Ministry blames rectors for nine-week admin strike

As the strike by administrative staff that has paralysed major universities in Greece entered its ninth week, Education Minister Kostantinos Arvanitopoulos targeted rectors of still-closed institutions in Athens – and ordered them to “take action to resolve the situation or face the consequences of the law”.

Administrative staff went on strike over government’s austerity plans that included suspending 1,349 staff, a prelude to redundancies.

The strike brought eight major universities to a standstill, and rectors warned that the institutions would not be able to function fully with the level of cuts demanded. All but two of the institutions have subsequently resumed operations.

Conscious that further delays in the full operation of universities may result in the loss of the autumn semester, Arvanitopoulos held separate private meetings with University of Athens Rector Theodosis Pelegrinis, and Simos Simopoulos, rector of the National Technical University of Athens, before issuing his edict.

The minister referred to “a small minority of administrative staff who continue to keep the two universities closed against the interests of students and their families”.

Representatives of administrative staff, however, claimed that participation in the strike was “overwhelming, and decisions were taken unanimously”.

Arvanitopoulos urged the two rectors to reopen their universities. It was reported that classes would resume at the technical university, but not at the University of Athens.

Last week the minister appealed to the courts to declare the industrial action by administrative staff illegal and against the public interest, and called on the public prosecutor to examine whether the rector of the University of Athens was guilty of dereliction of duty.

The conflict with the government has become more complex, with recently established university management councils seeing the dispute as an opportunity to grow their influence and claim a greater share of power in institutions.

Appearing to be singing from the same hymn sheet as the government, the council of the University of Athens issued an order asking the rector “to take all necessary measures for the restoration of the institution’s educational and research activity”, and pointing out that “the responsibility would be enormous if the autumn semester is lost”.

It went on to suggest that the rector should seek recourse through the courts, where the strike by administrative staff would be considered illegal and against the public interest, enabling the matter to be resolved and normality to resume – thereby preempting a court decision with enormous perspicacity.

However, the State Council – the country’s highest legal authority – rejected the Ministry of Education’s arguments in relation to the suspension of 1,349 administrative staff.

A State Council meeting, which lasted for more than four hours, was carried out in camera but in the presence of the eight rectors whose institutions have been affected. A large number of students and their families gathered outside the court’s headquarters.

The Education Ministry’s legal representatives failed to substantiate the claim that the suspension of staff was in the ‘public interest’, and also failed to produce a weighty counter-argument to the claim of universities that the cuts would be catastrophic for their operation.

The university arguments were that: there was no urgency to implement the suspension measure; it was not a requirement of memoranda signed between the Greek government and the International Monetary Fund or a demand of the bail-out troika of the IMF, European Commission and European Central Bank; and it would not result in fiscal benefit.

Lawyers also pointed out that not only were universities unable to conduct normal duties – registrations, services to teachers and students, provision of documents etc – but the safety of building and equipment was at risk, particularly in view of the impending 17 November anniversary of the fall of the Greek junta, which is traditionally marked by student protests.

Against these arguments, the ministry’s legal representatives argued that the suspensions and redundancies were indeed a memoranda demand, and that if there was a problem with security, rectors should employ private security.

The minister has also now signed an order in terms of which 268 administrative staff have been made redundant, because while on strike they refused to electronically submit their personal details as requested by the ministry – although their details are already known to the ministry.