is that trade union is in Greece, I mean, the trade union movement, the official one, is not ready to respond to the current problems. Unfortunately, the last two decades, three decades, at official trade union movement there were quite clientelistic relations between the members and the government. For example, the last four or five presidents of the General Confederation of Greek Workers, after their term in the confederation, they were becoming ministers. So, people lost, common people lost their confident to General Confederation and consequently to trade union is in Greece.

Here our members and our union is, one of the exceptions of the general labor movement in Greece and we have, first of all 100% participation to the union. All dockworkers of Piraeus Port Authority, we are members of the union and we are quite active. Because we act as normal dockworkers and we try to protect the rights of dockworker, this created and cultivated a culture among dockworkers. Apart from this, our international union, our international organization has certain fights, struggles and victories the last 10, 15 years. For example, we have opposed two directives of European Union, its port package one and port package two in 2004 and 2006 that we succeeded. All dockworkers of European Union to resist to further liberalization, to further deterioration of our labor rights, so we have in our backs a heritage that we have to maintain and to further continue.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: So, I’d like to talk to you about another aspect of the Syriza government’s performance. When Syriza came to power it vowed to reduce drastically the power of a handful of very wealthy families that control to a very large degree the Greek media and the Greek economy. In fact, Syriza, many of its representatives referred to this as an oligarchy. Some of the representatives of the party in the early days of the party’s tenure in power went so far as to say they were going to crush the oligarchy. Do you feel that the government has taken meaningful steps to reduce the power of the oligarchy, and if so what do you think are the main accomplishments of the government in that regard?

GIORGOS GOGOS: Yeah, it’s something very critical for Greek society. It’s through that the last decade we have some families that they control almost a majority of Greek mass media. I mean, TV stations, big circulation newspapers, radio stations and so on. And consequently, most of them, they are… So, it’s a big bet for Greek society to get rid of this oligarchy that they manipulate actually public opinion. It’s a big bet, I think, for every government, should be for every government, a big bet. They tried to set up a new law and to create the environment, I mean the current government, to create the environment so as to compete and to pay for the frequencies that this much media they use. I think they made mistakes in the terms that they didn’t set up accordingly the new law and it was fallen in the supreme court of Greece when this oligarchy addressed the case to the court.

The supreme court stopped this process and what they said that the, of course, people that they owned this much media, they should pay because the frequencies are public property and everybody who’s exploiting these frequencies has to pay something to the state. At the same time they named the independent, how would you call them in English?

DIMITRI LASCARIS: Commission?

GIORGOS GOGOS: [Speaks in Greek]. It’s-

DIMITRI LASCARIS: Independent radio television-

GIORGOS GOGOS: Independent authority.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: Right.

GIORGOS GOGOS: It’s independent authority that has to do with frequencies, and this authority should run the bidding process. This authority is set up almost eight, nine months and it’s because constitutionally secure that this authority should have 3/5 of the members of the parliament, so it needs quite wide concession, what-

DIMITRI LASCARIS: Consensus?

GIORGOS GOGOS: Exactly. In this authority, the majority number is address or is close to the governmental side. So, it’s a reason that it’s everything postponed and slowly moving. But I think now they are pressed and they should play their constitutional role. So, we are very close to finish with this story. But the initial attempts of the government were not planned in the best way.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: Let’s put aside the fact that the media law was struck down by the court. If the law had been upheld, I understand that one of the winners of the auction would have been a company controlled by the Marinakis family, a wealthy ship-owning family who happens also to own the very widely-followed Olympiacos football team. And the son or the heir to the Marinakis fortune, I believe his name is Evangelos, has been embroiled in match-fixing scandals and there’s even a possibility at some point, I understand the prosecutor was recommending that he be imprisoned in connection with evidence of match-fixing in the Greek football league. Not only would the Marinakis family have been one of the winners in the auction if the media law had been upheld but months later the Marinakis family acquired the Lambrakis Group, which I understand is one of the largest, if not the largest media empires in Greece. It includes two of the oldest daily newspapers, a 22% stake in the Mega television channel and a number of other media assets.

How is allowing the Marinakis family to acquire so many media assets, how is that consistent with Syriza’s promise to reduce the power of the oligarchy?

GIORGOS GOGOS: Yes, it’s something that it’s out of my field as general secretary of dockworkers union, but still I’m a citizen of this country. In Greece we have capitalism the last 60, 70 years and in capitalism this is the situation, this is the story. Unfortunately, what we face, our dockworkers too, is that the fourth power, journalists and mass media, they were always neglecting us the last 10 years of our fight against privatization. The third power in a state, it’s the judges, it’s the judge system. We see many strange decisions from judges. For example, in labor cases we saw it in the case of mass media, we see that they are not in line with the common sense. This is a problem. I think government should continue to fight and to try to address things and try to stop this oligarchy to be expanded and to change the mass media’s surge and so on. But in a capitalist state and within the frameworks of memorandums, it’s not easy to intervene.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: Let’s talk finally about the Eurozone. In 2015, there was a lot of debate within Greece, hasn’t been quite as vigorous the debate recently as it was back then, about whether or not Greece, the government of Greece, could pursue a progressive political agenda, a humane political agenda, as long as Greece was within the Eurozone.

Does the dockworkers have a position on this? Is it the position of the dockworkers that Greece, the Greek government, has the latitude to pursue a humane, progressive agenda within the Eurozone or is that only going to be possible if Greece exits the Eurozone?

GIORGOS GOGOS: Yes, as a Dockworkers Union we don’t have concluded in political decision concerning being in Euro or out of Euro. We have members that they support to remain in Eurozone and some other members to exit and to go back to drachma or any other currency. But we didn’t make this conversation among us and to have decisions over this. What we saw during the referendum is that our members they massively voted for no. That period in July 2015, it was a very strange situation for Greek people, being inside memorandum, having a government that was promising a lot of things and a better and prosperous future, and at the same time blackmailing from our patrons in European Union. The banking system was actually close to collapse and it was closed and we could take out 60 Euros per day. So, all this situation was quite clear.

But I think dockworkers went as the majority of the people went in the voting process and they were quite angry with our partners in European Union and the lenders in general that they were blackmailing ourselves. Unfortunately, this resulted to a third memorandum. This third memorandum was inside also the privatization of Piraeus Port Authority, but our experience now 14 months being a private port, what we have decided and it’s a clear decision from our members is that we will continue to fight for our rights. And we will continue to secure public interest at the same time in Piraeus port authority being private.

Because during the 10 year struggle that we were opposing privatization, we were not fighting only by ourselves. We had addressed the problem to the local community. We were in contact with municipalities. We were in contact with other collectivities, other groups that they were opposing and we have a common understanding that Piraeus Port Authority, it’s not just business, it’s not just a corporation. It’s a port next to our houses. It’s significant because it’s one of the bigger employers in the wider area. It’s a port with geostrategical position and sensitivity. It’s a port that connects Aegean islands with main Greece, so it’s something more than business. It’s more than a simple company, and we will try to continue this. We are not going to close ourselves only to our sectoral rights and interests.

This is not for sure because we are living in Piraeus. We are at the same time citizens of Piraeus, and Piraeus Port Authority is part of the city. This should not be closed as a free zone or as an extra area of Piraeus. We are living with the port and the city’s living with the port, so we have another duty to secure that in the years coming, to secure also public interest apart from initially our labor rights and relations.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: Well, I want to thank you very much, Giorgos, for taking time to speak to us today. We’ll continue to watch with great interest how matters unfold in Greece.

GIORGOS GOGOS: We thank you very much.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: And this is Dimitri Lascaris reporting for The Real News from Piraeus in Greece.