Self-organized workers press SYRIZA to keep its promises

  • April 16, 2015

Capitalism & Crisis

Autonomous and horizontal workers’ movements in Greece embarked on a caravan to Athens to remind the SYRIZA government of the base from which it arose.

Workers’ movements and their supporters from throughout Greece embarked on a caravan to Athens earlier this month to speak with and make demands on the new SYRIZA government. They are asking for concrete support for their struggles, each of which is based on self-organization and horizontality. Saturday, April 4 marked the first day of a caravan that traveled to various towns throughout Greece, meeting with and gathering other workers in struggle in each location, who then all made their way to Athens.

The struggles range from the Thessaloniki-based recuperated factory Vio.Me and the self-managed television and radio station ERT, who together are spearheading the caravan, to workers occupying their workplaces and resisting permanent layoffs in a variety of ways in other parts of the country. The caravan culminated in Athens with 500 women cleaners who are in negotiations with SYRIZA for what they hope will be their fair rehiring.

What all of the participants have in common is that they organize in assemblies, where each person has equal decision-making power, and attempt to break down hierarchies and power structures. They are petitioning the new SYRIZA government for a variety of things, the core of which is that they are able to maintain their horizontality and self-organization, which some want to see codified in law.

Almost everyone involved in the movements here in Greece would agree that it was through their struggle and support that SYRIZA was able to come to power. In some cases, SYRIZA members were and are movement participants, and in others the party actively supported and agreed to continue to support the movements’ activities and demands in the future.

Now, a few months after SYRIZA’s electoral victory, some movement participants are beginning to question whether the party will make good on its promises of support. These movements range from those opposing the mining project in Chalkidiki, the struggle for refugee and migrant rights, those opposing anti-terrorism laws, and many other struggles — from workers and students to autonomous health clinics.

Many people with whom I spoke believe that there are active negotiations taking place within the new government and that change will indeed come; others have already lost any confidence that the government will make the promised changes — and then quite a few fall somewhere in between, believing that there are good faith negotiations taking place, but that if there is no pressure from below, the government may not act on what they promised. The workers’ caravan to Athens comprises each of these perspectives, and thus they want to both speak to, and make demands on, the government.

Over the past few years, the two most important workers’ struggles in Greece based on self-organization and around the principles of autonomy and horizontality have been those of Vio.Me (a former producer of construction materials) and ERT (the occupied national public television). Vio.Me was occupied in 2012 and after numerous assemblies the workers decided to not only occupy, but put the workplace back into production, without bosses or hierarchy — recuperating it — intentionally using the same language as the movements in Argentina.

The case of ERT began in June of 2013, when the former government laid off all of the national television worker in the country. Both the Athens and Thessaloniki broadcasting agencies held assemblies and immediately decided to occupy the stations and continue to broadcast. While in Athens many workers eventually went back to work due to a combination of a violent police eviction and rehiring offers by the government, in Thessaloniki the ERT remained occupied and has been running and broadcasting news without hierarchies or bosses since June 2013.

In both Vio.Me and ERT, the workers describe what they are doing as something beyond just keeping production going, and explain how they are creating new relationships — both in how they are working together and with the concept of what the job is they are doing. As ERT describes, they are creating a different sort of news and they are doing so in an entirely different way. Similarly, Vio.Me has decided to produce ecological over toxic products. Both workplaces are also operating in innovative new ways with regard to consultation and communication to and with the broader community.

I spoke with Theo Karyotis from the Open Initiative of Solidarity with the Struggle of the Workers of Vio.Me (Solidarity Initiative) and Stavros Panousis from ERT — two of the main organizing groups of the caravan. The Solidarity Initiative is an assembly-based community group that works together with the workers from Vio.Me to help defend, spread and deepen their struggle. Theo explains the purpose and composition of the Solidarity Initiative below:

Self-management is an idea that brings together different ideologies from the left, so within the Solidarity Initiative we have people from different backgrounds — we have anarchists, anarcho-syndicalists, Trotskyistis, autonomist organizations and individual activists.

What the Solidarity Initiative does is to help the workers organize and carry out the campaigns of Vio.Me — though now it has less and less responsibilities since the workers are taking more and more into their own hands. At first we helped a lot with foreign language communications and helped organize political campaigns, like the marches, writing certain texts, and so on. Of course we did this with the workers and the workers had final say.

