Written for teleSUR English, which will launch on July 24
As the economic crisis deepens, and governments respond with more austerity rather than support, people throughout the world are increasingly creating their own solutions. This piece addresses the recuperation of workplaces as a response to the prospect of unending unemployment. No longer demanding on a government that has turned their backs on the population, people are turning to one another. Workers are taking over abandoned workplaces and making them function again, using directly democratic assemblies, equal remuneration and job rotation practices. Following the lead of Argentina after the 2001 economic collapse, workers are recuperating their workplaces together with the support of the communities around them. One of the first such workplaces to do this in Europe was Vio.Me in Thessaloniki Greece.
In the summer of 2011, in Thessaloniki, I participated in a discussion with a few dozen people on the organizing that has been taking place in Argentina in the wake of their economic crisis. Greeks understandably wanted to see what might be learned from the various organizing practices. Experiences such as barter and direct producer-consumer networks were discussed, and had already begun in various regions of Greece, as had neighborhood assemblies and the taking over of land for organic gardening. What had yet to happen was the recuperation of a workplace. In fact, in that discussion, most people there were beyond skeptical, explaining that this was something that “could not happen here in Greece” – that it was impossible – all sorts of reasons were given, from the workplaces being too small to culture. Coincidently this conversation took place at the same time that the factory of Vio.Me was abandoned by the owner, leaving the workers without months of back pay or future prospects.
Different than the thousands of workplaces, which then closed, leaving workers without jobs or pay, forty workers of Vio.Me formed an assembly and took back their workplace.
Now, three years later, the workplace of Vio.Me is running under workers control, producing new products in harmony with the environment with massive support amongst the population. Nothing is impossible.
I spent time with the workers in Vio.Me in April of this year, and they explained their process of recuperation as well as their connections to the community and global network of recuperated workplaces. When the workers occupied the workplace – meaning a number of buildings and a few hectares of land – they had not yet decided that they would recuperate it. The difference with a traditional workplace occupation and recuperation is generally an occupation comes together with a list of demands on the owners, for things such as back pay or to reopen the workplace. In a recuperation the workers first occupy, and then apply the formula from the Argentine movements – borrowed from the landless movement in Brazil – ‘Occupy, Resist, Produce’. The vision and practice of recuperation is putting into production something seen as collectively already yours, based in the meaning of the word to recuperate – to take back. The resist is self evident, as almost always recuperations face repression from former owners or/and the government, and then production takes place. In the case of Vio.Me, when the workers decided to occupy, they had yet to absolutely decide that they would run the factory together. It was hard for them to imagine what that might look like in Greece. They had heard of the experience in Argentina, but that seemed so distant. Fortunately the workers of Vio.Me were connected to a global solidarity network and Greek movements (the basis of what later became the Vio.Me Solidarity Initiative) raised the funds so that a worker from Argentina, who had already gone through the process of recuperation, could meet with the Greek workers. As the workers in Vio.Me now reflect, meeting with Lalo, from a factory that had gone through the same thing they had, and that now was producing, helped them imagine more concretely what it would entail in Greece, and was that push of confidence they needed to make their final decision.
From the beginning the workers organized in horizontal assemblies, making sure that each voice was heard and all opinions considered in all things. While there are spokes people, they are just that, voices that represent the decisions of the assembly, not individuals who make decisions or speak for the other workers. One of the first decisions the workers made, once it was clear they were going to put the factory back into production, was to change what was produced. The factory had produced industrial glues and cleaners, and now, after many discussions amongst the workers and together with their families and supporters, they decided that they did not want to either use or produce toxic material. They therefore now only produce organic material, with products that they attain locally. They currently produce all sorts of lavendar and olive oil based cleaners and soaps, and are constantly experimenting with new products. While sales and their salaries are still relatively low, they are beginning to make a living. Their survival is in no small part due to the support they receive from people in the community who see their fates tied to that of the workers of Vio.Me.
As soon as the workers of Vio.Me occupied their workplace support came from all sorts of sectors of society. As with the experience of the Argentines, many traditional trade unions and left political parties did not support the process. Using the same argument as has now been used throughout the globe by the more traditional radical left, many unions argued it was an anti-union action since it did not go through them, and the left socialist parties argued that it would make the workers owners and thus it was not something to be supported. In many ways this was a fortunate rejection as it opened the path for a solidarity initiative that did not involve groups vying for leadership. The workers are the ones who lead the initiative, and many thousands are now working in support of their effort. Solidarity is expressed in many ways, from people physically being a presence at the workplace to help defend against eviction attempts to the coordination of assemblies together with the workers where the community can have a voice in some of the decisions made by workers in the factory. This second example is a new initiative where supporters can become “solidarity supporters” and by committing a small amount of money each month in exchange for a monthly allotment of the products, they can then participate in assemblies and have an advisory vote on certain decisions of the factory. Many hundreds of people participated in their most recent open assembly in May of 2014. As with workers in the hundreds of recuperated workplaces in Argentina, the workers of Vio.Me are clear that the only way the struggle has been able to succeed is with the close relationships with other people in struggle and organizing.
Many argue that the experience of recuperating workplaces is not an alternative to capitalism. And, perhaps in and of itself it is not. However workers who would for sure be unemployed are no longer. And, these same workers, rather than feeling depressed and having had their dignity crushed, are instead leading the way for others to retake their lives and dignity. As Makis, the spokesperson for the assembly of Vio.Me explains, it is not that one workplace will end capitalism, but the experience is a sort of flexing of the collective anti-capitalist muscle, building towards a broader experience of workers running their workplaces that can eventually lead to running all of society together with the community.
The experiences of the recuperations, different from traditional cooperatives, challenge capitalist relations. This challenge is first in the taking of private property and making it collective and cooperative – challenging the foundation of the capitalist economy. And second, and perhaps more important is the creation of new values. Around the world there are many tens of thousands of workers directly involved in recuperations and hundreds of thousands more involved somehow in the process. it is creating new value relations. This means most of them are functioning with assemblies and horizontal forms to create alternative ways of relating, breaking with the rules of capitalist production, and creating less exploited and alienated lived experiences. While these new relations break with the rules of capitalist production, they are simultaneously creating new values, and a new value-based relationship to production. Their rule, the rule of those in the movements, is not the accumulation of capital or surplus, but of affect and networks of solidarity and friendship. This new value is experienced on the subjective level, in the change in people and their relationships to one another, but also concretely, in new ways of living based in these relationships.
As described by Ernesto Lalo Paret from the recuperated workplace Cooperativa Unidos por el Calado the former Gatic, which makes Adidas footwear, the same Argentine worker who visited with the workers of Vio.Me: “This process has all of the problems that you could imagine, but it has made the factories viable which for the previous owners were not viable. Also, what is viability in a society full of shit? An economist might tell me about what something is worth in cash flow, but it is the person who is recovering their self-esteem, recovering their self-worth and confidence in themselves that puts the factory back to work. How much does it cost that this guy to be an example to his kid? And what is it worth to recuperate a factory for the community, for a family, and for society?” (Interview in MU, August 2011)