Workers Vanguard No. 1137
27 July 2018
Victory to COSCO Port Workers!
The following article was written by our comrades of the Trotskyist Group of Greece.
ATHENS, July 23—At the end of May and beginning of June, hundreds of workers employed by the Chinese state-owned shipping giant COSCO at the Port of Piraeus carried out significant labor action against the horrible conditions prevailing at the container terminals. On May 30, workers throughout Greece had downed tools in a one-day national strike against the latest raft of austerity measures demanded by the European Union (EU) and imposed by the Syriza-ANEL government. Among them were the COSCO dock workers, led by their union ENEDEP, who defied management threats to have them arrested if they joined the strike. They stayed out for two more days, pressing their demands for stable, full-time work, increased manning levels, collective bargaining and health and safety measures, as well as a hike in their abysmally low wages. The highly dangerous work conditions at the port have led to many injuries and claimed the life of a worker last year.
A strike rally outside COSCO was joined by thousands of other workers, including dock workers from another union who struck for two days. Those workers, organized by the Dockworkers’ Union-Port of Piraeus, have seen their own wages gutted and are also fighting for collective bargaining rights. The rally was supported by seamen’s unions and the Labor Center of Piraeus, which is dominated by PAME, a trade-union body associated with the Communist Party (KKE). Joint pickets were successful in completely shutting down COSCO for the first time in its almost nine years of operation at Piraeus, beating back efforts by management to break the strike with scabs (including Golden Dawn fascists) and through the courts.
A mass general union assembly suspended the strike on June 1, but COSCO workers staged another walkout five days later. So far, the workers have gained one concession—their jobs are to be included in the state’s category of “heavy and unhealthy occupations,” which entitles them to certain pension benefits. The union announced that it would conduct further stoppages if COSCO did not agree to negotiations. But the strikes have been suspended following a July 11 announcement by the union of an “oral agreement” that, it says, will meet the workers’ demands for stable work and increased manning.
The COSCO workers’ struggle has struck a chord throughout the key maritime sector in Greece. A successful outcome to this fight could be a major boost to the Greek working class, which has been bent but not broken by a decade of ferocious capitalist austerity. It could also inspire workers elsewhere in Europe facing attacks on their own jobs and living standards. Victory to the COSCO workers!
Commenting on the strike, the ruling Syriza party complained that the problems faced by dock workers were a result of COSCO operating “exclusively through subcontractors and thus maximizing their profits while at the same time hiding from their responsibilities as the real employers” (kathimerini.gr, 2 June). This is sheer hypocrisy coming from Syriza, which notwithstanding its “radical left” moniker is a bourgeois party. In 2015, Syriza disregarded the overwhelming “no” vote in the referendum on EU austerity. Today, it continues to wield the knife on behalf of the Frankfurt bankers and Greek shipping magnates.
Dock workers at COSCO are indeed largely hired through agencies on starvation-wage “flexible” contracts that do not guarantee stable employment or basic work rights. Workers complain about the lack of proper training and the climate of intimidation that reigns at the port, with “nightclub-style bouncers” employed to enforce discipline. It is essential for the unions to fight to drive out the subcontracting parasites and for the immediate hiring of all workers on a full-time, permanent basis with decent wages and conditions. For union control of hiring! For union control over safety!
The appalling conditions that COSCO dock workers and other workers in Greece confront are a direct result of the austerity measures, including privatization of the ports and other infrastructure, dictated by the EU and IMF in exchange for a “bailout” of Greece. In fact, the bailout was meant for the German and French banks holding the debt while working people are made to pay. The pauperization and degradation of Greek workers is an extreme version of what is happening to workers throughout Europe as the EU bosses seek to increase the exploitation of their wage slaves. An article in the U.S. journal the Nation (1 June), titled “How Greece’s Busiest Port Reveals the Perils of Privatization,” quotes one dock worker saying: “We know that we in Greece are part of a particularly harsh neoliberal experiment, but it is just the beginning. Today in Greece, tomorrow in Europe. The whole labor system is tending to more flexible systems of work.”