It is important to be clear that we are two different entities, so for example sometimes the workers write a text on an issue and the Solidarity Initiative writes a different text. But again, the workers have a final say — the Solidarity Initiative always has at least five workers in the assemblies, and they have significant influence over any decision.

The ERT has been run collectively ever since it was occupied in 2013. Stavros described the massive solidarity they immediately received, with people from all over coming to encircle the outside of the station and prevent eviction. Below, Stavros describes both what they are and what they want to be. When I asked if they are an alternative sort of broadcasting he responded as follows:

No, we are pirates. We are not like a regular program. For all of this time we have managed things in a self-organized way — I think this is the most important thing we have accomplished. We have done things in a very special way and it is important to say that it was not in our minds to do it this way before. Well, maybe a few of us believed in this way of organizing, but as a whole the situation guided us to do things in this way, in this horizontal way. There was no manager or no one between the workers.

It was a long journey to get here since many people at first had resistance — people said things like ‘no one else can get be the one to film since I am the film maker,’ and ‘no one else tells the news, I tell the news.’

Each day we had fewer camera people and reporters from the inside, but life, the real situation, persuaded people to change their point of view and that if you — the people — don’t take the microphone and the camera and go outside, there will be no news. You will not be paid, maybe, but people want to help, so they went out and got the news and brought it in.

As time passed, you, the stranger, the one getting the news who was not before a part of the ERT, became a part of our assembly and could decide things related to what we are and what we are airing. It was our greatest accomplishment. We were (and are) changing the concept of news.

The new government has plans to take control of the ERT in Thessaloniki and run it again in a traditional way, both in terms of internal organization — with bosses and hierarchy — as well as in terms of programming. The assembly of the self-managed ERT wants to continue to organize in a horizontal way internally, and as they explained, most important is that the news continues to come to them in a democratic way. Their vision is one where people in communities have a say in what they want to see, can send in videos and can vote on what sorts of programming is done.

Both struggles had the support of SYRIZA in their campaign for state power, and in the case of ERT a worker was elected to the government. The purpose of the caravan, as explained by the participants, is to make sure that SYRIZA continues with their support.

The way people involved in the caravan describe their relationship to the government and their intentions range from a sort of meeting with allies, to reminding SYRIZA officials of the struggles to which they are committed and who their real base is — to those who see the caravan as a direct expression of workers’ power and as an ultimatum to the new government. The caravan is thus both a reminder and a confrontation.

As with so many people from the movements with whom I have spoken over the past weeks in Greece, they see the victory of SYRIZA as a possible opening for movements to gain more support for in the work they are doing — but everyone stresses that this can and will happen only if the movements stay organized, maintain autonomy and exert pressure on the new government from below to remind them of the base from which they arose.

As Theo from the Solidarity Initiative describes:

This week there is a big caravan and march to Athens from various places in Greece that is a joint effort between various workers’ struggles. One of the organizing groups is the recuperated workplace Vio.Me.

SYRIZA has always been sympathetic to the struggle of Vio.Me, which really is a struggle against the capitalist class and against the judicial system. SYRIZA declared themselves friends with Vio.Me, and the current Prime Minister and then President of SYRIZA even visited the factory and said they had just demands and should be supported. So now SYRIZA has to find a way to bring that into action.

We also have the struggle of the 500 women cleaners who worked in the Finance Ministry and were fired overnight. SYRIZA was elected on the promise they would hire them back. Now they are trying to make a compromise based on the agreements they are making with the Europeans, so are trying to hire them back under conditions that are negative for the workers.

Stavros from the ERT assembly explained:

The EU wants us to throw the towel in the ring — and the only people who can resist this are us. What is most important is to take our own lives into our own hands. We know how to do this. So we try and persuade the government, with others, to make the law not against us, but with us. That is the only thing we want. And then maybe, to invest in these solutions — in socially oriented solutions. And not from above.

We are taking part in a caravan with Vio.Me and others, and we are trying to make people sensitive to these cases, and to make people in government change the laws.

It is a sign to a government that is turning its back on its strongest allies — not allies in the party itself but allies in real life (though most people also voted for SYRIZA)… So we are going to shake them and say: look if we fall, you fall — maybe not the next day, but the day after.

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