Some preliminary reflections about a factory occupation: the case of VIO.ME

On July 11, 2019, I visited VIO.ME, a worker run factory located in Thessaloniki, Greece. I had the opportunity to meet with one of the workers who was able to put aside time from his busy schedule for us to talk about the occupation, its significance and challenges.

Useful information can be found on the VIO.ME website  (the site is multilingual) and particularly in the following text: “Greetings from the self-organized workers of Viome“.

What follows are some thoughts and reflections based on the conversation I had during this encounter and the written material available on the VIO.ME website. I believe that the issues raised here will provide the basis for a much more in depth discussion (or discussions) towards positing for us future directions.

In 2011 the owners (Philkeram Johnson) of the VIO.ME factory that at the time was producing construction material filed for bankruptcy closing it down and leaving the workers with unpaid wages and without work: a classic boss manoeuvre was put into motion: to save themselves, they would throw everyone else overboard, closing the factories, stopping all payments to the workers, throwing the workers into unemployment. Before this scenario, the VIOME workers (which had constituted a much more radicalized union than the one from the other factory) went into action.

Facing the prospect of being unemployed during a time in Greece when the unemployment rate was over 20% and at least double that for youth, the workers of the factory in the tradition of direct action decided to take it over and keep it running. This took some time and the factory started producing again in 2013.

In occupying the factory the workers did not continue with and reproduce the capitalist relationships as existed in the factory prior to the occupation, but altered the nature of the factory itself instituting on a small scale a new relationship between, worker, factory, community, client, supplier and the product itself.

VIO.ME workers were already organized as a union while the factory was under its former owners. The union itself was in practice much more (direct) democratic than one has come to expect from contemporary trade unions, with rank and file workers much more involved in its running. It should be noted that VIO.ME was adjacent to another factory that belonged to the same owners (the land was / is one piece of real estate) that produced ceramics and which suffered the same fate as VIO.ME but whose union was more company oriented and relied on conventional forms in dealing with this situation while its workers did not take the route taken by those of VIO.ME. (more on this later)

The (direct) democratic (we should emphasize here that democratic means not just voting occasionally for a union leader, but rather direct involvement, responsibility and decision-making) and uncompromising spirit of the VIO.ME workers was reflected in all the actions taken – and decisions made –  subsequently, and in the very decision, a pragmatic one at that to occupy the factory –  it was clear to them that there was no help coming from the side of the law and the state. Echoing Proudhon’s theory of property, the VIO.ME worker emphasized that the occupation is a “functional” occupation: the workers are not interested in owning the property, but only in being able to use it in order to keep producing. (more on this later)

Following the occupation of the factory, production methods  and products were changed in order to address challenges in accessing supplies and product distribution networks. On this basis it was decided that producing and distributing ecologically friendly products was both a meaningful socially useful choice and much more feasible (given the availability of supplies after the occupation).

With the crisis in 2008 we see the proliferation of self managed workplaces and self managed networks of service and product distribution (often referred to as solidarity based) throughout Europe and other parts of the globe. We already saw in Argentina, in response to the crisis in the late nineties, a historical resurgence of workers occupying factories. One difference from the occupations of 1920s and 50s is that these latter were part of an insurrectionary wave of workers confronting capitalism, which has not been the case in the more recent occupations. Nonetheless, what is important is that the current occupations still represent worker initiatives, forms of direct action, that create a contemporary experience of self-management, and educate those involved in these processes, while at the same time providing a living reference to the “new” within the “old” as anarchists would say – living examples of direct democracy in production.

It is important to keep in mind that during the economic crisis, there had been considerable resistance in Greece.  Unemployment skyrocketed to beyond 20% levels, more than double for young people. The struggle for survival inspired the creation of solidarity networks, managed by those who depended on them, including the creation of self-managed workplaces. These include social agencies, bakeries, cafes. While this movement towards self-management was not on a massive scale, it does point to forms of resistance creating real points of reference of the new within the old. During this time we saw the movement of the “squares”, an incipient form of direct democracy (this is not the time to go into the positives and negatives of this).

Without going into the specifics of solidarity based economies (which is a topic in and of itself), we can say that they form alternatives to the market based economies. Instead of profit driven exchange or bureaucratic forms of planning (and abstract establishment of equivalent units of exchange) we have giving between individuals and organizations based on mutual aid. These networks exist both at an international and domestic level. VIO.ME, for example, is part of mutually supportive networks assisting in the distribution of Zapatista Coffee, while in Greece VIO.ME is part of local networks. At the same time many of these companies have to operate within the market economy if they are to survive as economic entities. Products must be priced and sold to individuals. Prices are kept to appropriate levels reflecting the no profit orientation of these companies. For VIO.ME to be able to raise money for maintenance, replacement of equipment, and supplies, a certain percentage is set aside for this purpose from every transaction.

Since 2016 VIO.ME has set space aside for the creation of the Workers Health Centre,  a collaboration between VIO.ME and the Solidarity Social Medical Center of Thessaloniki. This provides health care to those who need it (even if they don’t have official papers) focusing on workers, marginalized populations and those without ready access to health care. This undertaking is one instance of a new way of situating workplaces within the community, opening up the workplace towards the community, integrating the workplace within the community. The centre itself runs on the basis of direct democracy. VIO.ME has committed itself to supporting the refuges coming into the country and for which official state sponsored programs are inadequate and often detrimental.

