2:57am

Fri July 26, 2013
Parallels

Citing Dignity, Greek Workers Take Over Factory

Originally published on Fri July 26, 2013 7:33 am

The financial crisis in Greece has devastated the country's manufacturing sector, which has lost more than 30 percent of its jobs in the past three years. But at one factory in an industrial center in the north, workers have taken matters into their own hands.

Inside the cavernous factory on the outskirts of Thessaloniki, eight middle-aged men are filling bottles with a vinegar-based fabric softener that's scented with fresh lavender.

This assembly line used to produce glue for ceramic tiles. But the collapse of the construction industry killed demand for building materials.

Dimitris Mokas, one of the men working here, says Greeks still need to wash their clothes — and his firm's new line of laundry products are a good deal.

"You don't want to go to the supermarket and [buy] soap for clothes and pay 20 euros when we will give you for 3 euros," he says.

This firm is called VIO.ME. It's short for Viomichaniki Metalleftiki, or Industrial Mineral.

VIO.ME is a subsidiary of Philkeram Johnson, a Greek company that once made ceramic tiles and exported them to 29 countries.

Bankruptcy In 2011

Philkeram Johnson declared bankruptcy in 2011. VIO.ME's 70 employees stopped getting paychecks the same year. But they still came to work and continued making glue and tile-cleaning products. For a time, they also received unemployment checks, Mokas says.

"Unemployment benefits finished last September," he says. "We said, 'what can we do now? Stay only here and be guards here? We have to eat, we have to do something.' Because we want to have work."

Finding a job in Greece is daunting. More than 27 percent of Greeks are out of work; northern Greece is especially hard-hit. That's why half of the VIO.ME staff decided to occupy the bankrupt factory and revamp it to turn out environmentally friendly detergent and fabric softener.

The workers start their shifts at 7 a.m., and they do everything, Mokas says.

"I was driving a forklift and now I'm an accountant ... a supplier, driver, anything you want," he says.

That includes being a manager. There's no boss here, so for the past five months, Mokas and his fellow workers have also shared the administration of the plant.

The court has appointed a liquidation lawyer, Giorgos Vanaroudis, to administrate the bankruptcy of VIO.ME's parent company, Philkeram Johnson.

Vanaroudis told NPR that the workers of VIO.ME — like other potential buyers — don't want to pay for shares in a company that's more than 4 million euros ($5.3 million) in debt. He says a court in Thessaloniki is now considering whether to appoint administrators for VIO.ME who will allow the workers to remain on the property — or kick them out.

Workers Hope To Own Factory

The VIO.ME workers have been inspired by a precedent in southern Argentina, where the laid-off staff of Zanon, a ceramics factory that closed in 2001, took over the plant and now operate and own it.

The Argentine workers also renamed the plant Fabrica Sin Patrones — Factory Without Bosses — and it's a darling of leftist organizations and labor activists.

The same kinds of activists also support VIO.ME, which also collects donations through PayPal on the plant's website.

What they're not getting is credit from any undercapitalized Greek banks, which rarely give out loans anymore, says Athanassios Savakis, president of the Federation of Industries of Northern Greece.

"The problem is liquidity, in fact," he says. "The extrovert companies, the ones with high levels of exports, have faced this in a positive way."

Those companies make money selling their products abroad, whereas the factory workers are struck selling their detergent in a depressed local market.

VIO.ME's fabric softener may not have a future. But the workers still put in eight-hour shifts on the assembly line every day.

When the shift is over at 3 p.m., they line up in a hot, airless office for a day's salary – just 10 euros, or about $13.

Dimitris Nikolaidis, a tall electrician with a crown of salt-and-pepper curls, walks to his aging sea-blue Daewoo Lanos.

"It's really difficult to live on this salary," Nikolaidis says, as he drives home. "The truth is, you can't live on it. It's just enough money to pay for me to get here and keep working."

In the back seat is Giorgos Deligiannis, a bespectacled machine operator in a pressed pastel shirt. He says it's been hard to learn so many new skills, including accounting, and to manage so many different personalities in a collective that insists on equality over ambition.

"But we're trying to be patient," he says. "We want to believe that things will improve."

