Mining Greece: The 1916 Serifos incident

MINING GREECE – THE 1916 SERIFOS INCIDENT – 001In August 1916, Serifos lives its own “short summer of anarchy” and a glorious page is written in the history of the labor movement with the so-called “miners’ revolt”.

 

Gromman, the revolt of miners and its leader 

Some even said that it was a strike instigated by the Entente Powers(1) to hit the supply system of the German army. It is difficult to give explicit answers since we only know the frame of the facts, especially the beginning and the end. The month of the strike, which certainly had features of a rebellion on the island, is covered by conflicting information and press reports.   Thus, the oral tradition preserved by the elders’ stories in the cafes of Serifos interweave myths and reality and the miners’ strike will remain an unknown and unfair page in the Greek labor movement.

The only written sources are the unfinished book of the leader of the strike K. Speras under the title “The Strike of Serifos, that is a narration of the bloody scenes of 21 August 1916 in the mines of Megalo Livadi of Serifos” (*), and the press reports of that time which were gathered in one publication by the Miners’ Federation, edited by N. Skonis (**). A systematic research has been carried out by the philologist Linos Kottis who edited and wrote the preface of the book written by Speras. A modest ceremony among “relatives and friends” takes place in August every year in the memory of the miners and surprises the tourists. A private company organizes tours in the galleries that lead to the nearby bay, and this is all about…

But a strike with dead people and gendarmes stoned to death and thrown into the sea attracts the attention of all of us even a century later.

The Gromman dynasty

The modern exploitation of the insland’s mineral wealth became efficient and profitable for the German mineralogist Emilios Gromman, who in 1885 simply followed the laws of the capitalist market and became rich with zero capital in the following simple way:

He founded a small company and merged it with the bankrupted “Serifos-Spiiialeza”, which already had extraction facilities on the island. He exploited the mineral wealth of the island and in exchange he gave a wage to its owners and a symbolic amount of money to the Greek state. The German was a solution for the infertile island of Serifos which was never an island of fishermen or sailors.

Many people arrived from the surrounding islands and Peloponnese looking for a job and the island of 2,000 inhabitants in the late 19th century reached the 4,000 inhabitants in 1910. The German, who used to say that apart from the jobs he offered education (the ruins of Gramonios School(2) are still there) and healthcare, was actually a type of administration.

But whether he offered a work or slavery, it’s better to be described by a person who experienced all these. In a publication of the Greek Ore Miners’ Federation, the veteran miner G. Livanios, based on older people’s testimonies, mentions the following:

“Working conditions for the ore miners, during that time, were barbaric and cruel. They were exposed to the sun while working. At dawn they had to be at the entrance of each gallery and when the sun set they stopped working. They could enjoy the sun only on Sunday because they struggled for a wage that was just enough to live on”.

But to every bad there is a worse and this came later by George Gromman B’, who succeeded his father in the company and took over the administration of mines in 1906.  He stepped up the production and proceeded with further lowering the “expensive” but poor security measures-while continuing to steal land and using violence. During 1914-1916 60 workers lost their lives in the galleries. The successor Gromman created a “union” of slaves, paid off local actors, politicians but also the silence of the annoying voices and when this was not possible he used the army that supported him.

The dynasty of Emilios Gromman ends in 1963, when the grandson with the same name (having offered his services during the war in the Nazi SS) left from Greece and went to N. Africa because the deposits were running out.

The strike

Even though there was a law since 1911 for an 8-hour work, the Serifians used to work for 16 hours each day. But the workers in Serifos were fired up with the revolutionary ideas that traveled then throughout Europe. In June 1916 K. Speras set up the local union, the Union of Workingmen and Miners of Serifos and became its first president (he also drafted the union’s “Constitutional Resolution”(3), which is considered as one of the most radical and revolutionary of that period). On August 2, 1916, following actions undertaken by the union(4) and several press reports on the poor working conditions, a special employee of the Ministry of Economy with the name Georgiadis arrived at Serifos and having found out that the conditions are inhuman, urges them to continue working in anticipation of his decision. This must have been the straw that broke the camel’s back.

On August 7, 1916 the workers denied to load Manousi ship with destination to Glasgow – according to the company – or Germany, as said by the workers. (This controversy will become a point of reference for the supporters of the theory of Entente involvement). They stopped every work in the galleries and they demanded an 8-hour job, safety measures and wage increase.

