Occupy, Resist, Produce: The rebellious factory okupations-cooperatives of europe

What is it to speak of alternative economies to capitalism?  Wherein lies the alterity of initiatives that seek to produce beyond profit, to produce for the satisfaction of human needs?  What is an anti/post capitalist production?

The answers are not obvious the moment it is recognised that no social form is intrinsically anti-capitalist (given capitalism’s plasticity in the appropriation of opposition and that revolution cannot limit itself to the taking of the state for capitalism infects all social relations).  Nevertheless, cooperatives offer a form of anti-capitalism that cannot be set aside, and it is with this in mind that we share the following texts and images covering recent experiences in europe …

Towards a radical cooperativism against the crisis of imagination

Theodoros Karyotis, Athens Biennale 2015 (A free transcription of a presentation recorded on video)

Cooperatives offer a potential model for elaborating such an alternative, but they must be thought through conceptually and in practice.

Cooperatives, along with labour unions, are among the earliest forms of defense and resistance of working people against the degradation of lives brought on by early industrial capitalism.  Both represented a threat to young capitalism: unions in their demand for a larger part of capitalist profits for workers and cooperatives in their organisation of production freed of salaried labour.  Initially, both were different facets of a unified movement which only with time separated from each other, moderated their demands, and concerned themselves increasingly with improving the material conditions of the day to day life of workers.  In this process, both lost the idea of overcoming capitalism.

The achievements of cooperatives are not to be denied, especially as regards contributing to the welfare of workers.  However, over time, the moderation of their demands and their lack of political vision or ambition meant that they would be increasingly absorbed and co-opted within the dominant mode of capitalist production.

In the present, any alternative economic endeavour must strike a balance between two important aspects: the viability of the alternative in the present system and the vision of overcoming the existing capitalist framework.  If this balance is not secured, the alternative is either absorbed or marginalised from the mainstream of economic and social life.

With regards to cooperatives, as possible economic alternatives to capitalism, the challenges that they have faced in the past, and continue to face, are numerous.  It is fundamental that they overcome wage labour relations; historically, their initial goal.  Very often though cooperatives have been absorbed within capitalist modes of production, with the result that the collective of workers becomes a new collective employer using wage labour.  This marks the end of any radical possibilities, as the cooperative becomes another capitalist enterprise.

Cooperatives must also overcome abstract labour.  That is, they must not concern themselves with producing goods with market or exchange value, but rather goods that are useful.  Even in a cooperative where equality and democracy are present in the management of the activity, even when there are no bosses, market exchange value imposes an external disciplinary force on the cooperative, for the price signals of the market will determine what and how something is produced, will shape the rhythms and conditions of labour.

Under both constraints, cooperatives are forced into forms of self-exploitation to be more productive so that the cooperative members can earn a living, while at the same time, production is disconnected from actual social needs, as productive activity is directed at producing for profit in the market.  (The Mondragón cooperative is a particularly striking example of the possible comprise of cooperatives with capitalist social relations).

What can be done to overcome this situation?  Essential is the involvement of the community with the worker’s cooperative, for it is the community that determines social needs and it is the community that can indicate what a factory can do to meet them.  In other words, it is in the relation between community and factory that production can be moved away from market needs to concrete social needs.

For such a relation to gain body, it is important that it is the community and not the workers who own the cooperative, for the interests of the community’s members can then work against the potential interests of workers as collective capitalists, or with workers against their absorption within capitalism.

The cooperatives integration into regional bodies can also serve to generate values between, promoting in turn their coordination and the decentralised planning of their productive activity.

it is also necessary to overcome the individualisation of the condition of worker or entrepreneur and its corresponding middle class consciousness.  Workers of successful cooperatives over time tend to identify with small property owning classes and their supposed individual achievements and prosperity.  They thus leave behind the militant mobilisation and collective struggle that was the goal and essence of the cooperatives in the first place.

Cooperatives must also struggle against the attempt of capital to absorb, co-opt and utilise cooperatives for their own ambitions.  This is of extreme importance particularly in the context of neoliberal restructuring.  In other words, in the midst of the dismantling of state welfare provisions, neoliberalism requires some kind of commons and services provisioning by society.  Otherwise, there is the risk of an unmanageable social explosion. The utilisation of the commons is thus an integral of the neoliberal project.  Its use is nevertheless a double edge sword for capitalism, because while satisfactory commons provisions by society can be a means to maintain social peace, too much will have the opposite effect, empowering workers, communities, diminishing dependence on capital, lowering wages and profits.  Capital is therefore obliged to control and limit the extent of the commons, including cooperatives.

For this reason, the state, even if on occasion it may promote cooperatives, is not always a trustworthy ally for their development because of the state’s essential function: to secure the circulation of capital and the welfare of society, but with the first always overriding the second.  The state can therefore not always be trusted in cooperative endeavours, even if this does not imply that one ignore it or necessarily fight against it.

Cooperatives must also avoid using the legal framework of cooperatives, as it presently exists for example in most european legislation to by-pass labour legislation, and accordingly intensify the exploitation of workers.

By way of a conclusion, there can be no real tame cooperative movement, existing somehow in peaceful coexistence with capitalist modes of production.  If the cooperative movement is to preserve itself, it must be combative, seek out conflicts, be militant and always aware of the huge threats to its activity.

The recent cooperative movement of recuperated work places (e.g. argentina, in different countries in europe: see workerscontrol.net) embody the characteristics of a militant cooperative movement, even if they are not representative of the broader cooperative movement.  The new movement offers a path towards radicalising cooperatives.

Recuperated work places, as occupied companies democratically run by their workers are radical in being instruments of popular defense against neoliberal restructuring (e.g. argentina), and through occupation, changing the broader cooperative movement through contagion.  A commons can be built from the ground up, but it is important to recall that everything around us was built by us and should therefore be appropriated by the communities that built this world.

The occupation movement is in other words a new commoning, a commoning of the means of production and of labour itself.

