Is Getting Rid of Your Boss the Future of Work?

European workers are fighting to take back the jobs they lost in an innovative new way.

by Liam Barrington-Bush
Nov 30 2016, 2:45pm

The old Filkram-Johnson sign on the roof of the VIOME factory. (All photos: Liam Barrington-Bush)

What would you do if you lost your job? Probably get drunk, update your CV and sign on. But what if everyone you worked with lost their job at the same time and instead of just accepting this as an inevitability of capitalism you all found an alternative?

This is what's happening across Europe, where workers are using austerity as an opportunity to reclaim their workplaces without the bosses who screwed them over.

The recuperated factory movement is a radical challenge to the kind of exploitative industrial labour that dominated the last century. Instead of accepting their fate, former employees organise, taking over their workplaces after businesses have gone bust. They then run them as workers' co-operatives.

These recuperations are not the result of friendly negotiations with the owners; they are hard fought for: workers have cut bolts off locked factory gates; they may have overcome attacks from police or private security firms trying secure the assets of bankrupt bosses. In some cases they have squatted their old workplaces for years to get them up and running again.

The movement came into its own in debt-savaged Argentina at the turn of the millennium. Now it's spread to Europe as a radical alternative to the austerity agenda.

Theodoros Karyotis of the reclaimed VIOME factory, which has become the main symbol of worker self-management in Europe

"The same conditions that generated this movement in Argentina in 2001 – namely, massive deindustrialisation – were also present in Greece in 2010, with hundreds of companies going bankrupt," explains Theodoros Karyotis, one of the organisers of the second Euromediterranean Workers' Economy meeting.

The conference took place in October in the reclaimed VIOME soap factory in Thessaloniki, Greece, which has become the main symbol of worker self-management in Europe. "As Greek companies went under, the VIOME workers held onto their factory," says Theodoros. "After a year of squatting the place, they decided to start producing by themselves."

The former industrial adhesive factory now makes eco-friendly cleaning products to fit shrinking Greek household budgets. All decisions at VIOME are made through democratic assemblies; co-op members are paid equally; and roles and duties are rotated to share learning among the membership.

Over 400 members of these kinds of occupied co-ops from Greece, France, Italy, Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Spain met in the VIOME factory to share ideas.

Yves Baroni from the Fralib reclaimed tea factory in Marseille

Yves Baroni used to work for a subsidiary of UNILEVER at their Fralib tea factory in Marseille, France. In 2010, the company declared Fralib not profitable and tried to shut it down. Following 1,336 days of occupation, Fralib re-opened in 2014 as the SCOP-TI workers co-operative. "We decided to share the profits of the work by making sure that those before us in the supply chain were treated fairly – that we, as workers, could live from our income, and that we had an affordable and quality product to offer consumers," he says.

The move has had a significant impact on his life. "For once I have my own voice in the choices I make, professionally and personally. I have my destiny in my own hands," he says. "But I am not just doing it for myself. We are all doing it for each other."

This collective DIY approach to management is not without its challenges. Marie Moise is an activist and researcher who spent five months working with the RiMaflow co-op in Milan, Italy on gender issues at the factory, at the co-operative's request. In Thessaloniki, she described a "sex-blind self-management" that followed years of working under managers who were accused of coercing female employees into providing sexual favours in exchange for holiday time.

The absence of these managers raised new gender issues, though. Before the bosses left, many of the workers – and the majority of the unskilled labourers – were women. Today, they only account for five of RiMaflow's 20 co-operative members.

Murals on the VIOME factory

"The crisis of the enterprise triggered a larger crisis of the family frameworks of each of the women," explains Marie. "The loss of their job and the choice to join the workers' struggle led all of them to radically renegotiate their marriages and their domestic tasks. Four out of five of them divorced during that period, while the only one who didn't divorce convinced her husband to join the struggle at RiMaflow."

Responsibilities at the factory are still disproportionately allocated along gender lines, and sexist language is still used in worker assemblies, Moise explained at the Greek gathering. Slowly, though, she says, things are improving, as ideas like collective childcare practices and plans for participatory workshops on sexism and gender equality have been instituted to help relieve some of the extra barriers against women's involvement.

"Today, sexism is not as explicit, but still remains because sexism is part of society," says Luca Federici, a member of RiMaflow who asked Moise to help the collective address gender issues. While he is clear that there is much work to be done, like Moise, he is optimistic that her research will help to address the issues at RiMaflow. "[The workshops] will not be like a school where the teacher tells [the workers] they are wrong," Federici explains over the phone from Milan, "but will be about trying to develop a conversation all together to keep this issue in the spotlight."

The European movement is still in its infancy, but 15 years of experimentation in Argentina has proven its potential on several fronts. On the one hand, Argentine recuperations have shown that they can be hugely successful businesses. One co-op, Unión y Fuerza, went on to become the country's largest supplier of domestic piping. At the Ghelco chocolate factory, workers were able to double their pre-occupation wages.

Fair wages are obviously one aim of the movement, but they are not the only goal. Self-managed workplaces have gone well beyond any corporate social responsibility scheme in making sure they are positive players in their local communities. VIOME is at the forefront of this in Europe, hosting neighbourhood assemblies which have bolstered local democracy, and a "solidarity clinic", which provides free healthcare to its workers and the wider community. It's also developed and distributed hand-friendly laundry soap to refugees and migrants living in Thessaloniki's makeshift camps and squats, who found that typical laundry detergents caused skin irritations when used to hand-wash garments.

"Success for us is not if this factory makes profits," VIOME's Tasos Matzaris says firmly. "It is if this example goes abroad and new factory co-operatives are started. This is what we think success will look like."


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