By Luis Miguel Busto Mauleón
July 18, 2022 Rebelión
“A union leader does not magically spring like Athena from the head of Zeus, he is ‘forged’ on the anvil of Hephaestus.”
Georges Mavrikos was born on the Greek island of Skyros 72 years ago. Since his childhood he understood that exploitation is the basis of labor relations in a capitalist system and that the solution for the emancipation of the working class goes through the overcoming of this criminal system. Educated in socialist principles, he was a trade union leader in his native Greece, fired from seven companies for defending his class and an indispensable trade union cadre. His far-sighted internationalist vision was fundamental to his work in the World Federation of Trade Unions, in its vice-presidency and finally as general secretary from 2005 to 2022.
Last May, the WFTU held its 18th Congress in Rome and George Mavrikos stepped down, as he had announced at the 17th Congress in Durban. This does not mean a total retirement, since at the same Congress he accepted his nomination as honorary president of the international union federation.
In this interview we want to highlight the indispensable role that a worker and trade unionist born on a tiny Aegean island has contributed to the advancement of the international working class. If the working class, in the everlasting class struggle, were to take the lead against the bourgeoisie, there would be no doubt that the name of George Mavrikos would figure in the Olympus of great men of our history.
From Scyros to Athens
1- What are your first experiences in the labor and trade union world?
From a very tender age in Skyros, all the children worked in the fields, with the animals, in the forests. But we were ignorant of social demands. For example, when at the age of eight I broke my arm, a “healer” tied it with boards and ropes and we had to wait four days for the boat to pass to go to a hospital in Athens. Then all this seemed normal to our childish eyes. Every year I would see my father fight with the merchant who came and bought our lambs without being able to understand the cause of this fight. I would listen to my mother – who had never been to school – cursing the merchants, but I was left in ignorance. All these events happened on this small island. Actually, it is a rock in the middle of the sea with an area of 210 square kilometers and 2,000 inhabitants in those years. Today it has 3,400 inhabitants.
In 1965, at the age of 14, I left for the capital, Athens. My father wanted to keep me on the island to become a shepherd. We had a flock, I was the eldest son and he wanted me to succeed him in animal husbandry. My mother, while tolerant and obedient to my father in everything, was furious when she heard that her sons would stay on Skyros. It was the only issue for which she opposed my father, “forget it, no child will stay here to suffer what we and our parents suffered…”
I settled in a small room of six square meters and in July 1965 I participated for the first time in a demonstration. A relative of mine had taken me to the demonstration. That day, the police killed the student Sotiris Petroulas, for whom the great Mikis Theodorakis wrote the song that has been sung ever since in all workers’ demonstrations. This was my first experience.
This is how I started. In the years 1966-1967, after school, in the afternoons, I worked on a local farm digging and planting flowers. There, old and experienced workers opened our eyes and ears.
In April 1967 there was a military dictatorship in Greece. At school I participated in all the student strikes.
In the summer of 1969, I worked for three months in the German textile industry firm Hudson. There I went on my first strike and had my first layoff because of that strike.
The following year, the summer I went to Skyros to help my family with the housework, the police arrested me for the first time because we were writing slogans against the dictatorship on the walls at night.
In 1973 followed the Polytechnic School Revolt with 27 militants killed.
I was studying and at the same time I was always working and developing a trade union activism.
At the beginning I was elected President of a factory committee, then President of a grassroots union and I became elected General Secretary of the GSEE, Vice-President of the WFTU, Coordinator of its European Regional Office, and finally General Secretary of the WFTU.
For my trade union, social and political activities I have been fired seven times, I have been arrested several times by the police and I have been tried and convicted by the bourgeois courts of my country.
2-From the beginning you present yourself as a trade union leader. How does a trade union leader come into being?
I think this question goes beyond the trajectory and union experience of a simple militant, revolutionary and class unionist. It is something much broader that has to do with a big issue that has concerned – and should concern – class-conscious unions around the world. In other words, it is about the characteristics that a revolutionary, anti-capitalist and internationalist trade unionist, a class union leader should have and how these elements are “born” in the fire of the class struggle, in the conflict with the class enemy, in the daily work in the industry, in the local area, in the working class environment.
