People wait to withdraw cash from an ATM in downtown Athens. Photo: Iakovos Hatzistavrou/AFP/Getty
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From taxi drivers to surgeons, everyone in Greece is now an expert on the country’s debt

The strange thing has been how few Greeks, whether politicians, business people, journalists or whoever, took the idea that their country might leave the euro seriously.

Greece is at the centre of the economic crisis: the worst-hit and longest-suffering part of the dev­eloped world. Five (or, depending on how you count it, seven) years of crisis have produced a country inured to grim financial news and plugged in to repercussions in the eurozone.

Social media – and especially Twitter – is everywhere. Hour by hour over the past few weeks, people have been following the latest developments in Brussels and Frankfurt in real time. Recently, I interviewed a neurosurgeon just after he’d removed a benign tumour. In between operations, he and his colleagues chatted about what the blogs were saying and showed each other tweets from eastern European finance ministers. A taxi driver, in broken English and with no prompting, recommended that I follow the FT’s Brussels bureau chief, Peter Spiegel, on Twitter. “He points out [Jean-Claude] Juncker’s lies,” he told me.

I could very happily make a Newsnight film in Athens speaking only to local taxi drivers. I’ve met former centre-right New Democracy voters who went for Syriza – “They promised ten things but if they do only two, I’ll be happy” – and taxi drivers with a better understanding of debt dynamics (the relationship between debt, interest rates and growth) than many politicians. I have also been reminded of the scale of the disaster that has hit the country. When someone tells you that they’re just glad they don’t have any children growing up in Greece, it’s hard to know how to respond.

 

Protest politics

Protests, demonstrations and marches have been near-nightly events in central Athens. I’ve seen Syntagma Square filled with anti-austerity campaigners, communists and pro-Europeans.

The last of these aren’t your usual demo-going suspects. Better-dressed and slightly older, they occasionally seem at a loss what to do with their hours in the square. Some of them choose to fill the time by offering “helpful” advice on the piece to camera I’ve just recorded, in order to “better reflect” what has been happening.

The crowds got very big some nights in the week, enough to overwhelm the mobile-phone networks. But they were never large enough to pass a good friend’s definition of a “huge” Greek rally: the McDonald’s in Syntagma has always stayed open.

 

Interesting times

While I’ve been here, I have spoken to a lot of Greek businesses, large and small. I’ve heard a huge list of everything that is wrong with the economy, from broken, illiquid (and now closed) banks, to over-regulation, plus the shortage of demand and spending power. Not a single business has mentioned the issue the government has made its main red line – the level of government debt.

That sort of makes sense. The level of Greece’s government debt is very high, yet the burden of servicing it is very low. Interest payments as a share of GDP are among the lowest in Europe. The debt has already been rescheduled, restructured and reduced. It’s still far too high and another write-down will be needed in the future, but on the ground it doesn’t feel like a pressing short-term problem.

 

The final countdown

Each day after filming and editing, the finished package had to be sent back to London before I headed to the BBC “live point” to appear on the show. The broadcast packages are sent via the internet and the BBC’s system provides a helpful timer showing how long it will take to send each file.

I noticed over this past week that the timer has an unhelpful habit of resetting itself. It will say there are four minutes to go – and then suddenly jump back up to nine. That is what this crisis has felt like over these few months: a timetable that keeps getting reset, with “final” deadlines that keep slipping.

As long as both sides are talking, a way will always be found to keep the clock running. Most of the supposed “hard” deadlines have been based around dates when payment is due on Greece’s debts, but to take that seriously is to impose a financial logic on a political problem. The debt is now almost entirely to “official creditors” – the IMF, the ECB, and other eurozone governments – so missing a payment is as much about international relations as economics.

 

Wolf at the door

The strange thing has been how few Greeks, whether politicians, business people, journalists or whoever, took the idea that their country might leave the euro seriously. Most seemed to expect a deal at some point and thought that any talk of a Grexit was scaremongering. The Yes campaign argued that a No vote could lead to exit, but many No voters just didn’t believe them. Perhaps this is because they’ve been here before. There is an element of “the boy who cried wolf” at play. But it is often forgotten that the fable did end with the arrival of a wolf.

 

Wrong call

The referendum was a huge moment for Greece, for the eurozone and for the EU. But there is still some debate, in Greece and outside, over why it happened and what it represents. Was it a strategic masterstroke from Syriza which united the Greek people and bought concessions from Europe? Or a desperate gamble by a government that had run out of options?