The movement also keeps alive the militant consciousness of the workers, who aspire to create cooperatives and not to become entrepreneurs.  They participate in strikes, in parallel actions of the workers’ movement, exhibit solidarity, and integrate their struggle into those of the broader community, refusing then to become self-serving entrepreneurs guided only by profit.

The new cooperatives are also a power response to capital’s tendency to de-localise production to countries with cheaper labour. (e.g. fralib, france)

The solidarity initiatives that form around occupied work places also form a bridge between labour and society, between economics and bio-politics, thereby changing the criteria regarding the meaning and ends of economic activity.  In all of the recent recuperated work places in europe, production has shifted to socially and ecologically responsible production, from what was being produced before the takeovers. (e.g. Vio.me, greece)

All of these experiments of course are fragile, for the reason that the legal framework within capitalist societies privileges private property over the right of a society to produce for itself and to subsist.  The political and entrepreneurial classes will therefore always be hostile to radical cooperative movements.

The recent militant cooperative movement is also a response to the condition of the precarious, individualised and immaterial labour force that is gaining form today and to the crisis.  In the last instance, we speak of the economic crisis, but also of a much graver crisis, the crisis of the imagination reflected in the collective inability to think of ourselves, of our well being, of our welfare, of our commons provisioning outside of the bureaucratic structures of the state and outside the profit driven structures of the market.


Take back the factory: worker control in the current crisis

Dario Azzellini  (15/09/15, workerscontrol.net)

The economic crisis that began in 2008 has put workers’ control and workplace democracy back on the agenda in the countries of the northern hemisphere.

During the first decade of the current century, factory occupations and production under workers’ control seemed to be limited mainly to South America, with a few exceptions in Asia. It was beyond the imagination of most workers and scholars in industrialized countries that workers would or could occupy their companies and run them on their own. Nevertheless, the crisis that started in 2008 put workers’ control back on the agenda in the northern hemisphere. In the course of the current crisis, factory occupations occurred throughout Europe, especially in France, Italy and Spain, but also in other countries, including Switzerland and Germany, and in the US and Canada. Nevertheless, in most cases the occupation was a means of struggle and not a step toward workers’ control. In some better organized cases workers achieved their demands, in others the occupations were a result of spontaneous indignation over factory closure or mass dismissals and the struggles fell apart without any concrete result.

Compared to other historical moments when factory takeovers and workers’ control were part of offensive struggles, the new occupations and recuperations develop out of defensive situations. However, this has been true since the neoliberal attack on workers in the early 1980s, with very few exceptions like the recent struggles for worker control in Venezuela. As consequence of the crisis, occupations and recuperations are accomplished by workers in reaction to closure of their production site or company, or relocation of production to a different country. Workers try to defend their workplaces because they have little reason to hope for a new job. In this defensive situation, the workers not only protest or resign; they take the initiative and become protagonists. In the struggle and on the production site they build horizontal social relations and adopt mechanisms of direct democracy and collective decision-making. The recuperated workplaces often reinvent themselves. The workplaces also build ties with nearby communities and other movements.

This description already includes certain criteria not necessarily shared by all workers’ takeover of companies. While in fact it is fundamental to recognize the diversity of situations, contexts and modalities of workers’ controlled companies, it is nevertheless important to understand workers’ control or recuperation of workplaces as a socio-political operation and not as a mere economic procedure. Therefore, it is necessary to have some basic criteria when discussing recuperated companies. Some well-intentioned authors calculate 150 recuperated workplaces under worker control in Europe (Troisi 2013). A closer look shows that very few of these can really be considered “recuperated” and under worker control. That count includes all workers’ buyouts of which most at best adopted the structure and functioning of traditional cooperatives. Many, if not most, have internal hierarchies and individual property shares. In the worst cases we find unequal share distribution according to the company’s social hierarchy (and therefore economic power) or even external investors and shareholders (individuals and major companies). Such reckoning reduces the concept of recuperation to the continued existence of a company originally destined to close and merely changing ownership from one to many owners, some of whom work in the company. Companies following these schemes can hardly be considered “recuperated” in that they do not provide a different perspective on how society and production should be organized.

That contemporary worker-controlled companies almost always have the legal form of cooperatives is because the cooperative form is the only existing legal form of collective ownership and collective administration of workplaces. Usually, however, these are based on collective ownership, without any option of individual property; all workers have equal shares and equal voice. It is an important and distinctive characteristic that they question private ownership of means of production. They provide an alternative to capitalism based essentially on the idea of a collective or social form of ownership. Enterprises are seen not as privately owned (belonging to individuals or groups of shareholders), but as social property or “common property” managed directly and democratically by those most affected by them. Under different circumstances, this might include, along with workers, participation by communities, consumers, other workplaces, or even some instance of the state (for example in countries like Venezuela or Cuba). That workers’ control the production process and are decisive in decision-making, usually also turns them into social and political agents beyond the production process and the company (Malabarba 2013, 147).

All following examples of factories recuperated during the crisis correspond to these modalities.

Pilpa – La Fabrique du Sud

Pilpa was an ice cream producing company with 40 years of history in Carcassonne, near Narbonne, in southern France.It used to belong to the huge agricultural cooperative 3A, which sold its ice cream as different famous brands, among them the large French grocery store chain Carrefour. In September 2011, the plant was sold by 3A due to financial difficulties. The buyer, ice cream manufacturer R&R (belonging to US investment fund Oaktree Capital Management) was only interested in owning the famous brand names to add value to R&R (which would be sold by the investment fund in April 2013). In July 2012, R&R announced Pilpa would close and production relocated, with dismissal of 113 workers. The workers resisted, occupied the plant and started organizing a solidarity movement. Their goal was to save the production site (Borrits 2014).

The workers set up 24-hour surveillance to prevent the owner from dismantling the factory and removing the equipment. In December 2012 the workers gained a court declaring the proposed R&R job protection plan and workers’ pay out “inadequate.” While R&R formulated a new proposal, 27 workers decided on a plan to turn the former Pilpa into a worker owned and worker controlled cooperative under the name “Fabrique du Sud” (Factory of the South).