At the same time, I believe that the question has also the dimension of how these elements are developed and maintained throughout the union trajectory of the leader, so that the leader himself becomes better, more effective, more consistent in the world system of the revolutionary struggle of the working class. Because we all know that the class struggle is not a “100 meters race” but a “marathon”. I remember Brecht’s phrase: “There are men who fight one day and they are good. There are others who fight one year and are better. There are those who fight for many years, and they are very good. But there are those who fight all their lives: those are the indispensable ones”.
Reviewing the characteristics that give rise to a class union leader, a leader and a son worthy of the class that gave birth to him, we look first of all to the key element: the realization that as a trade unionist and as an individual, all his thought and action, all his physical, mental and spiritual strength is dedicated to the struggle for the abolition of capitalist exploitation, to the improvement of the living conditions of his class brothers.
But this perception is not just an opinion, it is not a theoretical assumption. On the contrary, such a perception in itself compels you, if you believe in it and embrace it, to act and develop specific individual characteristics:
– Having faith in the working class and its historical mission. Faith makes you bold in battle, courageous in struggle.
– Improve every day your knowledge and your ideological-political level because with knowledge you learn to fight correctly.
– Know the history of the workers’ movement at the local, sectoral, regional, national and international levels.
– Fulfill your internationalist duty above all within your own country. Everyone is judged above all in his country, in his sector, in his place of work.
– Be internationalist, anti-fascist, anti-racist, with regard to immigrants and refugees.
– To be judged by the results of your work, by your actions and not by your words.
– To be courageous and fearless in the face of the class enemy, the exploiters and their organs. To mercilessly unmask the slanderers of the authentic militants.
– Respect and love your comrades, your family environment.
– Take care of your mental, psychic and physical health to be prepared for the struggle and resistant to the difficulties of the class struggle.
– Have a warm heart, a cool mind and clean hands.
It is easy to see that these characteristics are not developed in a sterile environment, in isolation, narcissism, introversion and mold. They are not acquired by a bureaucrat who crawls behind his chair, his comfort, the complacency of the class enemy. On the contrary, these elements ferment, are born and flourish in conflict. After all, life itself “breathes in conflict”. So, one could say that a union leader is not magically “born” like the mythical goddess Athena from the head of Zeus. He is “forged” mainly on the anvil of Hephaestus.
3-The General Confederation of Greek Workers and PAME. Do you consider that in Greece in those years there were special circumstances in the labor world?
It is my firm conviction and I have emphasized in many speeches, writings and texts of mine over the years that one has to be very careful when talking about special circumstances within a country and its movement. In any case, it is the same historical experience that forces us to be careful, especially if one takes into account that historically great concessions, unacceptable compromises and shameful regressions in the revolutionary line of the movement were made in the name of the “special circumstances” of a country. And in your country, after all, in the Spanish state, the experience is rich with the precedent of Eurocommunism and the recipes of Santiago Carrillo and company, when a lot of water was poured into the wine of the movement and thus changed the line behind the excuse of national particularities. The tragic results of this policy have been suffered by the working class of your country for decades and you know them best.
A second hidden trap in such a discussion of the “particularities” of each movement lies in chauvinism and the desire to appear more important than one is; such behaviors can be nurtured by some movements. I often say that one of the worst things that can happen to a labor movement is that it considers itself better than others. And here we have always walked very carefully, especially since PAME took over the leadership of the WFTU from 2005 to 2022. We never considered ourselves the absolute teachers of the movement, we never mechanically tried to transfer the Greek experience to the international trade union scene, we never pointed the finger at other movements, but in an atmosphere of comradeship we tried to bring any experience – positive or negative – of our national movement to the international level to avoid, as far as possible, errors and omissions, always with an eye to strengthening the class-oriented current in the international trade union movement. That is to say, we never believed, as some do, that the WFTU should function as a Ministry of Foreign Affairs of any country or movement.
Now, the analysis of the Greek trade union and political reality is another matter. It is true that after the sweeping changes in the international correlation of forces in 1989-1991 and the counterrevolutionary overthrows, we saw entire movements that lowered their red flags, spoke of social cooperation, prayed to the principles of the European Union, renounced their revolutionary past; entire organizations with a history of struggles and sacrifices ceased to exist overnight or mutated into servants of capital. Of course, in many countries there were forces that resisted; in other countries more, in others less; sometimes in better and sometimes in worse conditions.
