By Theodoros Karyotis
Originally published to ROARMag.com.
When a factory near Thessaloniki was abandoned by its owners in May 2011, the workers decided to occupy it and resume production under workers’ control.
Just one among thousands of Greek companies that succumbed to the deep recession brought about by the austerity measures imposed by a series of governments, the construction materials manufacturer Vio.Me was abandoned by its owners in May 2011. Forty of its workers, organized horizontally in a militant primary workers’ union, occupied the factory, located in the outskirts of Thessaloniki, to prevent the employers from taking away the machinery before paying the workers the nearly €1.5 million owed in salaries and compensations.
After one year of unfruitful contacts with the Ministry of Labor and the central trade union bureaucracies, the workers of Vio.Me, with the threat of poverty and chronic unemployment looming over their heads, announced in July 2012 their intention to self-manage production in the occupied factory, with their now famous slogan: “If you can’t do it, we can.” This declaration was met with the indifference or hostility of most political parties, right and left, and of the trade union bureaucracies.
However, a constellation of grassroots initiatives, political groups, primary trade unions and individual activists, inspired and motivated by the workers’ bold initiative, came together to form a wide and active solidarity movement. There was also extensive international networking and a constant flow ofsharing and solidarity with similar initiatives, especially the ones in Argentina.
The road ahead was not an easy one. The movement had to face the constant machinations of the ex-employers, the empty promises of the authorities, the lack of funds to finance production, the lack of demand for the factory’s products in an economy in deep recession, and an endless bureaucratic labyrinth. However, on the 12th of February 2013, after three days of intense mobilization, including a benefit concert attended by 6.000 people, production was restarted under workers’ control.
The workers immediately developed and produced a new range of environmentally-friendly cleaning products that was easy to finance, was produced using local and natural ingredients, and was distributed through the movement’s liberated spaces and the channels of the blooming social and solidarity economy, a natural ally of Vio.Me since the very start.
The small but steady income empowered the workers of Vio.Me and boosted their morale while they kept struggling for the full legalization of their activity. In April 2014, after overcoming several legal and bureaucratic hurdles, the workers formed a cooperative, based on the very principles that had been guiding their endeavour since the beginning: collective decision-making through the workers’ assembly, collective ownership of the means of production, and non-profit operation, as any surpluses will return to the wider community.
Recognizing that workers’ control is a small but necessary step towards social empowerment and the involvement of the whole of society in decisions affecting production, the new statutes of the cooperative include the figure of the “solidarity supporter.” This is any individual who commits to consuming a certain quantity of the factory’s products yearly, and in exchange is entitled to participate in the workers’ assemblies and help shape the course of the struggle through an advisory vote on important decisions.
While there is still a long road ahead, the formalization of the cooperative, the overwhelming response of society and the extension of the distribution network offer a positive outlook for the Vio.Me struggle. The first big assembly of the currently more than 1.000 solidarity supporters will take place at the Vio.Me factory on the 11th of May, one day before an important legal battle that can have an effect on the workers’ collective ownership of the means on production.
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 annualDirect Democracy Festival. He writes on autonomias.net.