The new owner of R&R finally agreed in late spring 2013 to pay all workers between 14 and 37 months’ gross salaries and €6,000 for job training. Moreover it agreed to pay the cooperative more than €1 million in financial and technical assistance for job training and market analysis and hand over the machines for one production line, with the condition that Fabrique du Sud would not operate in the same market. The municipality of Carcassone agreed to buy the land upon which the factory is built (Borrits 2014). As former Pilpa worker and Fabrique du Sud founder, Rachid Ait Ouaki, explains, it was not a problem to agree not to operate in the same market:

    “We will produce ice cream and yogurt, both eco-friendly and of higher quality. We will use only regional ingredients – from milk to fruit – and also distribute our production locally. At the same time, we will keep prices for consumers low. We will not be producing 23 million liters annually as Pilpa did, but only the 2-3 million liters we can distribute locally. We also have only 21 of the original workers who joined the cooperative, since we have to put even more money into it, including raising our unemployment benefits through a program for business creation, and not everyone wanted to take that risk”.

As in other cases, the cooperative is the legal form the worker controlled company had to take. Decisions are made by all the workers together and benefits will be distributed equally among the workers, once production starts in early 2014.

From Maflow to Ri-Maflow

The Maflow plant in Trezzano sul Naviglio, industrial periphery of Milan, was part of the Italian transnational car partsproducer Maflow, which advanced in the 1990s to one of the most important manufacturers of air conditioning tubes worldwide with 23 production sites in different countries. Far from suffering consequences of the crisis and with enough clients to keep all plants producing, Maflow was put under forced administration by the courts in 2009 because of fraudulent handling of finances and fraudulent bankruptcy. The 330 workers of the plant in Milan, Maflow’s main production facility, began a struggle to reopen the plant and keep their jobs. In the course of the struggle they occupied the plant and held spectacular protests on the plant’s roof. Because of their struggle Maflow was offered to new investors only as a package including the main plant in Milan. In October 2010 the whole Maflow group was sold to the Polish investment group Boryszew. The new owner reduced the staff to 80 workers. 250 workers passed to a special income redundancy fund. But even so the new investor never restarted production and after the two years required by the law preventing him from closing a company bought under these circumstances, in December 2012 the Boryszew group closed the Maflow plant in Milan. Before closing it removed most machinery (Blicero 2013, Occorso 2013 and Massimo Lettiere).

A group of workers in redundancy had kept in touch and was unwilling to give up. Massimo Lettiere, former Maflow worker and union delegate of the leftist and radical rank and file union Confederazione Unitaria di Base (CUB) explains:

    “We went on organizing assemblies from the Boryszew take-over. In some of the assemblies we talked about the possibility of taking the plant and doing some work inside. We did not know exactly what kind of work we could do, but we understood that after so much time of redundancy, the next stage would be unemployment. Therefore we did not have any option and we had to try it. In the summer of 2012 we had already done some market studies and determined that we would set up a cooperative for recycling of computers, industrial machines, and domestic and kitchen appliances”.

When the plant was closed in December 2012, the workers occupied the square in front of their former factory and in February 2013 they went inside and occupied the plant, together with precarious workers and former workers of a nearby factory shut down after fraudulent bankruptcy:

    “To stand and wait for someone to give you a hand is worthless. We must take possession of the goods that others have abandoned. I am unemployed. I cannot invest the money to start a business. But I can take a factory building that has been abandoned and create an activity. So our first real investment for the project is activity and political action. We made a political choice. And from there we started working”.

In March 2013, the cooperative Ri-Maflow was officially constituted. Meanwhile the factory building passed to the Unicredito Bank. After the occupation Unicredito agreed to not request eviction and permitted them free use of the building. The 20 workers participating full time in the project completely reinvented themselves and the factory, as Lettiere describes:

    “We started building a broader network. We had the cooperative ‘Ri-Maflow’ with the goal of recycling as the economic activity. In order to gather money we built the association ‘Occupy Maflow’, which organized spaces and activities in the plant. We have a flea market in one hall, we opened a bar, we organize concerts and theater… we have a co-working area with offices we rent. With all that we started having a little income and we could buy a transporter and a pallet carrier for the cooperative, refit the electricity network and pay us some €300-€400 each a month. It was not much, but added to €800 unemployment you have almost a normal salary…

In 2014 we want to work on a larger scale with the cooperative. We have two projects we already started and both are linked to questions of ecology and sustainability. We have built alliances with local organic agricultural producers, opened a group for solidarity shopping and have contacted the agricultural cooperatives from Rosarno, Calabria, Southern Italy. They are cooperatives paying fair wages. Three or four years ago there was a rebellion of migrant workers in Rosarno. They stood up against exploitation. We buy oranges from these cooperatives and sell them and we produce orange and lemon liqueur. We are also connected with a group of engineers from the Polytechnic University to make huge recycling projects. It might take some years until we get all necessary permits. We chose this kind of activity for ecological reasons, reduction of waste etc. and we have already started recycling computers, which is easy, but we want to do it on a bigger scale.”

What can seem like a patchwork to traditional economists is in fact a socially and ecologically useful transformation of the factory with a complex approach based mainly on three premises: “a) solidarity, equality and self-organization among all members; b) conflictive relationship with the public and private counterparts; c) participation in and promotion of general struggles for work, income and rights” (Malabarba 2013, 143).