The example of Greece and its class movement shows – in my opinion – a correct attitude with positive results. The forces which, on the occasion of the counterrevolutionary overthrows, took the opportunity to call for class cooperation, left after an intense ideological and political struggle, isolated themselves, separated also from the organizational point of view. Therefore, at that time began a long and arduous period of reconstruction, reorganization and regrouping with the results you see today. So, we could say that the division of those times helped, it did not weaken the movement. It strengthened it, it allowed it to be a labor and trade union movement by and for the working class.
In that sense, I believe that the results are tangible for the same standard of living of the working class in my country. Put very carefully, it is noted that many anti-worker policies, various anti-popular directions of the European Union in Greece lagged behind other European countries whose movements embraced class collaboration. For example, the directions already seen in the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, the reactionary reforms envisaged in the EU White Paper and other legislation have been largely delayed or passed at a greater political cost to capital in Greece. In contrast, in countries where trade unions “deified” social dialogue and class collaboration, the losses for the working class were greater, faster and, to some extent, more severe. I am not saying that in Greece this was the only factor, but it certainly had a beneficial effect and delayed a process of dismantling of workers’ gains that elsewhere came like a steamroller.
4- Is the PAME experience the model to be followed in the new trade unionism?
You know, I believe that a trade unionism is “new” only if it brings us closer to the “new world” of the working class. It is young, fresh, only if it has really progressive and class-struggle ideas, strategy and tactics. If it defends our class and at the same time organizes its attack to take more gains from capital. A trade union movement is “new” only if it brings us one step closer and paves the way for the final emancipation of the working class.
Let us think how much our ears have been pounded with the “new” trade union values of the “new” world created by the imperialists after 1991. At that time, we were told that the new face of trade unionism is tri-partism with bosses and governments, the “regulation” of the right to strike, the twinning of workers and bosses. In fact, none of this was new; these were musty visions straight out of the cesspool of reformism and social-democratic retrogression. And, in fact, these were the same views that were opposed by the consistent working-class forces in the time of Marx, in the time of Lenin and in the time of Stalin, etc. It is just that now they are served with a new wrapping which, however, fails to hide their rottenness.
The basic lines within the trade union movement of each country have always been two: Struggle or Collaboration? Break or Class Peace? In this sense, the struggle between the two is and will be irreconcilable as long as there are societies divided into classes, regardless of the correlations between the two camps: whether these correlations are favorable to the militant camp, as in 1945 during the founding of the WFTU, or negative as today, with the reformist current dominating.
Now, to answer the core of the question, if the PAME model should be followed in class unionism with the characteristics that we have defined, it should be taken into account that the PAME was created as a product of the workers’ traditions, of the history of class struggles in Greece, in function with the national experience of the workers’ movement. That is to say, when the own needs of the class struggle in Greece marked the task of autonomous intervention of the class current outside the reformist GSEE. However, the organizational form of PAME is a choice of Greek class-oriented unionism as it was reflected in my country at a specific historical moment of the development of the movement. In other words, PAME is the form chosen by the militant workers of Greece to give shape to their movement.
Now, the way in which the class-conscious trade union movement of each country will choose to advance organizationally depends on itself, on its collective processes, on its traditions and working-class customs, on the level of development of the class struggle, on the correlations, on the intensity of state repression, etc. But what is always at stake is the content: the content of the demands, the break with reformism and social democracy, the clash with the illusions and the current of subjugation that still exists in many countries and their movements.
In other words, the objective is that the class forces develop the action that corresponds to them everywhere, that they be worthy of their name and the title of “red unions”, that they act in any condition, at all times. This is the content, the essence of being a class-struggle union movement. In other words, the form can be something flexible that adapts to the needs of life and submits to the strategy of the labor and trade union movement. But the question of the class content of our action, in the sense of anti-capitalism, of struggle against exploitation, must be common to the proletarians of the whole world. And in this context we are never allowed to accept any concession.
5 -The 13th Congress of the WFTU in Damascus was crucial for the future of class unionism. What do you think were the most important decisions taken?
