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Viome: A Workers’ Experiment With Global Appeal


UNFOLLOW magazine, Christos Avramidis and Antonis Galanopoulos investigate the background to current events, and ask what the future might hold for these workers and their plan, what the reaction of the Greek government is likely to be, and whether workers’ self-management is feasible in a capitalist context.

“You can’t? We can!” This is how the workers of VIOME (short for Viomichaniki Metalleutiki, Industrial Mineral) reacted to the decision by the management to close down yet another factory in the Prefecture of Thessaloniki.

VIOME, a factory that makes chemical products for the construction sector, was established in 1982. It is a subsidiary company of Philkeram-Johnson S.A., owned by the Philippou family. Although in 2006 VIOME was still ranked among the 20 most successful businesses of northern Greece, 2008 marks the emergence of the first problems, due to the crisis in the construction sector, as well as bad decisions by the management.

In 2011, the Philippou family submitted a debtor’s petition for Philkeram. The consequences did not take long to appear within VIOME. In July 2011, the management violated the agreed timetable for the payout of the accrued sums. This was the first indication that the owners were abandoning the factory.

The workers reacted with repeated 48-hour strikes, and on 12 September began work retention. The idea of self-management was already being discussed in the first workers’ general assemblies. When it was submitted to a vote, it got 97%.

As soon as Philkeram went bankrupt, the entirety of its assets, including the shares and the real estate of VIOME, passed to the trustee for liquidation. At the tripartite meeting that was held at the Ministry of Labor in November 2011, in the presence of Deputy Minister Yiannis Koutsoukos, vice-president of the group Ms Philippou, made it clear that she did not intend to operate the factory again.

“From that moment on,” says VIOME Union Chairman Makis Anagnostou, “we brought out our own banner, and with the basic slogan ‘Not another 70 unemployed workers – Direct re-operation’, we went on demonstrations and strikes”.

In April 2012, following a period of relative inactivity, the union called out to associations and other trade unions of Thessaloniki for aid. The correspondence revived the workers’ morale and gave a new prospect to their fight, culminating in the creation of a “Solidarity Initiative” in support of workers’ self-management in VIOME, in July 2012.

In October 2012, a “solidarity caravan” was organized, which, after stops in the cities of Larissa and Volos, arrived in Athens, where the workers of VIOME submited their demands, and their proposal for re-operating the factory, to the consultant of the Minister of Labor. His reaction was reported as “positive”, but he declared that the matter is not under his jurisdiction, and committed to forwarding the demands to the Minister.

The workers’ proposal includes:

  • mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>Acquisition of the shares of VIOME, without undertaking the debt incurred under the previous management.
  • mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>Creation of a legal framework that will increase security for workers-shareholders, who are to participate with initial capital, and not with personal property, and with no further commitment.
  • mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>Financing via the subsidy of OAED (Manpower Employment Organization) for new enterprises (with part of these funds originating from ESPA -National Strategic Reference Framework- European programs), plus the lump sum payment of the unemployment benefit (a practice that has been repeated in the Petzetakis case).
  • mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>Return to VIOME of the sum of 1,9 million euros that had had been loaned to the Philkeram parent company.

Finally, on January 21st 2013, a meeting was held between the workers, the Minister of Labor Mr. Panagiotopoulos, and the trustee of Philkeram. The workers submitted their proposal again. The Minister replied rather vaguely that henceforth the conditions are ripe for passing closed-down factories to the hands of workers, but he did not commit to anything concrete. The workers for their part were not satisfied with the Minister’s reply, and declared that they would immediately begin operating the factory, while waiting for the submission of the relevant bill from the government. It is well worth noting here that, according to the chairman of the workers, the trustee did not raise any objections to the workers’ intentions.

The workers of VIOME put their plan into action. On February 12th 2013, they opened the factory gate.

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The Argentinian experience in workers’ self-management seems to support the VIOME expreriment, but it also provides issues to reflect upon. In 2001, the unemployment rate in Argentina was 25%, with another 20% being underemployed, and 60% of the population living in conditions of poverty. The workers began to occupy the factories in an effort to fight for their survival. Today, there exist about 300 workplaces with over 13.000 employees, which are operated democratically by the workers themselves. The “one worker = one vote” principle was applied in all the factories. An emblematic example of the movement is the factory Zanon.

 

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It is remarkable, however, that few factories have received a final operation permit, while this has been recalled for many others, with the owner “re-occupying” the factory with the blessings of the courts.

Moreover, the workers were forced in many cases to shoulder the debts or even to pay for the machinery, something that resulted in their having to work for a period without being paid. There are also examples where the factories, in their effort to hold out in the capitalist market, have adopted conditions such as hiring salaried workers, or the engagement of lessees, increasingly resembling more “formal” enterprises of the free market.

SOLIDARITY, POLITICAL SUPPORT AND FINANCIAL AID

One of the most hopeful aspects of the VIOME struggle is the solidarity movement that has developed around it. The open solidarity initiative in Thessaloniki has played a decisive role in supporting the workers’ cause – from gathering food, and organizing propaganda events and concerts for financial aid, to staging powerful demonstrations.

