Interview with Spyros Skouras from VioMe

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The self-managed factory VioMe in Thessaloniki is one the most successful workers’ experiments in Greece. It has become a symbol and source of inspiration for self-management for workers internationally. We talked to Spyros Skouras, VioMe’s spokesperson.

 

“I’m Spyros Skouras and I’m a member and worker of the VioMe Cooperative. The history of VioMe is one of a long struggle of the workers to keep a factory functioning and to preserve labour. The struggle started in 2011 when the company managers just left the company, because the mother company went bankrupt. At that point, VioMe was still profitable, but the management stopped paying the wages and they lost interest. There was the beginning of a strike, which grew to the occupation of the building to preserve the rights of the workers and address their demands. For some time there was a struggle to find a way to reopen the factory. It became very evident the managers, the governors and the bankers wouldn’t do this after the two years of struggle. However, there was a 99% vote from the workers that the factory should go forward and open again. So the workers decided that we would arrange everything by way of self-management. This happened also through support from the local community and local militants who joined the VioMe workers and the solidarity initiative in 2011. In early 2013 the gates of the factory opened again and the production started again.

 

“Supporting our workers is not the only solidarity element of our products. What we try to produce are also good quality products that are affordable for common families.”

 

VioMe was a chemical company and the main product we produced was the glue for ceramics. There was a discussion about what we would produce after the workers took over. What we produce now are called solidarity products, mainly to help the workers participate in the struggle to survive and have some income. So we changed production: it proved to be impossible to sell ceramic glue to the network of our previous boss, and it also meant we had to buy very expensive raw materials. So the second solution was detergents and soap that we could sell to households. It was even better for humans and environment to make detergent with natural ingredients, but it also lowered production costs. So the main products we now produce are natural detergents, vegetable oil, soap and since last year we also produce a line of eco products. This was a step forward and also meant the involvement of new workers who joined the cooperative, some of them were chemical engineers and researchers. It also means a better production. Still, our solidarity products are produced for the same reason, but it proofs also that we can develop and evolve, that we can conduct research, that we can have better products. Supporting our workers is not the only solidarity element of our products. What we try to produce are also good quality products that are affordable by common families. It can be cheap and does not need to have the high prices like other organic products you find in the supermarket.

 

The good thing is that, through the solidarity network that was created and that supports us, we have many links all around Greece and Europe. So we began by selling at festivals and political gathering and eco fairs, etcetera. But now we also have a webshop. We send our products all around Greece. Some vegan shops or eco shops and some social centres also sell our products. There are a lot of people around Europe that buy our products, mainly the soap bars, but also some vegan shops around Europe buy our products. So through this solidarity network, it is possible to create a real market. It’s not that big, but it’s real.

 

“What I have seen and learned from the experience in Argentina where there are a lot of cooperative companies, is that the solidarity network must be developed to be really effective.”

 

What I have seen and learned from the experience in Argentina where there are a lot of cooperative companies, is that the solidarity network must be developed to be really effective. We’ve been developing a bigger and broader network of solidarity methods in Greece to survive and to sell products. We know that many solutions have been developed in the meantime. There is a way to do this. When the bosses desert companies like VioMe, there is no other solution than to try to do the work by yourself. So through many discussions with other cooperative companies and some workers from smaller self-employing companies, we try to create a bigger solidarity logistic network that can be based in four or five companies around Europe, which means big warehouses and experienced workers in logistics and transport, etcetera. That could create a basis for a network where you can distribute and transport goods around Europe with lower costs. It also means sharing each other’s capability instead of buying each other’s capability. It can also include people who are not actually producing something but developing software, etcetera. We think it may be very effective. We know there is a big network of people in Europe supporting the Zapatista community by bringing their coffee all around Europe. It’s a product that is all around Europe now, based on a solidarity movement, not the common market. So there is experience from that, there is experience from workers in the factory, so yes, we can build it and do it. And if we don’t have the aspect of profit and speculating, like what we are doing here, this can be even more effective than the capitalistic market economy.

 

“This is our main force: we discuss everything and we are all equal.”

 

From the beginning, also thanks to the experience from the union of the workers here, we kept the aspect of self-organisation and self-democratic methods. So all the decisions are made through our assembly and not by a leader or elected direction. All the workers are equal, even new workers who joined the cooperative solidarity movement are equal to the older ones. This is our main force: we discuss everything and we are all equal. Every worker is a member and every member is a worker. This is also our experience of our solidarity movement and the solidarity initiative that have had an assembly every week for almost five years.

 

“Our project is how to create a different economy and different society, based on self-management and broad democracy.”

 

There is a history of the workers’ movement around self-management, around workers’ control, around occupation and trying to develop that. It’s true that it has been a low priority of the workers’ movement. Especially in Europe the last decades. But there is some experience we can read about, especially from the sixties and seventies in Europe but also from what’s happening now in Latin America. Of course, we are not naive enough to belief that this can survive in a totally speculating market economy while having self-management in only one factory. So we believe that you cannot only have self-management in production, you should also have self-management in distribution and of course, more or less have self-management in all aspects in life. So our project is how to create a different economy and different society, based on self-management and broad democracy. We are not just waiting for that, we participate in a movement to create that, to establish that. We are doing it now inside this society. We believe that what we are doing is not the acceptance of the bad economical and societal situation. So we are not turning back to a pre-capitalistic way of producing and behaving, but we are trying to develop to a post-capitalistic way of managing the economy and the society. Of course this can’t just happen like that, from one system to another. Inside this system we try and develop what will happen for the next generation. So yes, we are part of a movement, a line of thoughts, mainly from the workers’ movement, for a broad self-management of the society.