I will speak to you from the bottom of my heart and as an eyewitness of what happened in those days of November 1994 in Damascus when I was present on behalf of the Greek class-based trade union movement, as then general secretary of ESAK (United Militant Trade Union Movement) and general secretary of the GSEE (General Confederation of Greek Workers). In fact, recently, in my farewell speeches as general secretary of the WFTU in Rome, I referred to some events of the decisive 13th Congress of Damascus. I truly believe that the transcendental significance of this Congress for the world working class will be studied in the future, and there are many who will review its decisions and the struggle that took place there. The events that took place at that time left their deep mark on the world trade union future, they defined us and marked us deeply.
The general global political context in which the Damascus Congress took place is more or less known. The global geopolitical power correlation between the forces of socialism and capitalism has just been overthrown. The Soviet Union and the socialist states of Central and Eastern Europe no longer existed. Their mass trade unions that were the backbone of the WFTU ceased to exist or mutated. The WFTU was “shedding its leaves”. In the midst of an avalanche of events, others hid that they were affiliates of the WFTU, while others hastened to sign declarations of repentance to the ICFTU and to the ETUC, asking for their affiliation there. It seemed to the bourgeoisie an excellent opportunity to get rid once and for all of the WFTU, to settle old scores, to give a final blow to the class forces. The 13th Congress in Damascus was the field where this struggle was expressed, where it was judged whether the WFTU would continue to exist. That is to say, it was there that we saw unfolding the organized plan for the dissolution of the WFTU. There the bourgeoisie, the social democrats and the international trade union reformism believed they could take revenge.
The operation to dissolve the WFTU was orchestrated by the European opportunists, led by the then leading group of the CGT France with the assistance of the Italian CGIL and other countries. In such a climate of dissolution, it was resolved to convene the 13th Congress of the WFTU. You know, the choice of a host country that could cover the high financial needs of a world trade union congress was not easy. And while in the past all countries competed to host a WFTU congress, now there was no offer. Therefore, Syria was chosen, as its leadership under President Hafez Al-Assad agreed to organize and cover all the expenses of the Congress.
Almost 30 years later, we can say that the international anti-imperialist militant trade union movement has a debt of gratitude to the Syrian working class and the G.F.T.U.U., because, amid conditions of persecution, they agreed to organize the Congress in Damascus and together with the C.T.C. of Cuba, the A.I.T.U.C. of India and the V.G.C.L. of Vietnam led the rejection of the proposals aimed at the dissolution of the WFTU.
At the Damascus Congress, which was held on November 22-26, 1994, everyone expected that the life of the WFTU would end. The French leaders of the CGT were so sure of this that they even called African delegations not to attend the Congress because, as they said, it was a “formality” meeting that would decide the dissolution. However, given the critical situation, in addition to the opportunists and the trade union aristocracy of the Western world, trade union leaders from many countries of the world had arrived in Damascus, regardless of whether their unions were affiliates of the WFTU or not. They have been political and trade union cadres who every night, during the whole Congress and in special meetings, analyzed the situation and fixed the tactics for the next day of the Congress.
In these meetings, Pedro Ross Leal, general secretary of the Cuban C.T.C. and member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of Cuba, was the first to speak; then it was K. L. Mahendra of the A.I.T.U.C.-India, as well as other leaders of the class movement. I also highlight for their intransigent position the veteran Vietnamese communist and general secretary of the V.G.C.C.L., Cu Thi Hau, the Syrian Iz Al-Din Nasser, leader of the G.F.T.U. and many others, such as the Syrian Adib Miro, the Libyan trade unionists and many others. At the end of the day, the Damascus Congress resolved by a majority to continue the operation of the WFTU and took measures for its strengthening and modernization.
At the same time, when we speak of ideological struggle, we must say that on the occasion of the debate on the existence or not of the WFTU, in the Damascus Congress key points of struggle were deployed around the analysis of the working class; such as whether or not there is a working class, whether the class struggle existed or had been abolished by class collaboration and much more. It was a generalized conflict because both poles were strong. Both lines were strong.
The Russian Alexander Zharikov was re-elected to the general secretary of the WFTU and the Indian Indrajit Gupta was elected to the post of president. The Cubans and many other delegates proposed to replace Alexander Zharikov from the post of general secretary, but without making a realistic alternative proposal. Therefore, since it was not possible to find another willing trade union leader, in the end the reelection of the Russian comrade was agreed, although the Russian trade unions had already alienated themselves from the WFTU.