Greece: Vio.Me from industrial glue to organic cleaners

Vio.Me in Thessaloniki used to produce industrial glue, insulant and various other chemically produced building materials. Since 2010 the workers agreed to be sent on unpaid leave every four to six weeks. Then the owners started reducing the workers’ wages, but assured them it was only a temporary measure and they would soon be paid the missing salaries. The owners’ main argument was that profits had fallen 15 to 20 percent. When the owners did not keep their promise to pay the unpaid back wages, the workers went on strike demanding to be paid. As a response to their struggle the owners simply gave up the factory in May 2011, leaving 70 unpaid workers behind. Later the workers found out that the company was still making profits and the “losses” were due to a loan that Vio.Me formally granted to the mother firm Philkeram Johnsosn. In July 2011 the workers decided to occupy the plant and take their future in their own hands (see chapter 10 on Greece for more details on Vio.Me in? context). As Vio.Me-worker Makis Anagnostou, Thessaloniki explains:

    “When the factory was abandoned by the owners we first tried to negotiate with the politicians and the union bureaucracy. But we understood quickly that the only thing we were doing was wasting our time and slowing down the struggle. It was a difficult time; the crisis was showing sudden and intense effects. The suicide rate among workers in Greece rose a lot and we were worried that some of our fellow workers might commit suicide. Therefore we decided to open our labor conflict to society as a whole and the people became our allies. We discovered that the people we thought could not do anything in reality can do it all! Many workers did not agree with us or did not continue the struggle for other reasons. Among those of us who we took up the struggle, the common ground for our work is equality, participation and trust.”

Vio.Me became known internationally and inspired several other workers’ occupations in Greece, even if none was successful at keeping the workplace and/or production. The case best known internationally was the state-owned public broadcasting company, ERT (Ellinikí Radiofonía Tileórasi). After the government announced on June 11, 2013 that all public TV and radio stations would be closed (to be restructured and reopened with fewer workers, fewer rights and lower wages) workers and employees occupied the radio and produced their own program until they were brutally evicted on September 5.

The Vio.Me workers restarted production in February 2013.

    “Now we produce organic cleanser not the industrial glue we produced before. Distribution is informal, we sell our products ourselves at markets, fairs and festivals, and a lot of products are distributed through the movements, social centers and shops that are part of the movements. What we did last year is basically keep the factory active. We cannot yet say we have had a very positive outcome regarding production, distribution and sales. Earnings are quite low and not enough to maintain all the workers. Therefore some workers have lost faith, or got tired and left Vio.Me. Recently our assembly decided unanimously to legalize our status by building a cooperative“.

Common challenges for workers’ recuperations

Contemporary occupied or recuperated workplaces often face similar challenges, among are a lack of support by political parties and bureaucratic unions or even their open hostility, rejection and sabotage by the former owners and most other capitalist entrepreneurs and their representations, missing legal company forms matching with the workers’ aspirations and missing institutional framework, obstruction by institutions and little or no access to financial support and loans, even less from private institutions.

The general context contemporary recuperated factories have to face is not favorable. The occupations are taking place during a global economic crisis. Starting new productive activities and conquering market shares in a recessive economy is not an easy task. Moreover, the capital backing available for worker-controlled companies is also less than for capitalist enterprises. Usually an occupation and recuperation of a factory takes place after the owner has abandoned factory and workers, either he literally disappeared or he abandoned the workers by firing them between one day and the next. The owners owe the workers unpaid salaries, vacation days and compensations. The owners often start before the closure of the plant to remove machinery, vehicles and raw material. In such a situation, with the perspective of a long struggle without or with little financial support and uncertain outcome the most qualified workers, and often also younger workers, leave the enterprise, hoping for better options or to find a new job. The remaining workers have to acquire additional knowledge in various fields to be able to control not only the production process in a narrow sense, but also to administer the entire company, with all that implies. But once the workers take over the factory, the former owner suddenly reemerges and wants “his” business back.

Contrary to the common belief that capitalists only care about business no matter how it is done and with whom, worker-controlled businesses face not only capitalism’s inherent disadvantages for those following a different logic, but often constant attacks and hostilities by capitalist business and institutions as well as the bourgeois state. Worker-controlled companies that do not bend totally to capitalist functioning are considered a threat because they show that it is possible to work differently.

Common features of workers’ recuperations

The few known existing cases of workers’ recuperations described have huge differences. Some factories have modern machinery and are fully functional from the technical point of view. Others have been literally looted by the former owner and have to start from scratch. Some factories have encountered support from local authorities, others from unions. The common features are not a checklist for the authenticity of recuperated factories. The common features described are a repertoire of characteristics that are not necessarily all fulfilled by all recuperated factories.

All recuperation processes and recuperated factories are democratically administered. Decision-making is always based on forms of direct democracy with equality of vote among all participants, be it through councils or assemblies. These direct democratic mechanisms adopted by worker-controlled companies raise important questions, not only about individual enterprises, but about how decisions should be made throughout the whole of society. In doing so, it challenges not only capitalist businesses, but also liberal and representative “democratic” governance.

Another obvious common feature is the occupation. It means to commit an act considered illegal and therefore enter into a conflict with authorities. It is a direct action by the workers themselves. They are not “representatives” nor do they wait for a representation –a union or party– or even the institutions of the state to solve their problem before they spring into action. As Malabarba correctly states: “The action has to be turned upside down: first the initiative, you occupy, and then you get in touch with the institutions that failed more or less consciously” (Malabarba 2013, 149).

This is also confirmed by the Latin American experience. In Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Venezuela the workers have always been ahead of parties, unions and institutions regarding practical responses. Expropriations, nationalizations, laws, financial and technical support etc. always followed the workers’ initiative and as a reaction to their direct action and struggle. The same is true for the productive activity developed by the recuperated workplace: strictly following the law, waiting for all legal authorizations and paying taxes would simply mean the activity would never start.

Most factories have to reinvent themselves, often the prior productive activity cannot be carried out in the same way (because the machines have been taken away by the owner, because it was a highly specialized activity with very few customers, whom the workers do not have access to, or because the workers decide it for other reasons). In all better documented cases we find that ecological aspects and questions of sustainability became central, be it an orientation on recycling, as in both Italian factories, the change from industrial glue and solvents to organic cleaners in Vio.Me in Thessaloniki, or the two factories in France switching to organic products and using local and regional raw materials and also distributing their products locally and rgionally. The problematic is seen by the workers in a larger context regarding the future of the planet, as well as on a smaller scale related to health threats for workers and surrounding communities. The importance of ecological aspects is part of the new society envisioned by the workers as are the democratic practices.

