Above photo: A worker returns to work on 12 February, 2013 for the first day of production under workers’ control at the Viomichaniki Metalleutiki (Vio.Me) factory in Thessaloniki. Sakis Mitrolidis/AFP via Getty Images.
It has operated for over ten years.
“Our message to the worldwide proletariat is clear. We are shouting, ‘Workers, you can do without bosses.’”
In 2011, workers at the Vio.Me factory in Thessaloniki, Greece, stopped receiving wages. Management and owners abandoned the facility shortly afterward. Instead of dispersing, the workers of Vio.Me held an assembly and voted to take over management of the factory themselves. Over the past decade, they’ve kept the factory running, jointly determining production decisions through democratic procedures, and sharing in the profits. Although their former bosses and the Greek state have attempted to auction off the land and evict them, the workers have held on with the power of solidarity from their community, and workers across Greece and the wider world.
TRNN speaks directly to the worker-managers of Vio.Me about their ongoing struggle and the powerful example they’ve set for workers around the world. This video is part of a special Workers of the World series on the cost of living crisis in Europe.
Reporter: This is the only occupied factory in Europe to still produce. In February 2013, more than 70 factory workers occupied the construction materials factory of VIOME in Thessaloniki, Greece and took the wealth they produced for themselves.
Dimitris Koumatsioulis: The bosses chose to leave. To leave us alone. Τhey took the money and they left. It’s very simple when they saw that they didn’t earn anything anymore, they gave up and left the workers unpaid.
Makis Anagnostou: In the general assembly, it was proposed that VIOME should continue to operate, whether the boss wanted it or not. And by an overwhelming 97.5% of votes, the workers agreed on it.
Dimitris Koumatsioulis: We are in a factory in Greece, which is the only one operating without bosses.
Reporter: Τhe workers changed the production from construction materials to ecological cleaning products.
Dimitris Koumatsioulis: Once the bosses left, we were given this opportunity, which was a gift for us at that time, to take advantage of the situation and do something different from what we were doing. That is, we would come in, get the production, clock out and leave. We took the work in our own hands and made what we made. A natural, ecological product. For us and to offer to the people.
Makis Anagnostou: Initially we were basically ecological in a sense, today we have reached the point where we don’t let anything from the packaging of raw materials go to waste, everything gets recycled and we even gain a small income from this process. Of course, as for the organic waste, we make sure to compost them, to also ensure that our vegetable garden is as effective as possible.
Reporter: In 2013 Greece had the highest unemployment rate in the EU. It was more than 27%. 4 million Greeks were below the poverty limit. Within three years, the GDP had fallen more than 21%, because of the neoliberal memorandum agreements’ measures implemented by the IMF and the EU. Suicide rates in 2013 were 40% more than in 2010, mainly due to unemployment.
Makis Anagnostou: The memorandum agreements were coming and going. There were too many problems, too many people jumping off balconies. Suicide rates had increased drastically.
Dimitris Koumatsioulis: Things were terrible. A lot of people were sitting in their homes, not wanting to go out, as they were ashamed because they didn’t have any money, while we were trying to persuade them to come out together, because that’s the only way we can fight, to show that we are here and we can change the world and do something different.
Reporter: For 10 years now, the workers have not been obeying the orders of the employer and managers. They organize everything through their daily general assembly and there is no inequality between blue- and white-collar workers.
Dimitris Koumatsioulis: Every day in the morning we come in, we discuss what we are going to produce, what problems we can solve in the factory, where we work. Then we start the production. We don’t have a boss, we all discuss our problems together and we all solve them together.
Makis Anagnostou: There are even bigger assemblies, consisting of us, colleagues from Athens and members of the society, the Initiative of Solidarity where we discuss greater issues, such as strategic issues, such as how we will go on and how we will resist.
Reporter: Α great movement of solidarity developed along with the workers, both inside and outside Greece. International media, even all the way to Japan, have broadcasted extensive reports and well-known writers and activists have expressed their support. A solidarity assembly has been taking place for 10 consecutive years through which hundreds of people have participated. 60% of the income comes from trade unions and political organizations all over the word.
Naomi Klein: This intertwining of resistances and alternatives is something that I think, all of our movements need to learn from.
Reporter: VIOME workers have even received a message of support from the Zapatistas. We also received a message of solidarity from the Zapatistas, which was the best thing to happen.
