Vio.Me: the Greek factory without bosses — an interview

  • June 5, 2013

Work & Workers

In this interview, two representatives of the recovered and self-managed factory in Thessaloniki share the story of their struggle for workers’ control.

Between  2001 and ’03, in crisis-stricken Argentina, more than 200 factories and other businesses were occupied by their workers and self-managed as worker-run cooperatives — a truly historical explosion of working-class resistance recounted, among others, in Benjamin Dangl’s book Dancing with Dynamite and depicted in Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis’ documentary La Toma (The Take). Word of the occupied and worker-run factories travelled around the world and, more than ten years later, in another corner of the globe, yet another financial crisis opened the windows of imagination to a different world full of radical democratic possibilities.

Inspired by the Argentinian experience and after two years of being unpaid, the employees of Vio.Me in Thessaloniki — a company that produces high-quality building materials such as mortars, plasters, tile-adhesive paste, jointing materials, waterproof grouts, and so on — decided to occupy the factory in which they were working and continue production under worker self-management, on a direct democratic basis of total equality and without any bosses. Apart from Argentina, the workers at Vio.Me also drew inspiration from past historical experience in their own country, like the agricultural cooperatives that created so-called “free zones” within Ottoman rule.

Now, the workers of Vio.Me themselves are, on their own turn, trying to create a new sort of free zone: a “crack” in capitalism. In this particular crack, “the means of production pass into the hands of those producing the wealth” and decisions are taken horizontally and democratically. This is a crack in which the ultimate decision-making structure is the assembly and the salary is equal for all, at all levels. Officially, Vio.Me still has a vertical structure, with a president and vice-president, but that’s only for administrative reasons, because Greek law requires such a statute. “But if one of us calls the other ‘President’ or ‘Vice-President’,” the workers tell us, “we call them names!”

Without bosses? Without bosses! It’s “one man, one share,” we are told, “because the share means no more than the right to vote, and we say ‘no worker who is not a shareholder, and no shareholder who is not a worker'”. Ambitious, certainly, but it can be done, they say. Vio.Me is at the forefront of the global working class movement — and they know it. Yet it does not scare them. The government knows it too, and so far they’ve been trying to weaken them through divide-and-rule tactics, offering the workers jobs elsewhere. In order for the VioMe workers’ experiment to be successful and not to be crushed, they need us to stand by their side! And they explain how.

In today’s Greece, there’s no legal framework that would allow genuinely worker-run initiatives to operate. The workers of Vio.Me are asking for the solidarity of national and international civil society in order to force the Greek government to provide such a legal framework. Not only for Vio.Me, but for all the abandoned factories whose workers might want to decide to self-manage them. “Para todos todo, nada para nosotros” as the Zapatistas — another source of inspiration for the Vio.Me workers — would say. Pre-agreements of cooperation with whoever would be interested to cooperate with Vio.Me once its production is legalized are also more than welcome — from Greece or abroad: “That will help us influence them … because we will prove them that even within capitalism we can survive.”

I met Makis Anagnostou and Christos Manoukas — representatives of the VioMe workers’ assembly and the Viome Solidarity Initiative, respectively — in Florence, Italy, where they had come to talk about their experience, hosted by Collettivo Prezzemolo, as part of the Vio.Me solidarity caravan that brought them to Italy, where they spoke in Rome, Bologna, Milano, and Senigallia among other places. Here you will find a transcript of the interview, in which Makis and Christos talk about the stage at which the struggle of Vio.Me workers currently finds itself; the main source of inspiration for the workers; their relationship with the occupied factories in Argentina; and many other issues.

[M] Makis Anagnostou, Representative of the VioMe Workers’ Assembly
[CH] Christos Manoukas, Representative of the VioMe Solidarity Initiative

So, at what stage are you now?

[Μ] At this stage we are at the first step we had announced: we have selected the products to be auctioned, and on the 22nd [of May] we’ll have the first auction. Of course we have conducted our research for the new products we were talking about before, for the low-cost production. These are natural cleaning products and will be distributed through movement processes, as well as through the exchange economy.

In the third phase [our target] is to have our operating license to pass into linear production. Now in this phase a problem we have to overcome is — first of all — to start this network for the new products, to have political backing, to have political support from all over in order for the Greek state to be under pressure and to move on a bit faster at least, and we are looking for these things the companies create amongst themselves: the businesses that, in case we open up, we will be buying from.

These are not obligatory steps — you just take them in order to create, as capitalism calls it, a business plan to prove that this is a sustainable initiative, and to obtain the relevant licenses you need to operate. These are what we are mostly dealing with at the moment; things that are at a different frame from ours but at this stage they are necessary in order to persuade them that we can operate the factory.

