The VIOME worker-occupied factory in Thessaloniki. Credit: Joel Benjamin
Greek workers have shown that bosses and owners are not needed to create sustainable jobs. The occupied VIOME factory is under imminent threat, but its workers have demonstrated a successful strategy for combating austerity and recession that offers possibilities in the UK.
In 2011, the Occupy slogan 'Lost my job, found an occupation' cleverly linked the spiking unemployment of the financial collapse, with the reclamation of public space at the core of the global movement. During Occupy, the act of occupation became the base for a wider critique of the failures of capitalism. For others, however - like those at the VIOME factory in Thessaloniki, Greece - occupation literally became their occupation.
VIOME used to make industrial glue. In 2011, as the Occupy movement took flight and the Greek economy plunged into the red, VIOME's absentee owner declared bankruptcy, leaving dozens of workers without jobs. Similar things were happening to workplaces all over Greece and thus at the time, VIOME hardly registered beyond the radars of the families directly affected. But the response of the VIOME workers became a beacon of hope and possibility for workers around the world, collectively ravaged by the coalface consequences of recession and austerity.
The VIOME story, in a nutshell, is one of workers occupying their former workplace and starting the machines again. But in doing so, they made a few notable changes.
For one, they decided they didn't need bosses; decisions were made collectively in open assemblies, workers learned how to do one another's jobs, and everybody was paid the same wage. Additionally, they decided (with a noteworthy nudge from a collapsing construction industry) that they didn't want to make environmentally-destructive industrial adhesives anymore, and repurposed their machines to create natural cleaning products that would be better for the workers' health and the wider environment. These alternative products have been sold at reduced rates, direct to other working people with precious-little disposable income, since February 2013.
The workers of VIOME have simultaneously improved their own situations, breathed life into the local economy, lessened their impact on the environment and made staple products more affordable to others across the country. This model has checked a lot of boxes, but perhaps unsurprisingly, has failed to win many powerful friends.
In spite of their espoused pre-election support for the workers of VIOME, since coming to power the Syriza government has failed to make the worker-run factory part of their agenda. Instead, they have left the factory's fate in the hands of the Greek courts.
The workers have argued that at the time of bankruptcy, the former owner owed them upwards of 1.5 million Euros in unpaid wages. The courts, however, have refused to take the pre-existing debt into account. Instead they have facilitated the auction of the entire, much larger plot of land on which VIOME sits, without consideration for the ranging benefits the workers' collective entrepreneurialism has produced.
On Thursday, 250 VIOME supporters successfully prevented the auction from taking place. The postponement - while another significant win for direct action - has only bought them another week, with the court's perspective on factory ownership unchanged and the auction rescheduled for the 3rd of December.
By default, Syriza, like so many other governments of varied political stripes, has chosen to endorse the notion of private property rights trumping absolutely everything else. Campaign rhetoric, without active intervention, has left the VIOME workers once again relying on one another, the wider Thessaloniki community, and long-distance solidarity to maintain their jobs.
As the British steel industry collapses, housing and food prices soar and much of the UK's remaining social safety net is hacked-to-pieces by George Osborne's latest spending review, anyone looking for ways to keep a growing portion of struggling UK households afloat, needs to start thinking seriously about alternatives. Demands for the government to provide jobs, homes and services are falling on deaf ears; it really is up to us, together, to find our way through the manmade crisis of austerity.
At some point, the question of how we regard private property ownership has to be challenged. The VIOME workers had a clear and measurable debt owed to them, but the question is deeper than accepting factory-as-debt repayment; it is about whether land and property should be allowed to sit vacant in times of need. The UK housing movement, via the Sweets Way Resists, Focus E15 and the Aylesbury occupations, has begun to ask just that. There's a strong argument that we need to apply the same logic of reclamation to jobs, as to homes.
In earlier eras, government may have decided to act to make sure property was serving the public interest. Given the miniscule odds of this happening today, however (in regards to either workplaces or homes), there is a growing case that we need to take them back ourselves, as the workers at VIOME have done.
"Our proposal is addressed to the whole of society," one VIOME worker declares in a recent documentary. "...[W]e... have proven that we can self-manage a factory, that we can do it ourselves, but our proposal... is that we can all [collectively] self-manage our lives."
More about VIOME can be found at: viome.org