 

In the beginning of September 2017, the sixth global meeting for workers’ economy focused mainly on recuperated companies. This meeting was in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and we participated. We also visited many occupied and recuperated companies there, and learned from their experience, while also discussing and trying to develop some steps to make decisions. So this also happened here at VioMe in October 2016 when we had a European meeting about the same issues. So most of the occupied and recuperated companies participated and also many worked around cooperatives. The meeting was a big success, because we also managed to have some work groups, discussing specific issues, like the logistic network or the social funding of the solidarity mutual fund and we also managed to have an assembly at the end to make some decisions. We don’t always need discussions, we also need methods to make some decisions for ourselves and to stimulate this discussion under the workers themselves, so not by representatives. The main challenge is to have tools and ways to establish real self-management and direct democracy in every aspect and to build it. It’s not something that you can describe in a book and implement it. You have to have real experience. So also for our struggle, it meant that we had to learn a lot, even on the aspect of how to combat the legal system, what laws exist and how to manoeuvre between them. You have to have a real experience. We have many things to fight for. But we try to do everything on every level we can.

 

“By balancing the forces we try to establish VioMe and to create a situation where even governments or managers can’t do anything but accept what we are doing.”

 

One aspect of our struggle is also on a legal level. You can’t solve problems expecting that they will be solved in court, especially if you are on the side of the workers. There is an issue about what will happen with the cooperation, because of the bankruptcy of the company and because of what they can legally do with the buildings and machines, etcetera. But you have to create a balance of forces: our main tool is political action, our solidarity network, not only for VioMe, but also for all the movements. This is what helps us being here and surviving this long struggle. We know also that in negotiations with managers or with the government, you usually don’t get what you demand, but even by participating in that with strong stands, we gain time. So, by balancing the forces we try to establish VioMe and to create a situation where even governments or managers can’t do anything but accept what we are doing. To achieve this there are many threats and difficult decisions and experiences. There’s the issue of the auction of the factory itself by the mother company, who is trying to sell the area as a piece of land. We are trying to preserve the factory as a workplace. So it’s a heavy fight and it’s not only a legal issue, it’s also a political issue. We manage to fight, mainly because of the solidarity movement.

 

Currently, the cooperative has 24 members, 17 of which are workers of the union plus seven members who joined from the solidarity movement. The union itself has 26 or 25 members now, but they are not obliged to be in the cooperative on a daily basis. There are around twelve or thirteen here in the factory plus three who are working in Athens. It’s clear for everybody you’re not obliged to work daily, so if you can find something else to do for a better wage for your family, you can do it. Because we still don’t have a good income, you can’t survive with a family by working here. So you have to have the financial support of your family to help you to survive. And that is a very big support. But now, we are trying to create a good environment to give at least 25 people a proper wage inside the factory. We try to do this by having a better production and better working conditions.

 

“The difference with other social clinics is that we not only tackle the issues of people who have no social security, we have a holistic view on healthcare.”

 

We have a clinic on the site now. We call it the workers’ clinic and it’s a primary healthcare centre. It was created together with the social solidarity clinic of Thessaloniki. The difference with other social clinics is that we not only see the problems of people who have no social security, we have a holistic view on healthcare. It’s not only about physical sickness. So we have an interview and we take a look at the situation of the body, but also mentally, the social conditions, the working conditions, trying to find the reasons for healing problems. It’s open for people who live in the area, but the main focus is on the workers.

 

“[Our work process] is the opposite of alienation: it’s de-alienation.”

 

We try to avoid unemployment, but also depression. Even if you are working for a low wage, you are doing something. But it also means that working here, you are daily a militant, you do it every day, you have an assembly every day. Everybody knows that if you work in a factory that is controlled by managers and CEOs, when you have a meeting with the managers, you pretend to participate, but in fact, you don’t give a shit about anything. This is the alienation of the production process. But with self-management you really participate and when you decide to do something, you really have to do it and you have to support your decision. It’s a more effective way, also for the industrial production. Workers control the means, that is by itself a way of social control. What is possible? How are you producing? For whom are you producing? So nobody else decides what you will do. It’s the opposite of alienation: it’s de-alienation. We try to have as much discussion as possible, but if we have to vote, we vote. We manage the workflow the way we produce. We have our assembly in the morning and if we have to make our work hours longer, we will do it and if we get very tired, we will stop right away, so we have a better control about it. We know it is much more workable when we are not working 40 hours a week. However, work reduction is not the first priority. But even controlling how you are working and producing is already a big step forwards.”

Interview and Photos by Sonderland

 

Read more

Column in The Guardian about VioMe as a post-capitalist experiment