photo credit: Municipality of Eleusis
Life was not easy for workers in Eleusis in the late 1920s. The local factories provided employment for a large number of residents (many of whom were refugees who had recently arrived from Asia Minor with only the clothes on their backs) but conditions were harsh. The majority of workers remained extremely poor. The struggle for survival, the unhealthy conditions prevailing in the factories and financial troubles had transformed the workers into gaunt figures more akin to cadavers than living human beings.
In February 1929 the “Union of Craftsmen and Cement Workers of Eleusis” was founded in an effort to improve working and living conditions. The board of directors consisted of young people (the president had not even reached the age of 30) who did not have much experience in organizing labor. However, the effort was warmly received by the people of Eleusis and in a very short period, the Union numbered more than five hundred members.
Working for pennies
Their main demand was a wage increase to enable them to support their families. The highest salary available to workers in Eleusis was approximately 43 drachmas, an amount that was insufficient to cover the cost of housing and subsistence for the average working-class family. As a result, most workers (and their wives) were heavily indebted to local grocers. Αccording to the president of the “Union of Craftsmen and Cement Workers of Eleusis”, Emmanuel Georgiou, at the end of each working week most people barely had twenty drachmas available with which to pay their ever-increasing debts.
The eight-hour day
In conjunction with the pay raise, the workers of Eleusis had four additional demands. They wanted official recognition of their union (i.e. the “Union of Craftsmen and Cement Workers of Eleusis”), the adoption of the eight-hour working day, the regular payment of their wages each Saturday, and the re-hiring of the 72 members of the union who had lost their jobs because of their participation in the labor movement.
The government does not seem to have realized the intensity of dissatisfaction and indignation in Eleusis. The labor inspectors sent by the Ministry of National Economy claimed that they needed more time to study the demands and called on the workers to continue working. They also pointed out that even if the request for wage increases was accepted, the amount that would be given would in no case reach the 40% demanded by the workers, as the ministry could not impose such an increase on employers. In a movement of goodwill, however, it was announced that approximately one hundred people who had been recently dismissed would be allowed to go back to work.
The ministry’s proposals left the Union with no choice but to declare a strike. It called upon the “craftsmen” of Eleusis to join the general strike and to assemble outside the Union’s office. The workers were “people who want to live”, so they should leave their jobs because otherwise, they would “commit a crime against themselves and all their brothers.” The strike was declared for 5 am on the morning of Tuesday, March 5, 1929, and immediately approximately 2200 workers from 13 factories in the city abandoned their posts. Only the 55 employees of the “Kronos” factory refused to walk out of their job, with the exception of two workers who joined the protesters. Dockworkers also went on strike and all work on the steamships in the port of Eleusis screeched to a halt. It is worth mentioning that according to the Labour Inspectorate, three-quarters of the strikers were Asia Minor refugees.
The first reaction to the strike came from Dimitris Kikeris, the local gendarmerie commander, who hastened to allocate all available manpower to guard the factories. At the same time, he arrested six workers who were considered to be the leaders of the strike. Soon afterward he took fifteen gendarmes (who had recently graduated from the Gendarmerie School) and went to the “Kronos” factory, expecting trouble on account of the strikebreakers who were still inside. As an additional safety measure, he took with him of the men he had arrested (named Christopoulos and Andzidakis) to prevent any attempt by the other strikers to free them.
(To be continued…)