The EU is the vehicle with which the capitalist powers in Europe—with German imperialism in the driver’s seat—seek to plow through the wages and conditions of workers, including in the stronger economies such as Germany itself. Maritime workers in Europe have had to fight such attacks as the union-busting EU “Port Packages.” In January 2006, a solid strike against Port Package 2 that shut down the port of Hamburg, Germany, was followed by strikes elsewhere in Europe. Last year, dock workers in Spain struck against the imposition of EU regulations for “free enterprise,” i.e., free of unions. The EU consortium has devastated weaker countries in Europe like Greece, Spain and Portugal, while also serving as a trade bloc against the rival U.S. and Japanese imperialists. Greece out of the EU and the euro! For a Socialist United States of Europe!
China Is Not Capitalist
COSCO—the China Ocean Shipping Company—has operated Piers II and III of the Piraeus cargo port since October 2009. In 2016, as part of the fire sale of state assets to service crippling debt repayments, the Syriza government sold a 67 percent stake in the Port of Piraeus to COSCO. The privatization was rightly opposed at the time by port workers, who understood that the sell-off would be accompanied by attacks on their wages, working conditions and union rights.
In their just struggle, the Piraeus dock workers are up against COSCO, a Chinese state-owned enterprise. COSCO is not a capitalist employer but part of the collectivized economy of the People’s Republic of China, a deformed workers state where political power is in the hands of the privileged Chinese Communist Party (CCP) bureaucracy. The CCP regime’s overseas economic operations often entail attacks on wages and working conditions. These attacks against the workers are not inevitable, as with capitalist enterprises, but rather part of a policy reflecting the bureaucracy’s conservative and narrow national interests. At Piraeus, such a policy means working hand in hand with the EU masters in bleeding the workers.
COSCO’s outrageous treatment of its Piraeus workforce includes 12-hour work shifts for a pittance, many times without even the right to a 30-minute break. Meanwhile, others can’t get enough work. The CEO of the port, Fu Chengqiu, or “Captain Fu,” exemplifies the CCP regime’s gross paternalism. In Spiegel online (4 September 2015), Fu dismissed unions as “superfluous” and railed against union leaders promising “more money for less work.” He continued, “If you want a higher salary you first need to work hard. Not lie on the beach and drink beer. Learn from the Germans! Work hard, never be lazy and always work seriously. Hard work—happy life.” This anti-worker hostility accompanies the Stalinist program of “socialism in one country” (or “socialism with Chinese characteristics”) which is inimical to proletarian internationalism and gives genuine socialism a bad name. It can also provide ammunition to anti-Communists seeking to channel anger against such abuses into support for the imperialists’ drive for capitalist counterrevolution in China.
Trotskyists support workers fighting for union rights and decent wages and benefits at COSCO. At the same time, we fight efforts by those who undermine the need to defend the Chinese deformed workers state against imperialism. Like many in the workers movement, the KKE, a reformist Stalinist party, argues that China “is an integral part of the international imperialist system” (Communist Review No. 6, 2010). The KKE argues that “China, particularly from the 1980’s and onwards, has linked its economy with the international capitalist market. This is a fact which is not denied by the Chinese leadership, but is indeed extolled by it.” Just because China engages in world trade does not make it capitalist or imperialist.
The 1949 Chinese Revolution overthrew the rule of the capitalists and landlords and tore the country out of the clutches of the imperialists who had held it in thrall. The bourgeois state was smashed by Mao Zedong’s peasant-based People’s Liberation Army and replaced by a workers state that expropriated the exploiters. The subsequent creation of an economy centrally based on collectivized property forms laid the basis for a surge in industrial development and tremendous gains for the worker and peasant masses.