The struggle of the workers and the occupied or recuperated workplace becomes also a space in which new social relations are developed and practiced: Affect reliability, mutual help, solidarity among the participants and solidarity with others, participation and equality are some characteristics of the new social relations built. New values arise or at least different values than those characterizing the capitalist production process arise. Once the workers decide, for example, safety on the job becomes a priority.

The recuperated factories usually develop a strong connection with the territory. They support the neighborhood and get support from the neighborhood. They interact with different subjectivities present in the territory and develop joint initiatives. Also connections to different social movements and social and political organizations are built and strengthened. All factories mentioned in this chapter have direct relations with social movements and especially the new movements that were part of the global uprising since 2011. This is an evident parallel to Latin America where successful factory recuperations are characterized by having a strong foothold in the territory and close relations with other movements.

The anchorage in the territory helps also to face another important challenge: changing forms of work and production have radically diminished the overall number of workers with full time contracts, as well as reducing the number of workers in each company. While in the past job and production processes automatically generated cohesion among the workers, today work has a dispersive effect since often workers of the same company work with different contracts and with a different status. Generally more and more workers are pushed into precarious conditions and into self-employment (even if their activity depends totally on one “employer”). How can these workers be organized and what are their means of struggle? This is an important question the left must deal with to achieve victory over capital.

Ri-Maflow and Officine Zero in Italy have built strong ties with the new composition of work by sharing their space with precarious and independent workers. In the described case of Toronto, Canada, we can see a different approach to counteract the dispersive effect of work. The workers of the recuperated factories recognize themselves in each other and consider themselves part of a broader movement. The Kouta Steel Factory Workers in Egypt sent a letter in support of the Greek Vio.Me workers when they heard about their struggle. Makis Anagnostou from Vio.me declares: “The goal of the Vio.me workers is to create a European and international network with many more factories under worker control”. There is good reason to believe that this goal will become reality.

This chapter was taken from “An Alternative Labour History” | Edited by Dario Azzellini and published by Zed Books


A 3-channel video installation by Dario Azzellini and Oliver Ressler, 97 min. (combined), 2014 – 2015 (click here for source of text)

The economic crisis that began in 2007-8 led to layoffs on a massive scale, leaving thousands of newly unemployed workers with little hope of another job. Their response put workers’ control back on the agenda in Europe. For many years beforehand, factories had been occupied and recuperated almost exclusively in Latin America.

In most cases an occupation is not a deliberate step towards workers’ control but a means of workers’ struggle against the closure of a production site or company or the relocation of production to another country. The struggles often fall apart without any concrete results. “Occupy, Resist, Produce” focuses on the rare, better organized cases where the purpose of the struggle is to bring production under workers’ control. The workers do more than protest, they take the initiative and become protagonists, building horizontal social relations on the production sites and adopting mechanisms of direct democracy and collective decision-making. The recuperated workplaces often reinvent themselves, building links with local communities and social movements.

The 3-channel video installation “Occupy, Resist, Produce” consists of three films on occupied factories in Milan, Rome and Thessaloniki. In these cases the workers did find ways to organize labor under their own control. Each film is based on discussion with the workers. The workers’ assemblies – always the main decision-making bodies – were recorded. It is fundamental to recognize the differences between the situations, contexts and practices of the three worker-controlled companies, but it is also important to understand workers’ control or recuperation of workplaces as a socio-political action rather than a merely economic procedure.

Maflow, a multinational car parts producer based in Milan, closed its production facilities in 2009, with proprietor Italian Lifestyle Partners facing bankruptcy fraud charges. The workers began a struggle to reopen the plant under workers’ control. In 2013 they occupied the plant, and since that day 20 workers have participated full-time in the project, completely reinventing themselves and the factory, which they renamed RiMaflow. Applying the concept of an “open factory”, the workers started recycling computers and electronic household devices, opened a bar and cafeteria, and organized a flea market and cultural activities with the local community. They also built alliances with local organic agricultural producers, creating a group for solidarity shopping.

Officine Zero, formerly RSI (Rail Service Italia), once specialized in maintenance and repair of sleeping cars. When Italian railroads stopped running night trains in December 2011, RSI closed. Some 20 workers from a workforce of almost 60 refused to accept the closure, and in February 2012 they occupied their workplace. In 2013 Officine Zero was officially founded as an eco-social factory. Officine Zero literally means “Zero Workshops”: “zero bosses, zero exploitation, zero pollution”, as their new slogan puts it. In half a dozen workshops for carpentry, padding, metalwork and general repairs, the workers at Officine Zero focus mainly on the repair and recycling of domestic appliances, computers and furniture. The collective project aims to transform the former sleeping car repair shop into an industrial reuse and recycling center.

Vio.Me. in Thessaloniki used to produce industrial glue, insulant and various other chemically derived construction materials. In 2010 the workers were sent on unpaid leave every 4-6 weeks. After the owner stopped paying wages at all, in July 2011 the workers decided to occupy the plant and take their future into their own hands. In February 2013 Vio.Me. began producing organic cleaning products and organic soap. Vio.Me. formed a cooperative in order to operate legally. However, Vio.Me. does not operate as a traditional cooperative. The workers do not consider the company their property but a common good that should serve the community. Vio.Me. has “solidarity supporters” paying a monthly fee in advance and getting Vio.Me. products in exchange. The solidarity assembly also supports the workers’ mobilizations.

For the future it is planned to produce further films on occupied factories and to expand the video installation as the workers’ struggles continue.

