Konstantina Kuneva: the cleaner turned trade unionist turned MEP

Q&A

On 23 December 2008, Konstantina Kuneva (also known as Kostadinka or Constantina Kuneva), a Bulgarian-born cleaner and leading female trade unionist, became the victim of an acid attack because of her work organising mainly female cleaners and domestic workers. The case shocked the country and Kuneva was terribly disfigured. Although a court decision resulted in Kuneva being compensated €250,000 by her employer, her assailants were never brought to justice.

Today, the founding member of the Union of Cleaners and Domestic Workers is one of the seven Members of the European Parliament (MEP) elected with SYRIZA, the Greek left-wing party which triumphed in the 2014 European elections. Kuneva personally won 160,000 votes.

While in Greece the pressure for fiscal adjustment by the Troika of international lenders continues to deteriorate labour relations, Kuneva talks to Equal Times about her determination to restore the European social model.

 

For more than two months 500 cleaning workers in Athens– mostly women aged between 45 and 60 – have been protesting because they were sacked by the Ministry of Finance for the benefit of private cleaning corporations. You could be one of them but now you are an elected MEP. How do you feel and what are your priorities?

I feel great responsibility. We have to deal with an institution (the European Parliament) that is complex, suffers from extreme bureaucracy and formalism and contains a lot of “protocols” which we unavoidably have to follow in order to get to the essence, to do politics, to bring citizens’ problems at the centre of discussions.

Unfortunately, we see that the police violence and the government injustice against the cleaning workers continues. But this does not discourage us. It makes us more determined to continue in a more organised and dynamic fashion.

Labour rights, huge inequalities, rights of the weakest, of people with disabilities, of women workers are some of the issues that I consider as priorities.

 

What are the key features of your union activity that “provoked” the attack against you?

I fought for the obvious. I wanted for cleaning workers to have contracts and for employers to honour these contracts, not infringe on working hours and recognise employees’ right to organise.

These things were almost indisputable during the 20th century, but nowadays employers are considering them as a barrier. And, unfortunately, all these decisions made by the various Greek governments along with the Troika are helping employers to become more arbitrary and cruel towards employees. And they call this “reform.”

 

What do you remember of the evening of the attack?

I remember the trembling hands of those throwing the acid to me. They were also scared of the horrible thing they were doing and I hope that their fear has taught them a lesson.

The attack against you was followed by a massive solidarity movement. Do you think that Greece, during the crisis, received solidarity from its partners?

Some words and meanings have been abused over the last years. Indeed, I was shown genuine, human, spontaneous solidarity.

What the EU partners have shown to Greece is definitely not solidarity. It might be that they have lent Greece large amounts of money, but make no mistake: this money was given mainly to protect the banks, which hold Greek government bonds.

What this “solidarity” caused instead is a huge rise in unemployment, unprecedented reduction in wages and incomes, pension and welfare cuts, workers stripped of their rights, suicides, emigration…This is not solidarity. It is the murder of a society.

 

The “flexibilisation” of labour relations as a way of dealing with high unemployment in Europe seems the preferred course of action for EU leaders. Do you believe that the parliamentary group European United Left-Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL), of which Syriza is a member, can propose an alternative to this?

Yes, I firmly believe this. That is why I am here, first and foremost to represent the workers.

This flexibilisation you mention is a scam. Employees without minimum rights and security can be neither productive nor creative.

The welfare state that EU leaders now consider as an obstacle was the key growth factor for post-war Europe. How can anyone deny this truth?

The alternative proposed by GUE/NGL should be to rebuild the welfare state and restore labour rights while adapting to the new conditions.

The situation has changed so much that trade unions need to build their relationship with the employees on a new basis. This alternative cannot be shaped otherwise than in a continuous close cooperation with the European trade unions, but also with all the new forms of workers’ organisations, born in many countries over the last few years, which are not covered by national collective agreement and have no legal substance.

 

A basic principle of “institutional” Europe is compromise. How difficult is it for a small country like Greece, for Syriza or for you personally to influence Europe?

If I personally, or all Syriza MPEs, did not believe we could influence things, we would not be in the European Parliament.

The EU is made up of small, medium and large countries. If small countries did not have a voice, then this shouldn’t be called a “union” but an “empire”.

Some governments, such as the German and others from the so-called “North”, behave as if this was a reality. And the major parties in the EU, the right-wing EPP and the Social Democrats behave exactly in the same way.

We will be “noisy”, they will hear us and they will be forced to discuss with us.