In general, we can say that although the 13th Congress did not resolve – and could not resolve to a large extent – issues that continued to haunt the existence of the WFTU in the future, it laid the groundwork for the counterattack, educated a generation of trade unionists, galvanized a part of our forces and gave a practical answer to those who said that the class movement was clinically dead. There was still much to do, but the foundations had been laid, now we could begin to build from a base.
Those of us who were in Damascus in 1994 and aligned ourselves with the correct side of the history of the class struggle, today we feel a human satisfaction for the current level of the WFTU.
6- At the 14th Congress in New Delhi you were appointed vice-president of the WFTU and secretary of the European Office. What objectives did you set from the leadership?
I take the thread directly from the end of the previous answer to show you that the period between 1994 and 2000 was not easy. The negative correlation and the consequences of the counterrevolution weighed more and more everywhere. Dozens of trade union organizations disaffiliated from the WFTU and rushed to bow to the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions. In fact, many, fearful, cowardly and worried about their jobs, signed several documents rejecting their past and their history. They were tragic figures, people without principles or values. Until 2000, the trade unions of all the former socialist countries of Eastern Europe, as well as many African and Asian countries had disaffiliated from the WFTU.
The negotiations, i.e., the role of intermediary for the disaffiliation of these organizations from the WFTU, as well as the discussions for their affiliation to the ICFTU, were assumed by the then leading cadres of the French CGT, the Spanish CCOO and the Italian CGIL. In this way, these leaders gave “examinations” of loyalty and devotion to their bosses. They became servants of the monopolies and transnationals. The then leadership of the French CGT of the years 1993-1995, certain about the coming dissolution of the WFTU, loaded the archives of the organization from the Prague headquarters into two big trucks and brought them to Paris. Later, when the WFTU headquarters moved to Greece, efforts were initiated to recover the archives, but unfortunately to no avail so far.
It was therefore under these circumstances that the 14th Congress of the WFTU was held in New Delhi, India, March 23-28, 2000. This Congress was attended by 421 delegates and observers from 65 countries. The actual membership of that period should have been around 30 million workers. The Congress was financially supported, above all, by the Indian workers who raised money and collected the necessary funds. The whole organization of the congress was based on the work of the AITUC and the other affiliated and friendly organizations in this country.
On the other hand, a positive element was that nine years had already passed since the overthrows of the period 1989-1991 and, little by little, several union leaders saw more clearly that the new situation generated many problems for the world working class; they observed that capitalist globalization brought great poverty to many and great profits to a few. In this same period, it was demonstrated once again that the ICFTU not only had not changed, but also had become an even more faithful partner of the imperialists. It openly supported the NATO war against Yugoslavia, supported and propagandized for the bombing of Belgrade, while the trade union leaderships in Italy, with CGIL at the head, applauded the Italian government which organized the NATO air strikes against Serbia from the Aviano air base. Moreover, the ICFTU openly positioned itself in favor of the imperialists in the U.S. war against Iraq and Afghanistan. It became clear that in the new circumstances, the reactionary role of this organization, its action and practice helped a significant number of progressive trade union leaders to realize the truth and put their trust in the WFTU again.
The 14th Congress in New Delhi took decisions covering all international developments in all fields. All Indian comrades contributed and worked with enthusiasm and effectiveness. Moreover, their contribution has been significant to the orientation of the WFTU towards more correct, anti-imperialist and anti-monopoly positions. In addition, in India, the election of a new general secretary was again discussed. Indians and Cubans insisted on his replacement. But finally, the Russian Alexander Zharikov was re-elected, who must be credited with helping to keep the WFTU alive, even with a few forces. Had it been dissolved, the course of its reconstruction would have been even more difficult. Alexander Zharikov has been a political cadre of Komsomol, with significant activity in the world student and youth movement, with culture and good education. His candidacy for the position of leader of the WFTU was presented and proposed in 1990, mainly because of the experience he had acquired at the international level through his previous positions. His election as General Secretary in 1990 coincided with the momentous period of the overthrows. Therefore, when the world had been turned upside down, Alexander Zharikov had no previous experience of the trade union labor movement and its organizations. Consequently, the WFTU, although it had considerable strength throughout the world, was simply watching how things changed.