VIO.ME had also opened its space to the community in other ways: it hosts theatrical performances on its site. VIO.ME thus shows us a way to address the separation between workplace and community, the person as worker and the person as a totality. This is an old theme that goes back to the very emergence of political anarchism and is reflected in its historical tendencies. Turning the workplace into a community centre is one such direction.

The workers of VIO.ME see themselves as part of the ongoing worker’s struggles and not as a corporatist collective entity or owners of a factory. Thus they engage in support of ongoing worker struggles and take part in general strikes.

Some of the mystifications propagated by the ruling classes in our society are about why workers cannot manage their workplaces without being under the direction of management. For example, that workers are not able to make decisions throughout the various levels of a workplace of factory or business. We should recall in this context the discussions that took place following the Russian Revolution on the role of the manager-expert vs the worker as decision maker between the orthodox Bolsheviks and the Left Opposition. Any society that is based on hierarchies must justify positing as part of accepted opinion some form of why people occupy positions of lesser power. The struggle against exploitation and oppression is also a struggle against these mythologies. To cite two common and repeated examples from our society: there is a widespread belief that workers cannot manage because they lack the sufficient knowledge/information and skills to manage in a workplace; and that also management is needed to enforce rates of production and reduce errors.

The occupation of a factory such as in the case of VIO.ME is a living counterexample to such mystifications. Workers at VIO.ME share knowledge and information across specializations. While not everyone is an “expert” in all areas, e.g. there are researchers, economists, on the shop floor, workers etc., all relevant information is shared so that all workers can make informed decisions throughout the different levels of the organization and at the general assembly where all overall decisions are made. At VIO.ME the economist presents information in ways that non-economists can understand. When mistakes are made the point is not to punish but to encourage openness so mistakes are not hidden but openly addressed. They are regarded as an integral part of learning. In a typical cotemporary workplace, the usual response to the discovery of an error is denial or hiding for a variety of reasons: advancement, discipline, indifference, to name a few possibilities.

The bankruptcy of the owners Philkeram Johnson and of VIO.ME has led to attempts to auction the property. The workers of VIO.ME have been contesting this in court and through demonstrations. VIO.ME workers would accept the option where the land and building related to their production becomes public/municipal property with the provision that the workers keep on running the factory. Thus they would not be the owners of the property but the users running the production. One of the complications is that the union representing the workers from the adjacent factory, which belongs to the same owners, is looking for monetary compensation as opposed to occupying the factory and so is not supportive of the anti-auction actions.

Recently, VIO.ME has been receiving threatening fascist-sounding messages. More updated information on this can be found on the VIO.ME website. And also updates on the auction situation.

Since the crisis in Argentina which saw a reanimation of worker led occupations in recent world history, the instances of worker led networks of resistance to boss/ruling power have been multiplying throughout the globe. It is important to situate these occupations as part of a historical tradition of resistance that we see as far back as the emergence of the working class movements of the early 19th century in Europe.

One thread that runs through all these forms of resistance is the self-activity of working people organizing spontaneously, whether it is in the context of insurrections, open warfare waged by bosses, state armies and paramilitaries against the workers or generalized strikes and occupations or the recent take over of abandoned factories, workers put into effect their own creative know-how and produce their own forms of organization and doing. In recent times we have been seeing the formation of networks of solidarity between different worker run points of production. Vio.me is part of this resistance.

The proliferation of irrationalities (tendencies within the system where antinomies cannot be “resolved” except by creating further antinomies are integral aspects of capitalism, and for that matter in any heteronomous society), expressing themselves in all the absurdities we have come to see and experience economically, politically, in wars, in health physical or mental, and now in ongoing environmental destruction, and which become ongoing potential focal points of contestation/conflagrations which sometimes expand, proliferate, osmotically joining with others, dying out but not entirely, leaving their traces and which could possibly lead to an all out contestation with capitalism. Historically the introduction of automation is a case in point.  

The san culottes, the luddites, the Paris commune, the creation of the soviets during the Russian Revolution, generalized factory occupations in early 20th century Germany, Italy, the IWW in USA, the Winnipeg General Strike, the Spanish Revolution, the British shop stewards revolts of the 50s, Hungary 1956, May 68 and the movements of the 60s and so on and so forth constitute our inheritance of resistance and revolt.

Viome is part of this tradition, both resisting and creating new forms of work and community.  While recognizing that we now live in a society where its forms of domination and practices take on a totalitarian character (e.g.the generalized introduction/institution throughout the society of  “reasonable” forms of control, surveillance, exploitation at work – e.g. unpaid labor – while a generalized retreat into “private” living is intensifying for those layers of global societies which can afford it)

Autonomies.org give VIO.ME its unconditional support. We ask everyone who reads this article to do the same: As an act of solidarity, but also for the future of our struggle. There is nothing more than our ruling classes and the state would want to see then the failure of VIO.ME and other such worker undertakings that put a lie to their very existence. Check out their website to see what you can do.

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