Directed and produced by Dario Azzellini and Oliver Ressler
Camera: Thomas Parb
Additional camera: Rudolf Gottsberger, Bernhard Mayr
Boom operators: Thanasis Apostolidis, Riccardo Arrigoni, Emanuel Balbinot, Roberto Polenta, Oliver Ressler
Film editors: Dario Azzellini and Oliver Ressler
Sound design, re-recording mix and color correction: Rudolf Gottsberger
Special thanks to: Alioscia Castronuovo, Manos Cizek, Elisa Gigliarelli, Theodoros Karyotis, Gigi Malabarba, Francesco Raparelli, Marina Sitrin, Bert Theis, Pina Toscano and all the workers reclaiming work and dignity by building a democratic and self-determined workplace.
Footage: Giannis Girbas, Social Waste

The project was funded partly through the support of the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) AR 183-G21, Neuer Berliner Kunstverein (n.b.k.), Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo – CAAC, BKA, Aktion Selbstbesteuerung and the Rosa-Luxemburg Foundation.

Viome (greece) …

Officine Zero (italy) …

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Integral cooperatives: Towards a self-managed society

Joan Enciam

(from Ekintza Zuzena: Zenbakia number 41 … the text appears here in translation from the spanish)

The forces of cooperation

The libertarian idea of an honest, equitable and just society is based on the tradition of organisation.

The human being, as a social being, is obliged for life to interact with her/his fellow beings and to form part of some kind of social organisation.  The tradition of cooperation develops when it encompasses the possibilities offered by collaboration and mutual aid, against its non-existence or competition (the struggle of all against all); when it is understood that personal and common good can (and should) be in harmony, that to promote the development of the personal capacities of individuals within an environment of cooperation is the best path to follow.

Even in societies where structures of tyranny, subjection and competition have been established, the social fabric has evolved on the basis of forms and relations of collaboration between equals.  It is these that give meaning to the lives of individuals, because they are the only which are fertile for the emergence and cultivation of love, and of other first order human needs.  The very reproduction of the species takes place on the basis of cooperation and love.

Cooperation occurs when one understands oneself and the other as equal.  This is not paternalistic welfare, charity; it is solidarity, reciprocity.  Thus, cooperation opposes itself to hierarchy, privilege and the concentration of power, embracing accordingly assembly based social organisation, political and social equality, as well as collectivism and equity in the economy.  It is also opposed to the devastation of nature and ecosystems, for the latter is a grave form of non-cooperation with future generations.

The crisi(e)s

The crisis that we face is not only, nor above all else, an economic recession.  It is an ensemble of serious problems of different natures that we face as humanity, and that are predicted to continue to notably worsen. [1 These are due to the dynamics and the functioning of the current system of hegemonic domination, created more than 200 years ago, and whose fundamental pillars are the modern State and capitalism, in their terrible conjunction. [2 The state-capitalist system has secured its power attacking the forces and practices of cooperation and mutual aid.  These de-legitimise it and, sufficiently developed, they can aspire to topple it, substituting it with cooperative forms of social organisation.

The responses to the great problems of our time pass then through the resurgence of the forces of cooperation, focused on the project of an integral revolutionary transformation of the social organisation, the system of values and the way of being of persons, that aspires to break up present state and capitalist institutions.  This is no doubt a complex and difficult task, but it is impossible to find such solutions from within the current system.

We have therefore to make reappear the value of mutual aid, as a fundamental principle upon which to develop culture, construct ourselves and organise our whole collective life.  These means struggling against the stain of anti-values, ideas, behaviours and negative tendencies that the State and capitalism have been successfully promoting among the different social classes of different peoples of the world, with few exceptions.  In the case of the recent history of the spanish State, it was necessary to cover over, with the military uprising of 36 and the subsequent Franco period, the simmering breeding ground of cooperativism and self-management, that is, anti-capitalism, in consciousness and popular culture.  After, as with all of the other countries of the “First World” – and as with those that find themselves, to employ the euphemism, “developing” -, a consumer society was created – also called a society of indoctrination -, so as to elevate exponentially the accumulation of power, submission and the degradation of people: with the indoctrination of primary [3], secondary and university education in the hands of the State or private capital; salaried labour that alienates the subject [4] and absorbs its energy and vital time; the so-called “Welfare state” [5], inheritor of enlightened despotism (“everything for the people but without the people”)  and the substitution of knowledge and popular forms of self-dependence sustained by mutual aid and reciprocal assistance [6];the massive assault on the consciousnesses of people produced by the bombing of messages, images and stimuli, publicity advertisement and others, with the aim of debasing us; the insulting farce called “democracy”, of parliamentarism and political parties [7], followed by all of the media of mass “communication”; the complete aimlessness of the left [8] and of institutionalised labour unionism [9] to the point of venerating money and forgetting everything else …

Now we find ourselves before the collapse of the dream of abundance (waste) of the middle classes, in which many of the elements of the “Welfare state” are being withdrawn or reduced, the social crisis increases, and all of this appears to be just the beginning.  We have therefore to hurry in presenting our proposals: we do not miss what consumer society was, nor do we find any legitimacy in the institution of the State (nor for its “welfare” variety, even though we will not completely renounce it from one day to the next); we yearn for popular culture and self-organised and non-hierarchical forms to face and resolve problems.  Let us recuperate them!

We have to reconstitute ourselves as a people, being at this moment effectively disarranged; to reconstitute a popular social fabric, that is, at the margins of state and capitalist institutions, through all manner of initiatives and practices with a self-management, cooperative, plural and solidarity character.  At the same time, we have to be at the forefront in the domain of suggestions, reflection, current analysis of what is most important at the present and the discussion of ideas, promoting a critical spirit and public debate, dismantling the ideological props of the system, so that the consciousness of a revolutionary project may flower, a project that contains: 1) a radical – that goes to the roots – and anti-systemic analysis of reality; 2) a vision – general but solid, wise, without dogmatisms or utopianisms – of the bases of the alternative, as a social organisation and as a system of values; 3) some lines and general principles of a strategy of transformation.

The integral cooperatives pose themselves as a strategic tool.

