Greek workers occupy their abandoned factory and restart production as a democratic collective.
Located on the outskirts of Thessaloniki the construction materials manufacturer Vio.Me was abandoned by its owner in May 2011, just one among thousands of Greek companies that fell victim to the economic crisis. The owner set about stripping, and then attempting to sell, the company’s machinery before paying the workers nearly €1.5 million owed in unpaid salaries and compensations.
In response, forty workers occupied the factory, preventing the sale, or in their eyes the theft, of the equipment and resources that would make any future return to their jobs impossible.
After a year of unsuccessful communications with the Ministry of Labour, the workers of Vio.Me, faced with the threat of poverty and chronic unemployment, announced in July 2012 their intention to self-manage the occupied factory. Despite the power of this declaration, it was met with indifference and sometimes hostility by most political parties and many official trade unions.
However, a movement of grassroots initiatives, political groups, sympathetic trade unions and individual activists came together to form a broad and proactive solidarity movement. What followed was the development of an extensive international network that made it possible to share experiences and knowledge with similar initiatives, especially that of the reclaimed factory movement in Argentina.
In spite of legal, logistical and political difficulties, such support – including a benefit concert attended by 6.000 people – ensured that on the 12th of February 2013 factory production was restarted under direct control of those who carried out the work.
The workers immediately developed and produced a new range of environmentally-friendly cleaning products, made from local and natural ingredients, that was easy to finance. These products were distributed through the movement, its supporters and the channels of the blooming social and solidarity economy.
This small but steady income empowered the workers of Vio.Me, boosting their morale while they struggled to make their activity official. In April 2014, after overcoming several legal and bureaucratic hurdles, the workers formed a co-operative that operates out of the occupied factory. This co-op is based on the very principles that had been guiding their endeavour since the beginning: collective decision-making, collective ownership and non-profit operation, with any surpluses returning to the wider community.
A natural reaction
Without understanding the wider context it could be easy to write off Vio.Me’s struggle as an ultimately hopeless enterprise. As in many African, Asian and Latin American countries before, the debt crisis in Greece has been used as an opportunity to take away many hard-won social, economic, political and labour rights of the population. The scramble to appease investors, companies and foreign governments has seen a drastic decrease in living standards for the majority of people and increasing authoritarianism when people object. As in many countries, including the UK, the crisis has provided a convenient opportunity for the cheap sale of the country’s public services and assets. In the case of Greece this includes forests, waters, entire beaches and mountains.
In Greece, as in Argentina in the 90’s and the UK in the 70’s and 80’s, these policies led to the dismantling, moving or sale of the manufacturing sector. The immediate cost of this massive and sudden economic restructuring, as well as the associated austerity, takes its toll on the working population. One out of three people of working age unemployed in Greece at the moment, with the figure rising to 50% among younger people.
In this context, by proclaiming “If you cannot do it, we can”, the struggle of Vio.Me is flying in the face of the Greek elites who are unwilling to continue to invest in productive industries, but instead in short fixes and who continue not to challenge continued corruption. Yet, although ‘occupying, resisting and producing’ is a challenge to ‘business as usual’, those in power find it difficult to violently repress it, as they have non-orthodox forms of resistance. Would the Government prevent people from holding on to their means of livelihood? Unfortunately, it has been the left-wing parties and major trade unions who have been the most vocal critics of the movement. It seems that independent actions by groups of people present a challenge to establishments of all sorts, even those with their roots in the labour movement.
A new way forward, from the bottom up
However, Vio.Me is now one of the most iconic examples of this new wave of grassroots social action, which sets out to place self-management at the centre of economic life. The movement attempts to ensure that people’s needs are met, through constructing thousands of small alternatives in the cracks of this failing economic system that is unwilling or unable to guarantee the well-being of the population.
Currently, the workers of Vio.Me are entangled in a struggle on many fronts. On the one hand is a legal battle against the ex-owner, who, despite having been sentenced to several years in prison for outstanding debts, is still free and conspiring against the self-managed endeavour. On the other hand is a political battle to apply pressure on the government to remove obstacles to their activity and an entrepreneurial battle to produce and distribute their product in an economy experiencing deep recession.
This is a story of a society failed and abused by both the state and the private sector, who took it upon themselves to do what is necessary. Indeed, it is the process of collective action and community resolve itself that has allowed them to get this far. As the Vio.Me movement says; ‘The struggle make the gears go round’.
Theodoros Karyotis is a sociologist, translator and activist participating in social movements that promote self-management, solidarity economy and defence of the commons. He is a member of the Initiative of Solidarity to the Vio.Me Self-Managed Factory (viome.org) and helps organize the annual Direct Democracy Festival. He writes on autonomias.net.