Makis Anagnostou: People who fight hard overseas because in their case, you don’t just go on strikes, your life is at stake every day, there. They sent us a message of solidarity, they are by our side and they support us.
Reporter: However, the factory is not just about production. People associated with social movements use the factory’s space often, while theatre performances, concerts, political debates, bazaars without middlemen, book presentations and film shootings by self-organized productions take place in the factory’s premises.
Makis Anagnostou: Through this process, we have changed as people. What we tried to do is to open it up to society. For example, when the migrants and the refugees were facing problems, the factory was filled with products and clothing to meet the needs of these people. In 2016 there was a global conference on the labor economy, where innumerable people came, from the other side of the world, from Argentina or Chile and from everywhere. From Mexico and from all over Europe of course. Other actions that we have taken to open it up even more and to open ourselves so that the LGBT community can get in here and take action.
Reporter: They created various events and they even started the self-managed-Pride here. In these 10 years of occupying the factory, the workers of VIOME, have been attacked many times. The company had been attempting to auction the property for 8 years.
Makis Anagnostou: Next time, there will be even more of us and we’ll be shouting, so that they will not be able to do anything.
Chanting: Cops, judges listen well, VIOME will remain in workers’ hands.
Makis Anagnostou: Most of the repression occurred during the auctions, in the courts when we were trying to enter the courts and it was forbidden to do so. On the spur of the moment, we managed to get some people in. So, if anything, we were ready to react. The state did not allow them to get a license and did even cut off their electricity. We resisted and we stopped them. However, early in the morning, during the COVID pandemic curfew, to bring the special police force [MAT] at 5 o’clock in the morning, and they made it. From that point onwards, we had our own solutions to keep producing, even after they cut the electricity after three years.
Reporter: The VIOME workers resisted the police violence and they organized a caravan to the Ministry of Labor to demand their legalization.
Makis Anagnostou: What they did was to delay time to tire us out. Then we said we would answer, even for a short period of time, that we are patient and we will wait. We tried to set up tents so that we could stay there for as many days as possible to get the answer. That’s when the police reacted, they tried to take the tents away. There was a beating, we did get hit, but we resisted. There was a beating, we did get hit, but we resisted. And we managed to impose our will and set up the tents.
Reporter: But even there, in Athens in the middle of a hot summer, they were not alone.
Makis Anagnostou: We were supported by many people passing by, there were many events Spyros Grammenos came by, Manu Chao came by and sang. These things gave us the courage to stay and even to heal the wounds that had caused us pain in the previous days. Because you take courage, you become a different person.
Reporter: Of course the Greek state has never let them alone either.
Makis Anagnostou: They let various accusations hang over the workers’ heads. Τhey came here one or two times to hand out documents about an interrogation or a trial which was imminent in the future, so that we would go to the police department and “have a discussion”. It’s intimidation in essence.
Reporter: In February, after many years of disrupted auctions, the state and the corporation managed to auction the property that the biggest part of VIOME belongs to. A foreign fund acquired the property. The workers held a general assembly to organize their resistance and the factory got full of people.
Participant of the General Assembly: It belongs to the workers that have given their soul here, it belongs to the workers that remained without a wage for many years, who were on work stoppage and we won’t give our lives away to any investor.
Reporter: The assembly decided to call for action by organizing a big demonstration in the center of the city.
Melina Azoudi: VIOME is not a utopia. VIOME is a self-managed factory that has been functioning for many, many years. The only self-managed factory in the country. We have formed struggle committees, we will defend the factory, until the end, until victory. We will not give in to the threats of the capitalists, we will not give in to the filthy methods of the state. We will defend the workers of VIOME, we will defend the symbol of VIOME. We will defend it because VIOME belongs to its workers. VIOME belongs to all the people, belongs to us who live there, to us who take action there.
Reporter: A question is raised for the workers again and again. Will they survive? Will they manage to keep being alone in producing without capitalists inside a capitalist world? But are they really alone?
Makis Anagnostou: Our message to the worldwide proletariat is clear. We are shouting: “Workers, you can do without bosses.” We do not only shout it. We put it into practice. Every day we are here and we put it into practice.
This story, with the support of the Bertha Foundation, is part of The Real News Network’s Workers of the World series, telling the stories of workers around the globe building collective power and redefining the future of work on their own terms.