The only thing that the company agrees to discuss is the eight hours in the galleries and the rest at the surface, while it tries unsuccessfully to persuade some officials that used to support Gromman to maintain uninterrupted the production. Then the director of the company P. Vassos in cooperation with the president of the community and local warrant officer of the gendarmerie sent a telegram to the Ministry of the Interior, mentioning the workers’ strike and the setting on fire of a warehouse. It’s worth noting that the magistrate of Serifos, D. Kontos, denied signing the telegram. This telegram was the cause for sending a detachment to the island from Kea with 30 gendarmes and the lieutenant of the gendarmerie Chrisanthou in charge so that the loading of the ship would be ensured. In the morning of August 21 he requested a meeting with the management of the union as an excuse to discuss with them but his purpose was to imprison them in the gendarmerie station believing that doing so everything would become easier. Having assured the magistrate that they would only fire shots into the air to intimidate the workers, he went to the port of Megalo Livadi and gave the strikers who were on the loading bridge 5 min notice to load the ship. After these 5 minutes he shouted “in the name of the king” and shot Themistocles Kouzoupis in cold blood. Then he ordered the gendarmes to shoot but the strikers who were over five hundred reacted with stoning and forced them to move back and seek refuge in the galleries. With the intervention of the priest Yannis Rotas the conflict ended with four workers dead and tenths of injured people. The lieutenant of the gendarmerie was stoned to death and his body was thrown into the sea. Two of the gendarmes died and almost all of them were injured and unarmed. Following the release of the management of the union, they tried to hold the crowd and stop them from chasing the gendarmes.

And there the famous French flag appears for the first time: “Suddenly I heard cheers and in the midst of the crowd I saw a woman holding the French flag. I didn’t lose time and grabbed the flag and shouted: In the name of the French Democracy, put your weapons down!!” Speras writes in his book.  This fact, along with the telegram to the French fleet anchored in Milos(5), was isolated by some to support involvement of the Entente. It is good to remember that we are talking about 1916, in a period that Greece was politically divided and actually ungovernable, and about an early spontaneous labor movement which is not strange before the October Revolution to see France as protector of the oppressed.

In the following days the rebels control everything on the island(6). Unfortunately we don’t have much information for those days. A committee is created and several meetings of the residents take place. The first, however, presence of an official body will be French. On August 26 the French warship «Henri Quatre» arrives at the island. Its crew will strike the French flag and the captain will declare its support to the requests.

In early September, the Greek warship “Avlis” with 250 soldiers and magistrates arrived at the island from Syros. The short summer of anarchy ends in this way in Serifos. The administration and some of the workers were imprisoned in Syros. But this strike led the way to the establishment of the 8-hour workday.

(*)   “The Strike of Serifos, that is a narration of the bloody scenes of 21 August 1916 in the mines of Megalo Livadi of Serifos” (Κ. Speras)

(**)  The bloody miners’ strike in Serifos (Ν. Skonis publication by the Miners’ Federation)

(1) Entente: from French entente which means agreement. Various diplomatic agreements were characterized with this word. In this case it’s the Triple Entente of the WWI, the alliance linking the United Kingdom of Great Britain, Russia and France. It constituted a powerful counterweight to the Triple Alliance.

(2) The “Gramonios School” was a school for the workers’ children and an evening school for the workers that wished to attend courses. Its principal Andronikos was one of the supporters of the Grommans and for this reason the school was considered to be an instrument of ideological manipulation.

(3) The union’s “Constitutional Resolution” was considered as one of the most revolutionary of that period. We read in the objectives: solidarity with the organized workers throughout Greece and around the world, for the defense in favor of labor law and the fight against exploitation by capital, with the ultimate goal to publicize the production means and end the exploitation of people by other people”.

(4) Characteristic is the following excerpt from a letter of the union to the Ministry of Economy: “the working hours in Serifos are scheduled from the sunrise to the sunset with a break of one hour during the winter months, and 2-2 1/2 during the summer, ie 9-12. There were no safety measures for the miners because the aim of the company was to reap profits easily and the ore pillars that support the galleries collapsed under the rules of engineering (…) We were obliged to pay 2% of our wages for our mutual fund, but none of the workers was aware of the amount collected, where it was deposited and who managed it. Only medical care and the basic medicine were provided to them and not always”. 

(5) “When we arrived at the center of the town, we gathered in the central square and there, after having recounted the facts of the conflict, we decided to ask for foreign protection since we no longer trusted the government of Athens”. (from the book written by Speras).

(6) “Immediately after the delivered decision of the people I ordered the armed strikers to occupy the telegraph office, the police office and the magistrate court and other public institutions” (form the book written by Speras).

[SOURCE: http://kalodia.blogspot.gr/ ]