During the 2001/’02 financial crisis and economic depression in Argentina, as hundreds of factories and businesses closed their doors and left their workers without pay, a massive grassroots movement got underway to reclaim the factories by and for the people. Under the motto ‘Occupy! Resist! Produce!’, workers took over hundreds of businesses throughout the country and continued to run them as self-managed, worker-owned cooperatives.
The paradigmatic case of the Recovered Factory Movement, which was famously featured in Naomi Klein’s documentary The Take, is undoubtedly the Zanón-FaSinPat factory. The inspiring story of FaSinPat and other recovered factories recently resonated in the crisis-stricken social landscape of Greece, where earlier this year workers occupied the Vio.Me factory in Thessaloniki and began production under worker self-management.
This article neatly describes what ROAR editors Leonidas Oikonomakis and Jerome Roos — building on the work of John Holloway, the Invisible Committee, and others — have described as the phenomenon of resonance between social movements.
By Ignacio Chausis for Tiempo Argentino. Translated from Spanish by Tamara van der Putten.
Tango, Maradona and the recently elected Pope Francisco are some of the immediate references used by any foreigner to describe Argentina. Today, this pantheon of symbols forming part of the national DNA also incorporates recovered companies: at least that’s the case for around fifty workers at Vio.Me, a Greek manufacturer of building materials that became the first firm to be managed by its workers and took “inspiration” from the former Zanón factory in Argentina, currently known as FaSinPat (for Fábrica sin Patrones, or Factory without Bosses).
The story began in May 2011, when the parent company Philkeram-Johnson stopped paying wages to its subsidiary Viomichaniki Metalleutiki (Vio.Me) located in Thessaloniki, Greece, in the midst of the devastating economic and social crisis that has been facing the country for the past three years. After the failure of negotiations to collect unpaid wages, the workers occupied the factory, and only a short time later, its owners abandoned it. First, the workers decided to stay within the facilities in order to look after the machinery as well as the stored products for sale, but in January, after various assemblies, they decided to take it a step further and start producing under worker self-management, an unprecedented decision in Greece.
“The best known example in Argentina is that of Zanón,” explained Theodoros Karyotis, spokesman of the Vio.Me Solidarity Initiative. “The truth is that the workers themselves say there is resonance between what the FatSinPat workers say and write, and what the Vio.Me workers believe in and struggle against. There is a strong identification.”
The Zanón ceramics factory in Argentina is perhaps the most emblematic case of a company that is managed by its workers. Last December, after more than a decade of struggle, the court resolved a bankruptcy procedure that delivered both the brand and the production plant to the workers of the FaSinPat cooperative, and the Neuquén Province formally recognized the legality of the worker-led expropriation.
As explained by Karyotis, what happened in Argentina was particularly important in the decision for the Vio.Me workers to take charge of production themselves. Before deciding upon that option, the workers even invited a representative of the Movimiento de Empresas Recuperadas de Argentina (Movement for Recovered Companies in Argentina), Ernesto Paret, who shared local experiences and eventually ended up convincing the undecided.
“It was a very nice, a very humane moment when the last few workers who still had doubts about whether or not to proceed with self-management eventually decided to do so,” said Karyotis. “It was when the Argentine worker came to share his experiences, explaining and describing how this struggle goes beyond the recovery of the factory itself: it is a struggle that transforms people, it completely changes people and their environment.”
It was not an easy decision, particularly due to the lack of experience and of a legal structure to support this new initiative. Consequently, there was an appeal to various social groups for an “Assembly of Solidarity”, which currently mainly consists of extra-parliamentary Left groups in Greece.
After two months of self-management, the factory currently operates under the legal form of a trade union, with a total of 40 employees sharing a meager income according to their needs. How does the organization of production work? Although the union’s legal structure forces it to have a president or treasurer, all decisions are made within assemblies, where each worker has one vote. However, a spokesperson is in charge of communicating the decisions of the assembly.
Moreover, a “Solidarity Assembly” meets weekly and is responsible for helping Vio.Me workers in their struggle, particularly in their mobilizations and the coordination of communication, both at the national and the international level. In turn, a team of the “Assembly of Solidarity” advises them regarding the development of a business plan that allows for a viable economic project.
Vio.Me faces the challenge of a lack of capital to proceed with production as well as the absence of legal instruments allowing it to enter the market. The workers have imaginatively responded to this challenge by trying to find alternative solutions. For example, one of the first actions was to diversify production and to experiment with the production of a new eco-friendly cleaning product.
“They have very low production costs and low prices, and the products go straight to the homes and not to wholesalers like the other Vio.Me products. As a result, these products are easier to distribute through the community channels of the social economy, by means of social movements”, explain the workers at the Greek recovered factory.
But the economic outlook is far from rosy. As Greece enters its sixth year of recession under the adjustment programs supervised by the Troika (European Commission, European Central Bank and IMF), 27 percent of the population faces unemployment. In a sign that poverty is eroding even the once-comfortable middle classes, one in five homeless people now has a college degree, according to a recent report by the NGO Klimaka that alerts to a situation already affecting 20.000 people in the Mediterranean country.
“Greece is now trapped in the clutches of the Troika and all our labor, social and political rights are threatened. Therefore, the meaning of the Vio.Me struggle is quite special because it is the first attempt at self-management of a factory in Greece — and, if successful, it will create a precedent,” concludes Karyotis.
“Many companies have closed down, and many workers are on the street without receiving their salaries. Perhaps this can set an example to give a new meaning and a new direction to the workers’ struggle towards greater autonomy from the state and the market.”