Women on the Left – Konstantina Kuneva
As part of the 'Women on the Left' series, Chris Walsh looks at the Bulgarian-born founding member of the Greek precarious worker's union PEKOP, Konstantina Kuneva, who was subjected to horrific reactionary violence as a result of her endeavours in the service of women, migrants and the working class.
In December 2008, Greece was alive with the riots sparked by the state murder of 15 year old school boy Andreas Grigoropoulos in Athens. The world watched as predominantly young demonstrations clashed with police night after night for weeks on end, enraged by the killing of a child and the shameful response of political society, the media and the church. On the 23rd of December that year, another pivotal incident occurred, although this one is not so well-known beyond Greek shores. It was on this day that a leading woman trade unionist, Konstantina Kuneva, was viciously attacked and disfigured whilst leaving her workplace. It is suspected that the attack was carried out at the behest of her employer.
This incident would reinvigorate the popular resistance to state repression and the solidarity movement born from it was able to articulate a new, broad politics which dealt with various dynamics of oppression and exploitation.
Konstantina Kuneva first travelled to Greece from Bulgaria on a short-term visa in 2001. An educated woman, she read History at the University of Sofia. She emigrated to Greece with her young son in order that he could have an operation that he could not obtain in their native Bulgaria. Although somewhat knowledgeable on labour legislation and labour history in her homeland, she never intended be a union activist in Greece.
On arrival in Greece she took up work as a cleaner and was a founding member of the fledgling, Athens-based precarious workers union PEKOP (All Attica Union of Cleaners and Domestic Workers). Although being a militant was not her intention, in a short while within the union she established herself as a leading fighter and began to take on increasingly more responsibility in her workplace and the union. At the time of her attack in 2008, she was General Secretary of PEKOP and still remained on her basic working wage of less than 600euro per month whilst still working many hours on top of her union responsibilities.
PEKOP is an extremely important union, in that it organises those workers who have historically been ignored by the trade union movement. The demographics of the organisation make fascinating reading:
It has more than 1600 members and covers those workers employed in the private cleaning sector's enterprises. The majority of these workers (90%) are women and 65-70% out of them are foreigners coming from Albania, Bulgaria, Russia, Ukraine, and some of them come from Bangladesh and Palestine. Of course there are other local unions in other areas of the country, such as in the Prefecture of Magnesia, Achaia, Lamia etc, covering janitors who work in public schools in primary and secondary education.
PEKOP has been able to provide protection to some of the most vulnerable workers in Greece. The jobs carried out by PEKOP's, mostly woman, membership were historically unaffected by labour legislation, those who worked as cleaners and domestic workers were thought of as servants who had no rights. Kuneva's work within the union has started to reverse this trend and has given a voice to the voiceless. When before in Athens, no-one would speak up for the precarious woman worker and the immigrant workers had no protection from illegal exploitation from crooked bosses, PEKOP provides some protection to these most vulnerable workers.
This work was never going to be popular with the bosses. In 2008, before her attack, Kuneva was involved in a bitter dispute with her employer, an industrial cleaning firm called OIKOMET owned by a wealthy member of PASOK (the Greek Socialist Party), Nikitas Oikonomakis.
The latest dispute was over the company withholding Christmas bonuses for staff, but this was just one of many fights that Kuneva had had with her employer and this time she felt that her life was in danger as a result.
In an interview shortly before her attack, she said,
We are faced with a kind of terrorism by the employers. Whenever we hold elections there is an employers' representative who notes down everything, including the people entering and leaving the room, etc. I have work colleagues with whom I normally have friendly relations who no longer dare to speak to me, or say hello, in case we are spotted by someone from management. Workers have frequently been sacked in recent months for no reason, totally arbitrarily. Our employer is clearly at war with us after a few successful legal cases by our members... I have been accused of theft and have received death threats by phone... Yes, they've been direct threats, not disguised. I also suspect them of trying to get me deported.
Kuneva was right to be concerned. Leaving work on the night of December 28th on her way home to her young son, she was attacked with acid by thugs who wanted to put an end to the empowerment of the vulnerable that she was responsible for. The Right are particularly bitter about Konstantina Kuneva, not just because she is a woman and a migrant; but because she refuses to embrace the deferent role that these identities too often suggest. She refused the roles of servant and victim, instead asserting her strengths and encouraging others to do the same. This affront to the received relations of servitude and oppression invoked a most brutal response.
When attacked, her assailant didn't just disfigure her face with the acid, but purposely forced the liquid down her throat, causing irreparable damage to her mouth, throat and internal organs. Kuneva had come to represent the voice of the voiceless; the forces of reaction were desperate to silence her. Four years on and no-one has ever been charged with her attack. In court this month, as Kuneva continues to fight her employers for compensation, her lawyer stated that, "Kuneva's face and oesophagus have been almost destroyed. Although she has undergone more than 30 operations, she will not be able to lead a normal life."
The particularly savage nature of the attack sent a wave a shock and disgust throughout Greece, which was already in the midst of persistent, tempestuous class struggle. The highly politicised atmosphere coupled with the inevitably impassioned response from the public ensured that a vibrant solidarity campaign would continue Kuneva's work during her period of recovery and also fight for justice on her behalf.
Several organisations were founded in Solidarity with the Bulgarian worker. The first was the 'Feminist Initiative for Solidarity to Konstantina Kuneva'. Their opening statement explains the symbolic and historic significance of Kuneva's attack and the importance of those responsible facing justice:
It is certain that Konstantina Kuneva, being a migrant, was called to pay the price for her courage to emerge in the front and to demand the basic work rights for herself and her colleagues. The unprecedented manner of her 'punishment', with obvious archaic and sexist connotations, relegates to a dark world of inconceivable savagery, whose laws impose the literal ravaging of the face and stifling of the voice of a woman who dared to disobey. On this question, the responsibilities of the competent state institutions as well as those of the official trade unions are incalculable.
The movement that sprouted up after Kuneva's attack had many of the same valuable characteristics that her own precarious worker's union did. As well as fighting against economic exploitation; it was suitably prepared to tackle various forms of oppression that had often gone unchallenged in the past. It was capable of making the links between specific instances of oppression and systemic class exploitation and thus able to break people from a narrow trade-union consciousness to something altogether more dynamic and useful to the class as a whole.
This is one of the few times in recent Greek history of social movements we have the interconnection of the all three movements. The interconnection of gender, race/ethnicity and class along with the impunity of the transgressing employers and the complicity of the government are the main reasons that motivate activists bringing them together to the solidarity movement. Thus the solidarity movement to Kuneva incorporates struggles against all forms of oppression.
Konstantina Kuneva is a person with a multi-faceted identity: she is a woman; she is a trade unionist in a precarious industry and a class fighter; and she is a migrant. Her ability to articulate a politics which recognised the interconnectedness of the various social relations of which she contributes to, allows her to be a combatant to the sexism and racism that she has faced on a daily basis in Greece, whilst understanding their relation to the class exploitation inherent to capitalism.
The movements that she has inspired can, today, do the same. The significance of the lesson of Konstantina Kuneva's practice is that it undermines the sectional and corporatist consciousness which is only capable (or willing) to fight on one front. Movements against oppression of any sort only tackle the symptom if they cannot recognise that the cause is systemic to a society divided by classes. Likewise, anticapitalist revolutionaries cannot belittle gender, race or any other forms of oppression if we wish to win people to a project for working class power. Kuneva is the living embodiment of the synthesis of these struggles. In Europe today, many Marxists could learn from Konstantina Kuneva.
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