I’ve read in your texts, but I have also heard you in your speeches, referring to the Argentinian example, where there used to exist more than 200 occupied factories and businesses, some of which are still around, ranging from ceramics to hotels. How can it be possible that an example from a country at the other end of the world finds resonance in Greece — and also ten years later?

[Μ] Look, when we got the idea to start operating the factory ourselves, to do something as workers — knowing that there was no chance of finding work outside, that abandoning our current situation and entering another was not possible — we gathered in the assembly and said that the only thing we can do is to operate it ourselves. And immediately we thought of … not Argentina to be honest. We thought of other situations.

There used to exist in Greece a culture — a long time ago, of course, and now it has been deleted from history — of cooperatives operating under Ottoman Rule. There were many cooperatives that were not only going well, but that even had the opportunity to buy their freedom from the Turks. They would pay something extra, but they would live free, they would create free zones within the Ottoman Empire. We were impressed by this example. I was thinking that we are also under a condition of occupation and I was wondering whether we could also create something like that — a little island, let’s say.

That’s what you knew…

[Μ] Yes that’s our history. That’s what they used to tell us. That’s what we based ourselves upon. When one would bring in the Argentinian example we would say “that’s a distant culture, different people, different way of thinking, different economy, everything different.” And we wouldn’t even bother to read [on them] because we’d say “they are far away, they have a different culture.” Until the texts written by those people — the workers of Zanon, not any intellectuals — actually reached us. The Argentinian workers themselves wrote some texts and we found them in Greek. When we read those texts, to be honest, it gave us the goose bumps, because we saw our ideas imprinted on somebody else’s paper. And we said “either they spied on us and wrote them or there are no differences.”

And so we concluded that there are no differences. The working class, no matter how far it may be, no matter how much things may differ, how far the cultures may be apart, the working class has the same problems everywhere, the same pain. And we saw that just like capital is the same everywhere, so is the working class. From that moment onwards we saw that we could adopt many of the ideas the compañeros in Argentina had adopted, and to see what — from our point of view — is right, and to keep it.

In May and June 2011, there was also the direct democratic movement of the squares in Greece. Did that play any role in the radicalization of some of your people? Because for many it was their first contact with direct democratic decision-making processes…

[Μ] No, no. We passed into direct democracy amongst ourselves earlier, in 2009, when we were in a difficult position because we were always negotiating with the factory administration, and there we saw that we needed to be able to take decisions fast and directly, and that it can’t be that five of us decide for the 42. We saw that something needs to be done. It could not continue that way. Before, we tried to delay the negotiations saying “we’ll get back to you after we talk to the lads”, so we were responding to the administration and it was pulling us back. And so we preferred to say “we’ll get back to you tomorrow!”.

As soon as the negotiations were over, for example, we would immediately stop working for a while. We would call for a general assembly, and we would take the decision. And we saw that this system functioned better. We all had opinions, each and everyone would take their own responsibility. If anyone had something to say they could, and they could not say later “I did not want this, I wanted that”. A general assembly would take place and the decision would be taken from the base. What could be better than that?

We saw that this system worked better for us and so we adapted it for later. Of course we are not saying there is no president or vice-president… somebody has to be voted for those positions. We simply cannot have a statute if we are not structured that way.

So it’s only for administrative reasons…

[Μ] For administrative reasons, but also for when we go to the Ministry. The first thing they ask is ‘who is the president, the vice-president?’, and then somebody has to say ‘me’. You know how these things are done… Completely administrative, because if any of us calls the other “President” or “Vice-president”, the others will start calling them names!

I was impressed by the Vio.Me solidarity caravan. It reminded me of the Zapatistas. Is that where you got the idea from?

[Μ] To tell you the truth, at the time of the caravan we already had contacts — the Solidarity Initiative had already been created — because by ourselves we would never be able to do something similar. Of course I was impressed and of course we had to participate, guarding at the same time the factory and leaving people behind to keep the shifts that we had back then. But many of us participated, even people I was not expecting to do so. And it went quite well. Of course other groups that wanted to support us did so, but that’s a different story.

Back then, the big march of the Spanish miners of Asturias was underway, and that is what influenced us more: the idea that we could go from one city to another to get together even more people — and so we did. Of course we are not Spaniards and we did not manage to get enough people to go to Athens en masse. If we could do something like that, if we could get together enough people, even in that moment, they may have been obliged to find a solution.

At this moment VioMe is on the frontline of the European movement against neoliberalism, and you are becoming an example for others, just like others have been examples for you. But that is known to the other side too. Is the government fighting you? And through what means?