Now, in a general analysis, we can say that the period of the 14th Congress coincides with the unmasking of the “new era” announced by the imperialists after the overthrows and the revelation of the “brutal face” of the new order of things. The Congress “pushed” the WFTU towards more correct positions and analysis and helped it to restore many of the class characteristics it had lost. Thus, the New Delhi Congress gave another kiss of life to the WFTU, but remained “reticent” in the changes in which it would further encourage its action and deepen its intervention. Ambitious goals were set, but at a propitious moment for the organization of our counterattack with better conditions, valuable time was lost to initiate an upward course as the one unleashed by the Havana Congress of 2005.
7- In Havana you were elected General Secretary. It was the year 2005, in what situation was the WFTU?
Note that even after the New Delhi Congress, some misconceptions and illusions still existed in parts of the leadership and affiliates of the WFTU. Some even had illusions about the possibility of a “cooperation” with the ICFTU. I should mention that even a meeting of an official WFTU delegation with a six-member ICFTU delegation (including its then General Secretary Bill Jordan) took place at its headquarters in Brussels in 2001, where we simply agreed to… disagree. Prior to this meeting, the three of us in the WFTU delegation had different perspectives on both the objective and our tactics during the meeting. But the goal of… “a joint action” proved very quickly to be ridiculous when Bill Jordan started to attack us and slander the WFTU; therefore, when A. Zharikov threw them a photocopy of the CIA economic balance sheet showing some amounts that the ICFTU had benefited from, the yellow trade unions… really “turned yellow” and started to accuse us of being financed by the KGB. Thus, those who were deluded about the role of the ICFTU leadership were forced to put their feet on the ground. You know I have even experienced conversations with WFTU cadres who were anxious to know if the ICFTU would invite the WFTU to its next Congress!
At the same time, in the period after the 14th Congress in New Delhi, the action of the WFTU, especially at the central level, was still very weak. It was timid, introverted and closed in on itself. In addition, some other organizations disaffiliated from the WFTU, such as those of Kuwait, Libya, Angola, etc.
In the meantime, however, the situation at the international level was beginning to look clearer. Communist parties in coordination and cooperation with class-based trade union movements began to elaborate their strategy under the new conditions. New elaborations and analyses helped the class movement to rise again. In this context, discussions began on the role the WFTU should play, the need to update its program and the change of its leadership group.
So, the conditions were already too ripe to proceed with the workers’ counterattack and the reorganization of the Federation. At the meeting of the WFTU Presidential Council held in Athens from October 31 to November 1, 2004, the Cuban delegation was the first to openly take the initiative in the respective discussions. This led to a special meeting in Geneva with trade union leaders from Cuba, India, Greece, Syria, Cyprus and France. In addition, bilateral meetings were held in Damascus between the GFTU-Syria and PAME-Greece. All the organizations that remained affiliated to the WFTU, in a fraternal and comradely spirit, unanimously considered changes at all levels as necessary. The new conditions required new measures as well. Action and concrete initiatives were required.
In this sense, from December 1 to 4, 2005, the 15th Congress of the WFTU was held in Havana, Cuba, with the participation of 870 delegates from 87 countries of the world. During the Congress, serious discussions were held in separate regional meetings of delegates from Asia and the Pacific, Europe, Latin America, Africa and the Arab world. As is well known, the Congress closed with a vote on the new program and the change of leadership. Those of us who were present remember that during the closing of the 15th Congress there was a climate of enthusiasm; hope had been awakened for a new direction for the WFTU. I believe that many conclusions about the spirit of that time and the priorities that we set ourselves as a class trade union movement can be found in the first official document of the new stage of the WFTU under the title: “the 10 new priorities of the WFTU”.
In this sense, indicative of the new direction of the WFTU are the first decisions taken by the new Secretariat: the headquarters of the WFTU moved from Prague to Athens. The main reason for this move was that in the Czech Republic the organization was under persecution by the state and its services and, unfortunately, there was no trade union in the country that could support the WFTU organizationally and economically in its new endeavor. Consequently, on the basis of the unanimous decision of the competent bodies, the new headquarters of the WFTU were prepared with the voluntary work of Greek workers and the financial support of the Federations affiliated to PAME. As of January 1, 2006, the central offices began to operate in Athens with a new team and new finances. The new era had begun.
-Translation from Greek by Christoforos Giakoumelos.
–Rebelion has published this article with the author’s permission.