The prospects for workers' control in Greece

Submitted by Matthew on 1 March, 2013 - 5:46

The struggle of workers at the Industrial Mineral (BIO.ME) factory in Thessaloniki is one of the most important workers’ struggles taking place in Greece.

Tuesday 12 February marked the first official day of production under workers’ control at the factory. The workers are posing the issue of workers’ self-management as a response to “padlocks”, layoffs and a bankrupt capitalist Greece.

The factory was abandoned by its owners, the workers left unpaid since May 2011. In September 2012, the retention allowance received from the Employment Agency (OAED) ended. The workers survive through the solidarity of other workers in Greece and abroad.

That support — packets of spaghetti, a bag of beans or a two-euro coin — gives strength and courage to the BIO.ME workers to continue.

In extreme cases of poverty the government hands over an allowance. But the workers have made it clear that they do not ask for charity handouts but for their right to full employment.

In October 2012 BIO.ME made a formal proposal to establish a workers’ cooperative under their full control, demanding legal recognition for any project at the factory. They demanded the government and their former boss give them the money to reopen the factory, stating that this money belongs to them, as they are the ones who produce the wealth of society.

The workers’ demands first met hostility from the government and the icy indifference of the various trade union bureaucracies. But they were received with great enthusiasm by the rank-and-file workers and community movements, who, through the creation of the “Open Solidarity Initiative for Thessaloniki” and similar initiatives in many cities, have conveyed their message during the last months of ongoing battle.

BIO.ME’s workers have “distanced” themselves from both the trade union bureaucracy of GSEE and the Stalinists of PAME. Both have failed to build solidarity for BIO.ME’s workers.

GSEE wanted the workers’ representatives to meet with the government and the former bosses and to “demand” the boss of BIO.ME reinvests and brings his capital back. PAME offered support only on the precondition that the BIO.ME union join PAME’s ranks.

At a nationwide meeting of the BIO.ME solidarity initiatives on Sunday 10 February the slogan that dominated — “You Cannot, But We Can” — is one which fills thousands of workers across the country with hope.

The president of the solidarity association described what will happen now. Workers will operate as a cooperative, all decisions will be taken by the General Assembly of the worker “shareholders”. The money raised from auctioning old products and machinery will be used to purchase raw materials to start the first production line. Part of the production will be modified to produce cheap organic household products for the working classes. The “shares” will not be inherited.

On 11 February a solidarity march of more than 1,000 people took place. Left organisations, including SYRIZA and ANTARSYA, participated. The march ended at the Ivanofeio Stadium where a concert of solidarity took place.

In the first phase of production money will be channeled through the retail solidarity initiatives of people involved in the movement of “no middlemen”.

A percentage of the money raised from the sale of the products will go to a Solidarity Fund. Another percentage will be saved to meet any future losses of the business. A significant percentage will be invested in expansion of the plant. The rest will be allocated to BIO.ME’s workers. The 40 partner-co workers of BIO.ME have unanimously agreed that if the profits of the new BIO.ME exceed their expectations, they will “cap” their wages in order to employ more workers.

During the last three years thousands of workers had been made redundant as a result of factories shutting down so BIO.ME is, in that respect, a “drop in the ocean”.

The best way to support the workers of BIO.ME is to spread the idea of nationalisation under workers' control and without compensation of the factories and businesses that are being shut down and are sacking workers.

In late January, several thousand kilometres away in Belgium, thousands of workers of the global steel giant Arcelor Mittal went on strike and took to the streets to demand the nationalisation of their company.

This was a response to declining production, the closure of an entire unit, the announcement of a further 1,300 redundancies (in September 2011 750 workers were made redundant). It is worth noting that the factory “KONTI” in the town of Volos, which had recently shut down, belonged to the same multinational, Arcelor Mittal.

Volos has been hit hard by the years of recession. Declining production, redundancies, wage cuts, job rotation, flexible employment and closures in many industries: Kanakis BIOSSOL, KONTI to name two. At the same time, metal and chemical factories in Volos are also due to close.

According to official data from November 2012 the overall index of industrial production in Greece has reduced by 11.8% compared to two years ago.

Thousands of workers are made jobless with almost no means of subsistence for the future. The capitalist crisis in Greece appears in its most “pure” form — destruction of its own “cells” of production and closure of entire industrial plants, the destruction of work, the continual creation of new unemployed.

The vicious circle of recession-unemployment-recession exacerbates this. In recent months, one after another, companies have announced bankruptcy, including historical and major industries that employ thousands of workers among them.

The long-established dairy company of AGNO, in northern Greece, with nationwide distribution, has filed for Article 99 (bankruptcy). Its 411 currently employed workers are anxious not only for their jobs, but because they have been unpaid for over three months.

As a result of AGNO’s bankruptcy the entire dairy industry of northern Greece has been severely affected — 112 cattle farmers are one step from disaster, claiming outstanding payments of approximately 2.3 million euros.

The workers of AGNO have organised repeated 24-hour strikes since the beginning of January. The dairy factories of MEVGAL in Athens and Nounou in Aspropyrgos have also entered a downward spiral; demonstrations are taking place daily, with workers demanding to be paid overdue accrued salaries.

The famous furniture company NEOSET has repeatedly tried to file for Article 99. With 30 stores in total throughout the Balkans, NEOSET only opened a new section in Romania last November — at the same time that it was filing for bankruptcy!

What will happen to the company’s 1,014 workers? Since mid-2012, the bosses had stopped paying its 200 workers in their Vasilikos factory at Evia where the entire domestic production is based. Those workers are now trapped in the process of “reconciliation consultations” with employers, under the auspices of the Ministry of Labour.

