The Feminist Caravan was in Thessaloniki in March 2015.
We met the Vio.Me workers and the members of the solidarity committee: we went to their street action and sale, we supported them in court and we visited their factory.
Friday 20 March – selling products and informing people in the street
Monday 23rd March – The trial
This Monday morning the Feminist Caravan of the WMW is still in Thessaloniki. We went to the Vio.Me trial to express our support to the self-organized workers from this factory.
« Vio.Me’s workers in Thessaloniki, Greece, stood up against unemployment and poverty by leading a long struggle to self-manage the occupied factory in very adverse conditions. For two years now, they have been producing and selling ecological cleaning products at the occupied premises, ensuring a modest income for their families. » http://www.viome.org/
We stand in solidarity with Vio.Me not only because the workers took over the factory and are self-organized, but also because the community (citizens, consumers… etc.) is participating in the decision-making process. Being part of this solidarity committee involves participating in the decisions about what they are going to do and how they are going to do it.
When we arrived at the court, the workers looked nervous. Since they were informed too late about the trial date, their first demand was to postpone it, but this was not accepted.
There were about fifty people in Court: workers, solidarity committee and supporters. The seats were all taken and some people could not sit down. From the first row, we were surprised by the presence of a painting representing Jesus, and a bible was placed on the witnesses’ table.
The trial was in Greek, so Manos – from the Solidarity Committee – was with us the whole time to help us understand. It was about the owner’s demand to sell the whole real estate, of which the Vio.Me factory is only a part.
Workers are not seen as a legal part of the trial, but as they have a legal interest in keeping the production part of the building, they are allowed to participate in this trial and defend themselves. They ask to keep the part of the building where the production machines are.
The sad part of the trial is that other former workers were also there supporting the selling of the factory, as they were promised to get the money the company owes them. According to the Greek law, the money obtained from the selling of the factory will first be spent on the owner’s debts towards the State. What is left from the sale could be returned to the workers, but the debts are so high that there will be no money left for them.
There was a tension during the trial between the two groups of workers and before the beginning of the trial they engaged in a verbal fight. We can analyse this as part of the owner’s and the State’s strategy – and more generally of the capitalist system – of dividing the workers.
The point of today’s trial was for the court to know if Vio.Me’s workers are really producing and using the machines and the factory that the owner left four years ago. The proof of the self-organized factory’s productivity would justify the need for them to keep this part of the building. The only witness today was Eleni, a member of the solidarity committee. It was hard for the court to accept her testimony, as she is not a worker. Of course, her testimony was important because it shows that this case is not only about the factory’s workers who are in this struggle.
There are still more trials to come around this and other issues; one will take place on 8 May and another one in June. The workers are not very satisfied with the result, but they are determined. As they say, if someone wants to buy the factory, this person will have to deal with them having their space and their way of producing and making decisions.
The next mobilisation is a solidarity caravan from Thessaloniki to Athens (April 3-6), with intermediary stops in the cities of Larissa, Volos and Chalkida and an as massive as possible protest in front (or inside) the Ministry of Work in Athens.
24 March 2015 – Visit of the Vio.Me factory
Today we had the chance to visit the premises of the Vio.Me factory and talk to some workers.
Dimitri was our guide through the different rooms that remain operational since the factory ceased production of construction materials in 2011. As he explains, Dimitri is already used to give interviews to different media and activists that have visited the factory since its occupation and switch in production, as Vio.Me became a symbol of successful workers’ struggle and self-managed factory.
We start our visit in the room with the production facilities, where the construction materials were made before. Vio.Me was a subsidiary of the parent company Philkeram, which declared bankruptcy and ceased its production also in 2011. The machines in this room are currently used for producing ecological cleaning products for the household. The production process is based on natural ingredients such as water, vinegar, olive oil, almond, castor or coconut oil and can take up to 3 months for the soaps to be ready for use, after traditional solidification and drying.
In the fermentation room, the chemical lab where quality controls take place and in the warehouse, you can still see piles of cement packages from the former production line. We then enter the building where on Sundays they organize bazaars and other social activities (concerts, meetings, parties). They decided to give life to the factory and to create a place for everyone to meet. Dimitri explains that they have to watch these premises 24h/day to avoid for the material to be stolen or the place evacuated. The 21 workers currently working at Vio.Me organize themselves in 3 shifts: one production shift in the morning and two watch shifts from 3pm to 7am.
At the end of the production area, he points the place where assemblies are held every morning. We had the occasion to ask him about the recent history of this factory, its transformation and future perspective. He tells us that Philkeram was one of the most profitable companies in its sector in Europe between 2000-2008. It produced construction materials for big companies and international airports, such as the one in Dubai. In 2008, the company started to delay payments to both workers and providers and fire workers, in spite of being clearly a profitable company. Dimitri explains that the aim of the company board was to shut down the factory and avoid paying the debts, which have reached 1 million euro in taxes to the state and around 1.600.000€ to the workers. At the question of how this doubt was accumulated along the years, he answers that the company board had sent all the profit abroad, stopped paying the workers and the taxes and wanted to sell the land and facilities of the factory. The state had even granted them subsidies in the past to help maintaining the factory and offered them 1 million euro again to avoid the shutdown. It became clear then that the board had no interest in keeping the factory alive. Moreover, the profits driven from the production at Vio.Me were used to “save” Philkeram through an illegal procedure, while neither the workers nor the providers received a penny from that profit in the last years.
When the owners finally abandoned the factory in 2011, the 21 remaining workers decided to take measures and protect themselves with an insurance, which guaranteed their right to use the factory for 1 year. Once the protection period was over, the premises were officially occupied and the workers started to actively share their struggle with society and activist collectives. That was how the resistance process and the solidarity initiative begun. As he says, the workers lit the match, but the fire was made by all the people who got involved in their struggle.
They had the knowledge needed to operate the machines, electricity and water supply, but they wanted to produce something better for society and the environment. That’s how they decided to start the tests for producing soap. Today, their products are sold not only in Greece but also abroad, through direct sale at the Vio.Me premises or through activists who support the factory. The support they have been receiving from local and international social movements is very important for the ongoing discussions with the Ministries, concerning the approval of a new law that would allow them to legally keep the factory going.
The organization of the work since the occupation of the factory is based on regular assemblies where all the important decisions are made, such as what and how much to produce, how to proceed with the trial or how to keep their resistance campaign visible and strong. They are now a cooperative, which is also helpful for the legal part of the process. Dimitri repeats that they only produce the amount necessary for living and their approach is not profit-driven. “We are workers and want to remain workers”. They want to expand their organizational model in Greece and to other countries facing similar situations, which is why they are constantly in contact with workers from other occupied factories, for instance the Fralib – Elephant factory in Marseille, the famous Bauen Hotel or the Zanon ceramics factory in Argentina.
Ioana Pop, Marion Lafon, Natalija Laptosevic