Early in February, workers at the Greek factory Viomichaniki Metalleutiki (Vio.Me), unpaid since May 2011 and in the heat of the Greek austerity crisis, decided to change things. Fed up with a lagging economy, cuts to social services, and little hope for the sudden rebirth of their jobs, the workers decided to take over their abandoned factory. Their actions have since become the latest symbol of the movement against anti-capitalist and anti-austerity measures. It follows a long trend of worker-run cooperatives popping up throughout the last decade – notably in Argentina – and sets the stage for a new form of struggle against globalization, neoliberalism, and austerity.
Abandoned by its bankrupt owners, the building materials and industrial mineral manufacturing plant has been taken over by its employees and transformed into a worker-owned and operated cooperative, egalitarian in nature and largely a response to the ongoing economic crisis in Greece. With unemployment levels nearing 30% in the country, a shrinking economy, and little promise of relief, many Greeks have taken measures into their own hands.
In a video describing their story, the workers describe the evolutionary nature of the project, beginning with the bankruptcy: “The struggle began because there were problems. It was not like this from the beginning… We could indeed say that the union had a class orientation, but it did not have the revolutionary attitude that it has today. This started when they suddenly stopped paying us, or when they started delaying our payment, cutting our benefits, when certain things started happening.”
These “certain things” share a striking similarity to events halfway around the world – for example, starting in 2011, the fábricas recuperadas (“recovered factories”) movement in Argentina . Largely formed in response to the economic crisis of that same year – one highly attributable to the failure of structural adjustment programs – it is estimated that, as of 2005, nearly 15,000 Argentine workers occupied around 200 cooperatives. Unlike the fledgling Greek movement, these cooperatives are not limited to the industrial sector: they vary from food processing and textile plants to health clinics and hotels.
Peter Ranis notes that structural adjustment policies in the 1990s laid a heavy burden on Argentina’s working class, including state-sector privatization, corporate downsizing, and changes in labor laws. The debt crisis of 2001 only deepened the country’s woes, raising unemployment to nearly 25% and heavily devaluing the peso. With no voice in governmental decisions directly affecting their livelihoods, workers found another solution to poverty and unemployment: las fábricas recuperadas.
It is difficult not to see the similarities with Greece’s situation. Harsh austerity measures have crippled the country’s economy and huge government debts have prioritized repayments over social well-being. Citizens and workers, like in the case of Argentina, have little power in the political process and instead resort to civil disobedience. In such situations, business and government can lose credibility; power becomes a more loosely defined and potentially flexible concept.
Larger trends are at play here, and these start-ups are not occurring in a vacuum: while Greece does not have the same history as Argentina in terms of structural adjustment, nor does Argentina share Greece’s unique conundrum with the Euro, they do share the vital commonality that is a loss of faith in government, largely driven by neoliberal policy applications that result in unemployment, weak social services, and poverty. Instead of outright revolution, however, these workers are reworking the old system in their favor; rather than turning the system upside-down, they transform old power relations within a new and improved setting.
Ultimately, worker collectives represent a means of subverting traditional understandings of liberal capitalism and empowering workers. They can lead to fairer methods of distribution – in many cases of worker collectives, all participants receive equal pay – and a stronger sense of democracy in the workplace. Directly contrary to recent union-bustings and to the neoliberal emphasis on weakening labor strength, these movements redefine the meaning of labor in a globalized world. In creating and nurturing worker solidarity across borders, Argentine and Greek workers set an inspiring precedent for the years to come.
– Molly Korab
(Featured photo: ro_buk [I’m not there], Creative Commons, Flickr
Photo 1 : martinkaissa, Creative Commons, Flickr
Photo 2: PanARMENIAN_Photo, Creative Commons, Flickr)