Syriza’s negotiating strategy with Europe since January had sought to win concessions based on three assumptions: that a Greek threat to leave the euro would cause severe market jitters and pressure Europe into a deal; that the Greek economy was in a strong enough position to weather uncertainty while the European Central Bank would keep funding the banks; and that left-leaning governments in Italy and France would provide support.

All three of these assumptions were reasonable. All three turned out to be wrong.

Duncan Weldon is economics correspondent for BBC2’s “Newsnight”. @DuncanWeldon

Duncan Weldon is a senior policy officer at the Trades Union Congress. He blogs for them at Touchstone.

This article first appeared in the 09 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The austerity war

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An unlikely alliance of Hollywood and British builders are exposing the impact of blacklisting

When a secret operation of blacklisting UK construction workers was uncovered six years ago, the prospect of a film like Trumbo making blacklists a talking point was laughable.

“Scores of people lost their homes, their families disintegrated . . . some even lost their lives.” So says Bryan Cranston in the title role of Trumbo, the new film about the blacklist of communist sympathisers that gripped Hollywood for over a decade from the late 1940s.

The screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, a Communist party member, won two Oscars for his work under wraps during the blacklist era. But he spent almost a year in prison for his defiance of the US Congress’s inquisition into “un-American activities”.

Fifty-six years after the effective end of the blacklist and 5,500 miles from Hollywood, Cranston’s words are too close to home for a group of workers from a rather different demographic. In 2009, a government raid on a shady outfit called the Consulting Association discovered a database of over 3,000 builders in an unassuming office in the West Midlands.

With the sponsorship and co-operation of the likes of Balfour Beatty, Skanska, Carillion and Sir Robert McAlpine, the company worked to systematically deny employment to political activists and workplace safety reps who had raised grievances with bosses. Some files contained information that activists believe could only have been supplied by the police.

This week, 71 blacklistees were paid £5.6m by the firms. Hundreds more are fighting on to face the company chiefs in a High Court trial in May.

Some lost their homes, their families, their lives, as Dave Smith and Phil Chamberlain chronicle in their book Blacklisted. In 1995, Roy Bentham, a joiner from Merseyside, was added to the list after taking part in a strike, and soon could not find work anywhere in the northwest. “Being apart from my long-term girlfriend also put a strain on me and her emotionally,” he says. “We have subsequently split up. It does impact on your home life – and it’s still impacting now.”

In Trumbo, the title character clashes repeatedly over resistance tactics with fellow blacklisted writer Arlen Hird, a composite character played by Louis CK. After both men are released from jail, Hird first proposes to sue production companies for lost earnings, but later slams Trumbo for seeing revenge purely in financial terms – and forgetting the politics.

Blacklisted builders face similar dilemmas. Initially unions entered into talks with construction firms over compensation – but these broke down after the firms unilaterally launched their own scheme, branded “cut-price” by reps.

Some of the legal claims now due for the High Court were served as long ago as 2013. But in the past few weeks the litigants have come under immense pressure to withdraw. If they refuse to accept bosses’ offers and the courts subsequently award them less, workers will be forced to cover the firms’ legal fees.

Campaigners say the companies have already spent £20m fighting the claims, and are using this threat to “buy themselves out” of the embarrassing spectacle of having to testify in court.

Trumbo, however, offers a ray of hope. When the secret operation was uncovered six years ago, the prospect of Hollywood making a talking point of blacklisting was laughable. Activists are annoyed their own cases have been met by a “radio silence”. But the Blacklist Support Group wants to take advantage of the buzz around the film, and is encouraging its members to write to their local papers and speak up at public events about the impact of the Consulting Association database.

They will be helped by the fact that Trumbo, in spite of its Hollywood razzmatazz, is a fundamentally political film. Pride, the acclaimed 2014 picture about Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, did not mention the Communist affiliation of key character Mark Ashton – reportedly to avoid alienating American audiences. Not so in Trumbo. The film even makes a compelling case that the relative comfort of Hollywood is no reason to withdraw our sympathy – and reminds us that scores of poorer and less powerful communists suffered too. “It shows that blacklisting is not a one-off aberration – it’s part and parcel of how capitalism works,” Smith, himself on the construction database, tells me.

It’s hard to imagine blacklists in Britain have been confined to the building trade. It shouldn’t take a blockbuster to make such flagrant human rights abuses a hot topic – but it’s unsurprising it has, given the decline of industrial journalism and the bias of our legal system. Three cheers for Hollywood.

 Conrad Landin is the Morning Star's industrial correspondent. Follow him on Twitter @conradlandin.