Outside their factory, the economy is broken. Inside these walls, the men are surviving. And they say they have found dignity, if not money, in their work.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Now, let's turn our focus to the manufacturing sector in Greece. It has been devastated by the country's financial crisis. Manufacturing has lost 30 percent of its jobs over the last three years.

But Joanna Kakissis visited one plant in the country's north, an industrial heartland, where workers have taken matters into their own hands.

(SOUNDBITE OF WORKERS AT ASSEMBLY LINE)

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: In a cavernous factory on the outskirts of the northern city of Thessaloniki, eight middle-aged men are filling bottles with a vinegar-based fabric softener that's scented with fresh lavender.

This assembly line used to produce glue for ceramic tiles. But the collapse of the construction industry killed demand for building materials.

The employees here figure people will always need to wash their clothes and worker Dimitris Mokas says his firm's new line of laundry products are a good deal.

DIMITRIS MOKAS: You don't want to go to the supermarket and take soap for clothes and pay 20 euros. I will give you with three euros.

(SOUNDBITE OF FACTORY WORKERS, FOREIGN LANGUAGE SPOKEN)

KAKISSIS: The firm is called VIO.ME, a subsidiary of Philkeram Johnson, a Greek company that once exported its ceramic tiles to 29 countries. The parent company declared bankruptcy in 2011. The 70 employees of VIO.ME stopped getting paychecks the same year. But they still came to work and continued making glue and tile-cleaning products. For a time, they also received unemployment checks, Mokas says.

MOKAS: Unemployment benefits finished last September. We said, what can we do now? Stay only here and be guards here? We have to eat, we have to do something. Because we want to have work.

KAKISSIS: Finding a job is daunting right now. More than 27 percent of Greeks are out of work, and northern Greece is especially hard-hit. That's why half of the VIO.ME staff decided to occupy the bankrupt factory and re-vamp it to turn out environmentally-friendly detergent and fabric softener. The workers start their shifts at 7 A.M. and they do everything, Mokas says.

MOKAS: I was driving a forklift and now I'm in accounts, a worker, a supplier, driver, anything you want.

KAKISSIS: Including a manager. For the past five months, Mokas and his fellow workers have also been overseeing the plant.

A Thessaloniki court has appointed a liquidation lawyer, Giorgos Vanaroudis, to administrate the bankruptcy of the parent company, Philkeram Johnson.

Vanaroudis says he isn't authorized to speak on tape but he told NPR that the VIO.ME workers - like other potential buyers - don't want to pay for shares in a company that's at least $5 million in debt. He says the court is now considering whether to appoint administrators who will allow the workers to remain on the property, or kick them out.

(SOUNDBITE OF ZANON DOCUMENTARY)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

KAKISSIS: The VIO.ME workers have been inspired by a precedent in southern Argentina. A little over a decade ago, when the Zanon ceramic tile factory closed there, its staff took over the plant.

As the Argentine workers explain in this documentary, they now operate and own that plant. Its new name is Fabrica Sin Patrones, which means Factory Without Bosses.

Like the Argentines, the Greek workers of VIO.ME are getting moral support - and some financial aid - from labor activists and leftist organizations.

What they're not getting is credit from any of the undercapitalized Greek banks, says Athanassios Savakis, president of the Federation of Industries of Northern Greece.

ATHANASSIOS SAVAKIS: The problem is liquidity, in fact. The extrovert companies, the ones with high levels of exports, have faced this in a positive way.

KAKISSIS: Those companies make money selling their products abroad, whereas the factory workers are stuck selling their detergent in a depressed local market.

(SOUNDBITE OF FACTORY WORKERS)

KAKISSIS: Yet, the workers still put in eight-hour shifts every day. They line up in a hot, airless office for a day's salary - just 10 euros, or $13.

(SOUNDBITE OF FACTORY DOOR CLOSING)

KAKISSIS: Dimitris Nikolaidis, a trained electrician, picks up his money and walks to his aging car.

DIMITRIS NIKOLAIDIS: (Foreign language spoken)

KAKISSIS: It's really hard to live on this salary, he says. The truth is you can't live on it. It's just enough money to pay for me to get here and keep working.

Outside the factory, the Greek economy is broken. And here, at least these men are working. They say they have found dignity, if not money, in that work.

GREENE: For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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