From Squat to Cooperative

Image Credit: Soap production in VIOME, kindly provided by VIOME Coop under a CC BY-NC license.

The Story of a Recuperated Soap Factory in Greece

Turning existing capitalistic companies into cooperatives has been a persistent topic in cooperative discourse. The most prominent recent examples are from the Argentine Great Depression in the early 2000s. Factories that were closed and abandoned by their owners were squatted – “recovered” by workers and turned into workers’ cooperatives. Most notably, Zanon, a ceramic tile factory, was squatted and has operated as a cooperative (Zanon FaSinPat) since 2002. Many interesting questions arise around this process of worker’s control through labor struggle: How are these endeavors initiated? What role do unions and social movements play? How has self-management changed the way the factory operates?

In this text, we will briefly explore these questions by drawing from the example of VIOME, a “recovered” factory based in Thessaloniki, Greece that has been producing ecological and natural soaps and cleaning products since 2013. The backdrop for this struggle is the Greek economic crisis (2010-2018), during which many companies closed, unemployment skyrocketed, and severe austerity was imposed by the EU and the IMF. The company group Philkeram Johnson, which had been operating VIOME and producing glue for textiles, declared bankruptcy in 2011, pulling VIOME down with it. The factory was abandoned by the company within a day, without the 70 employees even being informed. They were never officially terminated and thus received no compensation. Additionally, their salaries had been delayed and remained unpaid for months of work before the closure.

How it all started
A member-led union had already been established in the factory and had been involved in confrontations with the company. This laid the foundation for the struggle that would follow the closure. The workers occupied the factory, demanding compensation and the reopening of the factory. Almost immediately, a solidarity assembly was formed around their struggle, providing both political and practical support, such as food. During this time, the VIOME union, with the support of other larger unions, began negotiations with the government to achieve their demands. For this process, they commissioned a professional business analyst to create a business plan, to prove that the factory could be reopened and be profitable. This plan did not mention or aim for self-management. It was used as a bargaining tool to demand compensation from the government and the reopening of the factory, with the compensation serving as capital to save the job positions. However, it quickly became apparent to the workers that the negotiations were in vain. No potential buyer for the factory was in sight and the conservative government was hostile. Additionally, due to recent changes in the Greek bankruptcy law, the workers were the last to be compensated, after banks and suppliers, during the bankruptcy process of the parent company.

The workers felt that they were faced with a dead end, and that’s when the idea of “recovering” the factory and turning it into a cooperative was born. The seed was planted by members of the solidarity assembly, who were experienced social activists familiar with the “recovered” factory movement in Argentina. Members from the Argentine movements were invited to Greece by the assembly and participated in two major events in Athens and Thessaloniki. The experiences shared inspired the VIOME workers who, along with the solidarity assembly, decided in February 2013 to completely take over the factory and start operating it again. A large solidarity campaign was launched in Greece and abroad to support this new beginning, notably without the support of other labor unions.

What changed in the factory?
What changes when a factory is taken over by its workers? What happens when there is no capital, no boss, and the workers and owners are the same people? We will try to answer these questions by documenting the changes that took place in VIOME after it transitioned to self-management. First of all, the factory needed to change its products. The glue for textiles it used to produce was absorbed by the parent company that no longer existed. Moreover, high production costs and limited distribution channels made textile glue completely unsuitable for what was now a self-managed collective in a squatted factory. Instead, an idea proposed again by the solidarity assembly, the collective decided to produce natural and ecological soaps and cleaning products, which were easier to fund, produce, and distribute in social centers. There was also a political aspect to this decision. The workers wanted to produce something useful, affordable, and ethical—“something for the masses.” Natural soaps, following traditional recipes, were something that everyone could buy and use.

The greatest change that the workers faced was regarding how the factory itself was now operating. With no boss, workers had to make all the decisions themselves regarding production, packaging, distribution, and marketing. This was a fundamental change for production line workers who had no relevant experience or training. Some of them reported it as a shock. All these had to be done with very limited resources, initially collected from the solidarity assembly. The pay was modest. Almost half of the 40 workers who participated in the initial squat and industrial action left in the first months of self-management. Some managed to retire, others sought better-paying jobs, some could not handle the legal and practical responsibilities of self-management, and others lost hope in the viability of the project. The pivotal moment came when, after 7 months of self-management, the workers decided to create a legal entity to support their operations. Twenty-three of the workers joined, creating the VIOME Coop, along with two additional employees who were not original VIOME workers. The solidarity movement played a crucial role in paving the way for this. In self-managed social centers and festivals around Greece, VIOME soap bars were bought as an act of solidarity with the only squatted and self-managed factory in the country. During the height of the Greek crisis, solidarity groups were formed around Europe, particularly in France and Germany, to support the struggling people of Greece. Through this network, VIOME and the solidarity assembly managed to make significant exports that made the venture viable.

Today, a decade after the creation of VIOME Coop, some things have changed while others have remained the same. The coop continues to operate in the squatted factory, albeit in a smaller portion of the initial factory, since the rest was sold off to private investors. Fourteen people continue to work at VIOME Coop, ten of whom were workers of the original VIOME. Pay is better but still does not exceed the minimum wage by much. The solidarity campaign plays a less crucial role now. VIOME has updated its product range and now produces and sells, in addition to the original natural soaps, soap and softener for washing machines, cleaning products for professionals, care products, and others. Through their e-shop and during the COVID-19 pandemic, they managed to position themselves as a recognized producer of natural soaps and cleaning products beyond the left-wing and social movement circles. However, serious obstacles remain. The limited production of olive oil in Southern Europe, mainly due to climate change, has caused its prices to soar. The VIOME natural soap production, which relies heavily on olive oil, has halted because of this, causing significant damage to the co-op.

Lessons from VIOME
There are important lessons to be learned from this case. Workers, faced with a dead end in their industrial struggle, made the difficult decision to adopt self-management. The general condition of the economy surely plays a role in such decisions, especially when no other employment alternatives are easily available. One must not underestimate the crucial role of the solidarity movement and the knowledge it can impart. Exchanging experiences, such as the one shared in this text, is an integral part of cooperative building—even though it occurred miles away and more than a decade after the Argentine example inspired the minds of VIOME workers. Leading by example seems to be the most straightforward way to create alternatives to the capitalistic economy. Especially when you meet the people who made this possible and see that they are like you: with families they need to support financially, filled with doubts and ambitions, and experiencing needs and emotions.

Turning to self-management is not an easy process. Participants need to learn and unlearn. The discipline instilled in the working processes of a capitalistic factory becomes obsolete. Worker-owners now need to self-discipline and make collective decisions on all matters, acting like a collective boss. This can sometimes be an overwhelming process, although union organizing can serve as a training ground for it. Finally, we must consider the interaction of the cooperative with the rest of the economic system. Movements and other cooperatives can support new ventures, but this is not always sufficient. Workers taking over factories need to adapt to the situation by finding new products and distribution channels that cannot be blocked by capitalist or state interventions. Building a larger ecosystem of social and solidarity economy can aid such endeavors and offer more options to future factory squatters.

A big thank you to the VIOME workers who shared their experiences

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