[Μ] So far, they have not shown any offensive mood. They do things that classic way, pretending to be indifferent in order to tire us, and by sending messages such as “there’s some programs for work, are you interested?” Trying to divide us, for some of us to go here, some others there, so that when there’s only a few of us left they can give us a punch and be done with us. That’s their way so far. We don’t know, they may pass on to other means, but we hope that we’ll force them earlier to put Vio.Me in an operating frame, in the capitalist frame they want to put it, and we of course are saying that we‘ll bear with a few things, to save time. To stand on our feet, to start living again — because now we are in a condition of not even having anything to eat — to start thinking maturely, to grow our group a bit too, and to see how we can do this better.

[CH] However, within the labor movement there’s polemics from the party bureaucracy, the parties that are in favor of the regime let’s say, the governmental ones and the rest.

From the left…?

[CH] From the left. When the Vio.Me workers said what they had to say, what the left keep saying was “that’s impossible”. It’s impossible, you cannot do it, how could it be, and so on. When we say the left, we are talking about the parliamentary left. However, the support this thing has found socially is so big — both within the movements and within the non-power space, ranging from the extra-parliamentary left to the anarchists — and that’s what counts. There’s such big social support that even parts of this parliamentary left have changed the way in which they treat the Vio.Me example.

So one of the targets is the change of the legislative framework?

[CH] Of course. The existence of a framework that legalizes the operation of VioMe under worker control, under the assembly’s conditions.

[Μ] We are asking for a legislation that would allow other factories to operate like us as well — at least those in a similar condition: the abandoned ones. We made a suggestion for the rest too, and we said that production should pass into the hands of those who produce the wealth. At this stage, what we are saying is that we want to have something done for precisely that. Because even for capitalism itself, what Greece’s main problem is the import-export balance: we import much more than we produce, that’s what they say. Our response erases that problem too, or at least it reduces it, in order to be able to produce and export and to over the market because most of these products are being imported now. Ours is a response to that. Therefore, under normal conditions, they have no reason to reject this situation.

Apart from the ownership shift, is there a shift in the power relations within the working space? Or a shift in the direction of production? Do you wish to have one?

[Μ] Of course that will change, I don’t know whether we can put that in the statutes — whether it can pass through court. But surely in an internal regulation we will oblige the whole team to operate the way we have agreed so far. These regulations are specific — the decisions on what production will look like have already been taken by the Assembly: production and management will be under workers’ control. This has already been decided and we cannot change a thing. Salary-wise, what the assembly has decided is equality at all levels. Whatever new worker enters will enter under the same conditions. Of course as I said earlier, no worker can be a non-member, and no member can be a non-worker. It can’t be that half are shareholders and the other half workers — that divides you into bosses and workers.

My last question is: how can we help at this stage? From Greece or abroad?

[Μ] What we said earlier. The three things we are after: first, political pressure, in any way we can pressure the government politically, especially from abroad because as we can see they are more sensitive to that… Because I have to tell you that the European Commission has already signed a number of treaties to facilitate situations like ours. There is a global cooperative union, it does not represent us completely but there is a structure, founded in 2005, and there’s the Founding Declaration that the European Commission has co-signed.

They have also signed another treaty which says that when such an initiative begins and the factory is indebted the workers are relieved of the debt in order to operate the factory. Exactly what we are saying has been signed by the European Commission, and therefore by all the member-states, including Greece. And they have not added these elements to Greek state legislation for so many years. It is they who are responsible for that, not us. Therefore, the political pressure is targeting there, to get something done. For starters we are asking for that.

Secondly, we are looking for people who would be willing to help from abroad. Okay, they will not be ours but they will be people who will have such a consciousness and an ideology that they would want to help. They may even be technicians or micro-business owners having such businesses. They will enter a process of signing a pre-agreement of cooperation, that the products I’ll be using in Florence, for example, to place tiles, that I will be buying them from Vio.Me. That will help us influence the government because we will prove them that even within capitalism we can survive.

[CH] There’s also a court decision pending. We are putting pressure from any direction you can imagine, so we want to be covered both law and court-wise. And there we want to be in possession of as many pre-agreements of cooperation as possible! From all over the world! Because if the factory is legalized it can be in a position to export…

[Μ] And when we prove that it can even export, because Greece’s problem — they say — is that it cannot export, you strike from two sides. Just like with the funding: when they told us they have no funding for us, we said “We don’t care whether you provide us with funding or not. We already have funding from abroad! Right now you are blocking funding from a bank that would like to provide it and is delayed by the Greek state.” At that point they did not know what to say, you understand? Because that way you are building arguments and when you go there they don’t have counter-arguments to these things.

[CH] Right now the greek government is blocking the process through its own indifference… it has its reasons for doing so, though, let’s not forget! We believe there are reasons they are indifferent, and that should make us suspicious as workers. We are opening up a path, an opening, a crack, towards a different economic and social way of being.

A crack in capitalism, right? Like Holloway says…

[CH] A crack! Ambitious, but it could be!

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