The establishment of the Chinese workers state was a historic gain for the working class internationally. However, unlike the state that issued from the 1917 October Revolution in Russia, led by the Bolsheviks of V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky, the workers state in China was deformed from the outset by the rule of a nationalist bureaucracy fundamentally similar to the one that came to power in the Soviet Union in a political counterrevolution led by Stalin beginning in 1923-24.
Two years after Mao’s death in 1976, the CCP under Deng Xiaoping initiated a program of “market reforms,” loosening state control over production and trade and opening the country to some capitalist investment by Western and Japanese corporations, as well as by the offshore Chinese bourgeoisie. A Chinese capitalist class has developed also on the mainland, although this class is deprived of political power. It is commonplace for bourgeois ideologues—and most of the left—to assert that capitalism has been restored in China, or is irreversibly being restored. Capitalist counterrevolution, however, would need to triumph at the political level, through smashing the workers state and installing an imperialist-backed, anti-Communist regime. That would be a disaster for the world proletariat.
Despite “market reforms,” the core elements of China’s economy remain collectivized. State-owned enterprises dominate in the strategic industrial sectors, nationalization of the land has prevented the emergence of a class of large-scale agrarian capitalists, and state banks control financing. China’s explosive economic growth rate over the past two decades has outstripped the imperialist countries as well as “emerging” neocolonial capitalist countries such as India.
We support China’s right to trade in order to obtain whatever it needs to further the workers state’s development. China’s overseas investments are not driven by the profit motive, as is inherent in capitalist enterprises, but by the need to acquire raw materials and advanced technology for its collectivized industries at home and to facilitate its international trade, including by developing railways, roads and ports. At the same time, we recognize that its investments abroad are not determined by revolutionary internationalism but rather by the CCP regime’s policies, rooted in the Stalinist dogmas of “socialism in one country” as well as “peaceful coexistence with imperialism.”
The imperialists who “lost China” in 1949 are committed to getting it back for untrammeled capitalist exploitation. As Trotskyists, the International Communist League stands for the unconditional military defense of China against imperialism and any attempts at internal counterrevolution. To defend and extend the gains of the Chinese Revolution requires a proletarian political revolution to oust the CCP bureaucracy and replace it with a regime of workers democracy committed to the fight for world socialism.
Inheriting the overseas operations of Chinese state enterprises, a government of workers and peasants councils would honor union rights and raise pay and benefits above local scale. Such a regime would also expropriate the bourgeois elements that have emerged in China as well as the Hong Kong tycoons. Above all, it would follow the lead of the early Soviet workers state in promoting workers revolution throughout the world.
For a Class-Struggle Leadership!
While the Greek working people have shown a determination to struggle against the attacks of the bosses, the current leadership of the trade unions is beholden to the capitalist system and to class collaboration. A new leadership is needed—one that understands that workers have no interests in common with the bosses and acts accordingly. Such a leadership would fight for what the working class needs, not for what the bosses say they can afford. This necessarily includes opposition to the EU and its currency tool, the euro, and forging class solidarity with workers across borders.
It is necessary to employ the weapons of class struggle, such as strikes defended by mass pickets. The Golden Dawn fascists have grown menacingly amid the despair wrought by capitalism. They are a deadly danger to immigrants and other minorities, to the left and to the labor movement. The present workers’ leadership has largely ignored the fascist danger, but the mass pickets at COSCO that kept out the scabs and fascists showed the potential for mass working-class action to crush Golden Dawn.
The suffering of the Greek working people shows the brutal workings of the capitalist system, in which production is organized not to satisfy life’s necessities for the masses—decent employment, housing, pensions, medical care, etc.—but to produce profits for the tiny number of super-rich capitalist exploiters. The basic needs of the population can be achieved only by the working class taking the productive wealth of society into its own hands. The working class and its allies among the oppressed need to fight for a government that will act in their interests and be subordinated to them. Such a government cannot be achieved in a parliamentary framework but only through a proletarian revolution that sweeps away the capitalist state. The Trotskyist Group of Greece, section of the International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist), is dedicated to forging the revolutionary workers party that can lead the workers in this task.