Another longtime industry, wood processing, has closed down in the recession hit region of Evia. In Shelman, back in 2010, the bosses were trying to get through “job rotation” and the dismantling of the collective bargaining agreements. That sparked a 38-day strike. The end of the strike was followed by a “pogrom” redundancy of 500 workers.

Both the Shelman workers and those at Vasilikos-Evia say they will not accept any redundancies and will not engage in any further negotiations with the bosses.

The workers of the woollen carpets factory Fintexport have just entered their third month in occupation. The bosses shut down the factory last July. The workers are demanding accrued wages over 14 months, the reopening of the factory, restored collective bargaining agreements, full-time employment and wages. They have recently confronted and prevented the bosses from getting materials out of the factory. The Fintexport workers are demanding emergency financial aid from the government, the freezing of their loans and mortgages, for as long as they remained unpaid, and for electricity in the factory not to be disconnected.

The American drinks multinational company, Pespico-Hvi is closing its factory in Loutraki, where bottled water “Hvi Loutraki” is produced. Two years ago the company started a voluntary retirement programme which left 40 workers at the plant. The remaining 20 workers are now threatened with redundancy. The company “promises” that it will compensate the 20 workers, and that it will relocate them to the factory at Oinofita.

The above case studies are merely the best known to the general public. A detailed list of closures would require hundreds of pages.

But the goal for the working class is not to sit back and count the “corpses” of factories and businesses. The challenge is to work out a plan for a way out of the disaster, claiming our right to work and decent life.

Answers need to be found for all sorts of questions such as: how can the factories be re-opened again and how will we safeguard our jobs? What sort of production do we want and in what kind of society? Such dialogue must begin first and foremost among the workers of the factories and workplaces threatened with closures.

The BIO.ME workers in Thessaloniki and the Belgian steelworkers remind us of an historical truth.

That for the factories to work, for the economy to produce, for the productive forces to evolve, for the society to flourish — there is no need for the capitalist bosses. On the contrary, today’s capitalists are an absolute obstacle to the operation and further development of the economy and humanity.

To maximise their profits, the “productive” capitalist industrialists and multinationals do not hesitate to “put a padlock” on productive units and lay off thousands of workers. That “golden rule” of capitalism applies equally to modern factories in Belgium and to little industrial production units in Greece.

The factories are closing not because society does not need the steel of Greek Chalivourgia, the radiators (BIOSSOL) or tile adhesives (BIOSSOL), but because their production no longer offers the gains of the past to the capitalist bosses. This sums up the parasitic nature of the “free market”, of capitalism.

The only way for the workers to keep their jobs and to continue to produce socially useful products is for the strategic sectors of the industry and the overall economy to be placed under the ownership, management and democratic control of the labour movement and society. To create national public sector bodies throughout industry (e.g., for building materials, construction, metal industry and so on). Then to introduce democratic planning of production and the economy as a whole for the benefit of society. The workers of BIO.ME are a living example that it is feasible to run a factory without bosses.

However, if the self-organised factory of BIO.ME is left isolated it will be very difficult for it to survive within the fierce competition of the capitalist market. Furthermore, to safeguard the BIO.ME workers against the potential of becoming “little capitalists” it is imperative for the workers’ movement to be by the side of the BIO.ME workers in order to keep this struggle within its anti-capitalist framework, of workers’ management and control. Otherwise BIO.ME’s workers could be “accommodated” within the capitalist system and gradually transformed into a small “alternative” albeit capitalist enterprise.

Similar experiments in Argentina (2000s) or in Portugal after 1975, and briefly in France in May 1968, of factories run for workers and by workers and establishing new human relationships in the here and now, despite their valuable contribution as blueprints of workers’ control and dual power, are also a lesson of limitations within the framework of capitalism.

It is necessary to nationalise whole industries and it is now the responsibility of the left and of the militant rank and file trade unions to highlight and popularise this historic demand.

The BIO.ME struggle should not be confined to the factory of BIO.ME. It should be generalised and spread to all the shut-down factories and businesses, to help it survive, to help them become the pioneers of a completely alternative organisation of production and the economy, one without exploitation, without inequalities and hierarchies.

In the Memorandum Greece, with unemployment approaching two million and the vast majority of people condemned to poverty and misery by the three-party coalition government, as well as by previous governments, the demand to put factories into the hands of workers to be run under self-management and control is the only response to this disaster.

The left and the rank and file unions have a duty to join the fight and organise the battle at every workplace with direct democratic procedures, open general meetings, and assemblies without bureaucrats.

The last words belong to Makis Anagnostou, the president of the trade union association of BIO.ME:

“I would not call our struggle and our demands pioneering. Our demands and struggle are rooted deep in the historical industrial workers’ struggles.

“Throughout history the industrial workers aimed to get the means of production in their hands and under their control and management and to be able to produce for themselves and society.

“We state this ‘primitive’ elementary demand to every worker and try to break the power of habit that the bourgeoisie has instilled in them, aiming to keep all workers in hypnosis.

“The trade union bureaucracy as an agent of the bourgeoisie tries to push all workers’ struggles in more ‘peaceful’, conciliatory routes within the confines of the capitalist system.

“We, I repeat, took examples from the past and we believe that the reopening of the factory and the setting up of an egalitarian workers’ cooperative will steer clear of bourgeois types of solutions.”

We are the ones who knead and yet we have no bread, We are the ones who dig for coal and yet we are cold. We are the ones who have nothing and we are coming to take the world.

Tassos Livaditis

• BIO.ME international website here

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