The integral cooperatives

The integral cooperatives are a proposal to construct the bases of this popular counter-power, that would be the reflection of the new society desired.  They organise themselves on the bases of the principles of direct democracy (open assemblies), cooperation in networks and decentralisation.  Their significance permits us to advance in the tasks of:

  1. To show (remember) what is the alternative to hierarchical social organisation: network assembly based organisation, on the basis of the principles of self-determination/the autonomy of persons and human communities, processes of direct decision making and the communal management of fundamental economic goods.  The same holds for values: mutual aid and solidarity-fraternity instead of domination and indifference; stress on self-construction and personal betterment and a compromise with the common good, instead of self-dejection and adherence to egoism, courage and integrity to struggle against oppression rather than cowardliness and subservience, etc.
  2. To construct a popular basis of material and technical power (economic, financial, technological, communicative, etc.) with the goal of propelling and fomenting all manner of strategic initiatives that promote the construction of a popular economy as an integral alternative, in everything, to overcome the dependence on the state-capitalist economy.  On the basis of this constructive force, it will be possible to develop self-organisation and exercise self-defense, indispensable to placate possible aggression from elites, as repeated throughout history.  This can be understood as the principle of “destroying through building”, something that has been recently referred to in the Greek context as the consolidation of “social anarchism”.[10]
  3. To promote the substantive transformation of persons, by allowing them to experiment and try by themselves practices of self-management and cooperation, with all that these imply (assembly based self-organisation, sharing, learning to relate to others  and resolve interpersonal conflicts …).  This is possible in having ever more persons be able to live to the greatest degree possible at the margins of the structures and anti-values of the system.  Personal, interior change is fundamental, so that simultaneously social change can advance hand in hand.

The integral cooperatives employ some of the reigning legal framework, supporting itself through the construction of legal cooperatives.  In this way, collective efforts are protected while one ceases to sustain the State and self-managed action is re-distributed.  Protecting ourselves, minimising bureaucratic obligations, allow us to generate qualitative conditions more favourable for the development of our objectives.

The first time that the idea of integral cooperatives was proposed was in the mass publication “¡Podemos!”[11], in 2009.  Three years latter, the idea was proposed in a much more developed form in “¡Rebelaos!”[12]. The first cooperative that organised itself, more than three years ago now, was the Cooperativa Integral Catalana (CIC), after a series of processes of experimentation, reflection and the confluence of diverse persons and initiatives.

The Cooperativa Integral Catalana

The Cooperativa Integral Catalana (CIC) began its course in may of 2010, harvesting principles and practices that a broad sector of activists were developing at this time, within the framework of projects and initiatives of self-management and territorial defense, particularly tied to the movement of degrowth.

In this context emerged the desire to give life to an initiative of transition that through self-organisation would permit the generation of conditions to overcome the limits of contemporary capitalist society, based on the hegemony of the State, banks and the market.

During this time, a strategy has been developed to protect the self-managed activity from the hegemonic powers already mentioned, principally in the economic and juridical domain.  For this reason, the tactical and collective use of cooperatives in this role offers protection of the endless numbers of people who find themselves insolvent, of the economic activity of hundreds of autonomous projects in the territory,  of patrimony in the ambit of the collectivisation of farms or the financing of new projects that permit sustaining emergent networks of self-management.  Furthermore, the collaborative development of technology and the expansion of information and knowledge through the internet will soon permit generating key tools to overcome the dependence on the powers of the economy and the banks, and thus and to a considerable extent, the fiscal control that the State exercises over human beings.

In the meantime, thee practices have made possible the consolidation of means of self-financing and self-management and, consequently, have intensified the collective responsibility of the assembly based decisions over the coherent re-distribution of resources, with the goal of generating common goods and tools that continue to feed the self-organised networks in the territory.

Within these networks, numerous autonomous initiatives of bio-regional self-organisation, such as the “ecoxarxes” (eco-networks) and nuclei of self-management at local levels, with a growing presence of social currencies and other systems of economic relations based on trust, are today realities.

As well, the bases of systems that promote the common good through mutual aid and cooperation, beyond the terms of competition and abuse that are promoted by the pair State-Market have begun to be established.  These systems emerge as proposals of “Cooperative Public Systems” – as an alternative project to the “Welfare State” -, within which are framed education, health, housing, food, transportation, or even justice; working groups that in a coordinated manner begin to develop small scale experiences of self-organisation in these domains.  All of this while all always keeping in mind that the development of the community element and of individual responsibility are always key.

Similarly, it is also a principal objective to support initiatives of self-managed production, and to attend to the human relations therein and the conflicts that arise from them, as well as the development of networks and channels of communication that give voice to an emergent self-managed reality (beyond that of the CIC) [13].

Inspired by the experience of the CIC and of other collective self-management initiatives, there have emerged in these last years numerous projects of integral cooperatives and other processes of network self-organisation, principally in the Iberian Peninsula, the islands and in the south of France.  For example, the Cooperativa Integral Valenciana (in Tornallom), the Cooperativa Integral Aragonesa, the Cooperativa Integral Granaína, the Cooperativa Integral Asturiana, the Mancomunidade Integral Galega, the EcoXarxa Mallorca, the EcoRed Salamanca, the Cooperative Integrale Toulousaine, the EcoRéseau Pays Nantais, Herri Kooperatiba in Euskal Herria, etc. There also exist initiatives with similar objectives, such as the Redes Autogestionadas de Málaga, the Red Horizontal de Autogestión and the Red de Colectivos Autogestionados (Madrid), the collective Auzolan in Euskal Herria, etc.

It is through this experience accumulated in networks that the path of the integral revolution is sketched, the reflection of where we are going.  As the construction of popular counter-power advances, this last will will ground itself with strength and autonomy, locally and regionally.  This would be the basic scenario where the popular sovereignty of the people is given form in a future self-managed society, on the grounds of a re-localisation of political, economic and social life.  This of course without forgetting the global dimension of the revolution and the necessity of fomenting the progress of emancipatory processes in all parts of the world.