The movement has expanded internationally, as solidarity committees have already been organized in the US, Argentina, Australia, Vienna, Copenhagen, Poland, and international media all the way to Japan have broadcasted extensive reports. Well known writers and activists, such as David Harvey, Naomi Klein, Avi Lewis, John Holloway, Silvia Federici, David Graeber, have voiced their support for the undertaking. VIOME workers have even received a message of support from the Zapatistas.

“The workers’ undertaking of the factory of VIOME,” John Holloway told UNFOLLOW magazine “is exceptional news. The crisis in Greece cries out to the whole world that capitalism has failed. Our own turn to take over has come. There is no other way forward.”

Support is not limited to the moral or political level, but an effort is being made for the financial aid of workers. Another statement of support comes from Brendan Martin, founder of Working World, who confirmed to UNFOLLOW magazine that he is in contact with VIOME, and said that the undertaking can be viable and constitutes an exceptionally important struggle.

“It is something we have seen working hundreds of times,” Mr Martin said. “We intend to support this effort in every way. We are examining the enterprise’s prospects and are helping in the drafting of a plan, so as to recover from the pause of operation”.

Working World, an NGO which was established in the USA and has its headquarters in Argentina, functions as a solidarity fund, and finances through small loans groups of workers that operate co-operative or small enterprises. Its income comes from a governmental program of Argentina, whose aim is the support and financing of lower classes, from donations, as well as from the very network of co-operative enterprises that contribute to the fund.

As a non-profit company, Working World does not bring in profits to its owners. The fund only aims to be viable itself. As Brendan Martin says, “the role of the capital is subordinate and instrumental. The profits of the co-operatives are the most important thing. The loan payback is made only from the profits of the cooperatives. Contrary to the obvious risk, 98% of the loans in Argentina were paid back, and brought profits to the workers. The workers are a good bet; it seems to be paying off”.

GOVERNMENT FLIRTING WITH SELF-MANAGEMENT?

Greece’s coalition government, headed by Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, cannot afford another “bomb” going off in the economy, so it seems to be approaching the VIOME issue with some caution. It has had the advantage of determining how the issue initially developed, as it not only holds on to the capital necessary to begin production, but also reserves the decision to enact, or not, the essential legal framework for the operation of such an enterprise. But is the Government’s plan one of “controlled explosion” or of disarmament?

“We ask to produce,” says Mr Anagnostou. “We ask to pay taxes. Capitalists have abandoned production, they are interested only in profit”. It is precisely this reasoning that deprives the government of the usual arguments against such proposals. Those that constitute the real “problem of VIOME,” the unemployed unpaid workers, are the very ones to provide a way out.

Although the Government up to now has been stone-walling, all the while keeping the option of forcefully repressing the VIOME struggle open, there are indications that the idea of a “controlled explosion”, namely the decision to allow the workers to open the factory, with the aim of manipulating them, seems to be gaining ground. In Greece of the memorandum era, with unemployment having reached 27% and almost four million Greeks under the poverty limit, the government is desperately looking for ways to turn the tide of public opinion. A VIOME under control seems to be an exceptional opportunity, a VIOME, that is to say, that will function without the progressive elements of the workers’ struggle, without the political implications, with only an illusion of self-management. Re-operation would absorb investments from the European allocations, and thus would strengthen “growth”, focusing on the “real economy” with a “healthy business spirit.” Thus, job positions would be created, instead of having “another 70 unemployed workers.” VIOME might even become an example of “modernized syndicalism”.

Is this the road to assimilation? The hiring of non-shareholding employees, and the abolition of the solidarity fund, are some of the changes the government is likely to request of the workers. In case such changes are made, VIOME would cease to constitute an example of emancipation for workers. Moreover, it could pave the way for new compromises, effectively keeping the workers and the underemployed in production, so they are kept away from the struggle in the streets.

SELF-MANAGEMENT WITHIN CAPITALISM?

The effort of VIOME workers has been criticized both from the Right and the Left. The most important question is how we can conceive of workers’ self-management that needs the help of the Government and the EU. If this help is eventually given, it is probable that the workers, in order to maintain their factory open, will confront a series of dilemmas. They might overcome some dilemmas with legal maneuvers, while other ones they might not.

So dynamic is the situation, that we cannot anticipate the outcome, as the workers do not appear to be selling out their vision so cheaply. And, of course, the European Union plan for a “social economy” in conditions of exploitation will not be so easy to achieve, either. The workers who have sought contact with VIOME, in order to follow its example, would also agree to this. The question of what sort of dilemmas the Government will pose and how pressing they will be depends in the final analysis on the spread of the example of VIOME, as well as on constant solidarity.

The danger of workers becoming, within the bounds of the system, new “collective” property-owners, loyal to the conditions of the market, will always be lurking. Most similar undertakings in the past did not achieve precisely all that they had set as their objectives. This, however, does not entail the invalidation of possibility, but only its weakness to be fulfilled in the given social and economic limitations. Yet, are these limitations so insurmountable today? Maybe not.

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Adapted from a report published in