Death was very busy summoning prime ministers and Presidents of the Hellenic Republic to dance along to the grave in the spring of 1936. Within a space of a few weeks many leading interwar personalities died suddenly (including Kondylis, Venizelos, Demertzis and Tsaldaris) while Greek society faced a prolonged political crisis as a result of the deadlock caused by the elections on 26 January 1936: no party secured enough seats to form a government and the Communists held the balance of power. Rumours that the Liberals and the Communists were negotiating alarmed the king and forced him to make Ioannis Metaxas prime minister. The latter took advantage of a false story about a Communist-led revolution to establish a dictatorship. In the midst of these political upheavals, the workers of Eleusis went on strike.
Phoenix rising from the ashes
It had been seven years since the last major strike in Eleusis. The events of 1929 had left their mark on the city, but the local labour movement had suffered great dislocations; most of its leaders had either gone into exile or remained silent and inactive. As time went by, though, the unions began once more to make their presence felt. The Labour & Employee Centre of Eleusis-West Attica was founded in 1934. That same year Nikos Zachariadis was elected General Secretary of the Greek Communist Party. His frequent visits to Eleusis encouraged union leaders to attempt the revival of the labour movement. The town was, after all, an important industrial centre and its factories employed more than 3000 workers.
On March 9, 1936, a strike began at the “Votrys” and “Kronos” factories. The workers demanded the return of hundreds of thousands of drachmas illegally withheld by the factory owners. The strike petered out by April 21 without a solution, as conservative union leaders argued that workers stood no chance as long as the country remained without a government. At the same time, however, the employees of “Titan” and “Elaiourgeio” also went on strike demanding higher wages, the reinstatement of workers who had recently been fired and the provision of better health care. Police violently dispersed a rally and three workers were injured.
Carrot and stick
Many labour leaders went on trial but were acquitted. Soon hundreds of workers (up to 1200 at the height of the strike) refused to work, while workers at “Votrys” and “Kronos” supported them financially. On 25 May the municipal council decided to allocate 20,000 drachmas to assist the strikers. This amount corresponded to the daily wages of 300 workers, so it was totally out of proportion to the needs of the strikers who, by that time, had been on strike for over a month.
Numerous shops in Eleusis were forced to close since many local families could not even afford to buy the bare essentials. There were frequent minor clashes with the police and several workers were arrested with or without justification. The owner of the “Titan” cement factory, Nikolaos Kanellopoulos (who was also the Minister of Economy, Transport and Labour!) agreed to a modest wage increase (2 or 3 drachmas) but he also evicted 13 working families who resided at the company premises because they had not paid the last month’s rent. He also invited strikebreakers from other factories in Eleusis and Piraeus.
Boats and trucks
Picketers (with the addition of longshoremen who had also gone on strike) fought hard to prevent strikebreakers from entering the factory. On June 13, blacklegs tried to get into “Titan” hidden in the back of a truck, but the strikers used barrels to block the road. The next day a new group of scabs from Piraeus tried to reach the factory by barge, but the strikers encircled the ship with small boats and forced the workers to go back to Piraeus. Factory managers tried to neutralize the strikers by removing the motors and the oars from the boats; they also burned cement sacks in the factory furnaces to make the strikers believe that work was going on uninterrupted. Dozens of workers were injured or arrested during daily clashes with the police.
The tavern of Marougkas
The strike ended on June 17. Workers secured a small increase in the minimum wage (from 52 to 60 drachmas), more funding for their health care fund and the dismissal of all strikebreakers. The 54-day strike was considered a success for the labour movement and the town of Eleusis. The strikers were able to stand up to blacklegs, the equestrian gendarmerie and the cannons of a warship that fired a few warning shots outside the harbour. Many Eleusinians supported the strikers both psychologically and financially. Panagiotis Marougkas, who owned a tavern in the neighbourhood of Symiaka, placed a barrel full of black olives, a basket full of bread and glasses of wine outside his tavern for the strikers and allowed their families to buy necessities on credit. The labour movement of Eleusis was back … but before it could grow it was strangled by the Metaxas dictatorship, which was imposed a few weeks later.