An integral revolution

The notion of integral revolution intends to be a basis for once again embracing the revolutionary project, learning from the past [14].  It follows that the importance of the qualitative transformation of revolutionary persons and the people in general, which must necessarily accompany the transformation in politics, economics and society, has to be understood.  The emancipatory gaze cannot only focus on what is exterior, but must simultaneously take in what is exterior and the interior.

The commitment to personal betterment, particularly forgotten and scorned due to the hegemony of the current system, must become something of the everyday of revolutionaries, tied to individual and group reflection.  We have to continue to recognise collectively the ills from which we suffer, which are the worst and the most problematic, and through mutual support, continue also to work upon and overcome them; to truly develop our capacities and qualities in concordance with revolutionary principles, ideas and objectives.

If we remain aware that the actual strength of the pair State-Capital and of domination in general basis itself upon degradation, docility and the construction of persons on the basis of power – from the originates the contemporary decadence of values and ideals, of culture, of ethics, of philosophy, of conviviality …-, it is evident that it is necessary to construct for consciousness a new subversive and fraternal culture that renders us strong, based on effort and the giving of ourselves.  This implies a task of profound and existential reflection, it signifies taking hold of our own reigns, as people before life, finitude.

Heleno Saña wrote not too long ago that, “The revolution is not only a way of thinking, but also a way of being that begins with things as elementary as good education, care, tenderness, the nobility of sentiments, gentlemanliness and nobility, qualities that constitute the basis of what Schiller called the “beautiful soul”.  It likewise includes self-criticism and the disposition to admit one’s own errors.  Without this humble ground, it would inevitably succumb to the always latent temptation of self–glorification, triumphalism, dogmatism, petulance and bullying, one of the moral defects that has often clouded the spiritual purity of the revolutionary cause.” [15]  This comrade reminds us of the crucial importance of the “subjective dimension”, given that there are no “objective forces of history”, automatic and impersonal, that lead us to the path of revolution.

For example, one of the most problematic current negative tendencies is frequent interpersonal conflict, the difficulty of conviviality and of treating each other with good manners open to the diversity and differences that are present in the heart of the people: to see more what unites us than separates us.

As has already been said, “we carry a new world in our hearts”.  For those of us who are for the revolution, we have to construct ourselves as integral persons  to be able to be examples and an inspiration in everything that is most important.


[1] On the economic, political, social, ecoloigical crisis … from the perspective of the last 200 years, see “Crisis multidimensional y democracia inclusiva” (Takis Fotopoulos, 2005); on the crisis of the human being as dehumanisation, as the loss of what is most important in its nature, see “Crisis y utopía en el siglo XXI” (Félix Rodrigo Mora, 2010); on the energy crisis, see the contributions of the important pedagogical blog “The Oil Crash”, of Antonio Turiel, and “La quiebra del capitalismo global: 2000-2030. El inicio del fin de la energía fósil: una ruptura histórica total” (Ramón Fernández Durán, 2011); for a more profound analysis of the ecological crisis, see “El Antropoceno. La crisis ecológica se hace mundial” (Ramón Fernández Durán, 2010).

[2] For a historical-experiential and theoretical-logical analysis of this, I suggest reading “Hacia una democracia inclusiva. La crisis de la economía de crecimiento y la necesidad de un nuevo proyecto liberador” (Takis Fotopoulos, 1997) and “La democracia y el triunfo del Estado” (Félix Rodrigo Mora, 2010).

[3] In the third number of the journal of libertarian thought “Estudios” («Control y obediencia», 2013), Mario Andrés Candelas offers a lucid work on the question: “Infancia y control social: desmontando mitos sobre la institución escolar”.

[4] Regarding this, essential reading is “La condición obrera”, a compilation of texts by the french writer Simone Weil.

[5] A criticism if this is developed in two very recent texts: “Para una crítica radical al Estado Social de Derecho” (Pedro García Olivo, 2012) and “¿Estado de bienestar o revolución?” (Grupo Antimilitarista Tortuga, 2011).

[6] See, for example, “El Estado de bienestar ha contribuido decisivamente a la destrucción del movimiento obrero consciente y organizado”, chapter XXIV of “El giro estatolátrico. Repudio experiencial del Estado de bienestar” (Félix Rodrigo Mora, 2011). Also, “Les cooperatives obreres de Sants. Autogestió proletària en un barri de Barcelona (1870-1939)” (Marc Dalmau i Ivan Miró, 2010).

[7] It is interesting to read “Nota sobre la supresión de los partidos políticos”, by Simone Weil («Escritos de Londres y últimas cartas», 1957).

[8Antón Dké explains why it is necessary to “remove the plug that the left has transformed itself into”, in an article published in Novemberf of 2013 in “El blog de Nanín”.

[9Miguel Perera y Miguel A. Pérez, “La larga deriva del sindicalismo oficial: crisis, control, erosión y la reconstrucción anarcosindicalista de la reivindicación”, journal “Estudios” nº 3.

[10] “Anarquismo social, una corriente de futuro”, de Aris Tsioumas.  Translated into spanish and published in the third number of “Estudios”.

[11] On the 17th of March 2009, 350,000 copies of this publication were distributed.  The idea of the cooperatives appears on page 14.  http://enricduran.cat/es/publicaciones-masivas-2

[12] This other publication, of 500,000 copies, saw the light of day on the 15th of March 2012.  On its title page, one can read, “Do you still believe that we need the State?” and “We plant the seeds of the integral revolution”.  https://rebelaos.net

[13] We recommend the evaluation of the progress of CIC published at the end of 2013 on the cooperatives web page.

[14] Last year a call was made for a political and international ideological affirmation of the idea of integral revolution.  Its bases are an interesting compilation of principles.  The CIC assumed them and other integral cooperatives have expressed affinity with them.  http://integrarevolucio.net

[15] “Emancipación y cultura. Reflexiones sobre los nuevos movimientos de protesta”. Published in nº 37 of the journal “Enciclopèdic”, in November of 2011.

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