Recuperating Work and Life
As the economic crisis deepens and governments—instead of providing support—respond with more austerity, people throughout the world are not only resisting but increasingly creating their own solutions in multiple spheres of life. Work is an especially difficult area around which to organize if the government refuses to aid the unemployed or underemployed, and yet it is also one where some of the most innovative solutions are arising.
One alternative to the prospect of never-ending unemployment is the recuperation of workplaces. No longer making demands on governments that have turned their backs on the population, people are turning to one another. Workers are taking over abandoned workplaces and making them function again, getting rid of bosses and hierarchy while developing democratic assemblies, equal pay remuneration, job rotation and more ecological production practices.
FEELINGS OF POWER AND DIGNITY
Workers in Europe have begun to recuperate their livelihoods, together with the support of the communities around them, following the lead of Argentina after the 2001 economic collapse. There are currently at least a dozen such workplaces in Europe, over 350 in Argentina, and many dozens more in other parts of Latin America.
I have visited a number of recuperated workplaces in Europe over the past two years, and I regularly spend time in Argentina. The stories of these initiatives are all quite similar to one another, as are the feelings of power and dignity that emanate from each and every one of them as soon as you enter the worker-controlled space.
The newer recuperations in Europe not only take the lead from their sisters and brothers in South America, but have often received direct support and encouragement from workers in Argentina in particular. And in almost every case, the workers, when deciding whether or not they could take back and run their workplace, reflected that it was something “they” do, in Argentina, or that it is a cultural thing happening only in Latin America—not imagining that worker-occupied and horizontally-run workplaces could catch on in Europe.
And here we are, with workplaces occupied, democratically self-managed, and producing under workers’ control in countries like France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Croatia and Slovenia. One of the most emblematic of the recent European recuperations, discussed in detail here, is Vio.Me in Greece. Others that have received international recognition include Ri-Maflow outside Milan and Officine Zero in Rome, as well as and Kazova in Istanbul, Fralib in Gémenos and La Fabrique du Sud in Carcassonne (France).
OCCUPY, RESIST, PRODUCE!
The difference between a traditional workplace occupation and a recuperation is generally that an occupation comes together with a list of demands on the owners, for things like back pay or a reopening of the workplace. In a recuperation, by contrast, the workers first occupy and then apply the formula of the Argentine movements: ‘Occupy, Resist, Produce’—a phrase the Argentines, in turn, had borrowed from the landless movement in Brazil, the MST.
To recuperate is to take back and put into production a workplace that is seen as collectively already yours. The need to resist is self-evident, as recuperations almost always face repression from former owners and the government. And in all cases, there is a massive turnout of people in the community; both in the political community and in the surrounding neighborhoods, where people tend to be very understanding of the implications of unemployment and often personally know the workers involved.
It is this community, made up of neighbors and the wider society, that comes together with the workers to defend the workplace from attempted evictions. I have heard story upon story of people who had never thought of themselves as political or faced off with police coming out to defend workers who wanted to run their workplaces themselves.
And then, if the resistance is successful, production begins. In many ways, this is often the most difficult phase, though one that the workers know best and fear least. Different from the occupation and resistance phases, which are new to many workers, production in their own workplace is not. However, what often happens is that, when the owners and managers abandon the workplace, they do not only leave behind a massive debt to the workers in the form of back wages and compensation, but they often owe tremendous amounts to their suppliers and energy companies as well.
Moreover, in those cases where the workers are not able to immediately occupy the workplace, the owners come in and sell off parts of the machinery used for production. As a result, when workers recuperate a workplace it is often a shell of the factory or enterprise it used to be, deeply in debt with no supplier willing to sell to them. Here again is where the solidarity of the community—together with the imagination and innovation of the workers—comes into play, finding ways to obtain machinery and inputs or change the type of goods produced.
WORKPLACE DEMOCRACY AND ECOLOGY
In each of the new recuperations in Europe, as in Latin America, workers organize in horizontal assemblies, making sure that each voice is heard and all opinions considered in all things. While there are spokespeople, they are just that: voices representing the decisions of the assembly, not individuals who make decisions or speak for the other workers.
Increasingly, with the newer recuperations around the world, one of the first decisions made is to change what is produced and how production takes place so as to be more ecological. In the case of Vio.Me, the factory had long been producing industrial glues and cleaners, but after many discussions amongst themselves, the workers—together with their families and supporters—decided that they did not want to either use or produce toxic material. They now only produce organic material, with products that they obtain locally, including lavender and olive oil-based cleaners and soaps.
Ri-Maflow, a former producer of car parts, now—after the occupation and recuperation in 2012—refurbishes electronics, from computers to washing machines, seeing the importance of a more ecological form of production and upcycling. They also host a regular massive flea market together with supporters and make RiMoncello, a lemon liquor (limoncello) with organic lemons they trade with local producers.
Officine Zero, formerly RSI (Rail Service Italy), a train car repair factory, occupied their workplace in 2012, and—after demonstrations and demands for back wages and against permanent closure—met with their neighboring social center, which suggested they recuperate it, using the example of Argentina as a concrete reference point.
After recuperation, the workers and supporters decided to shift production. Drawing on their particular skills, they continue to use the workplace to do such things as welding, carpentry and upholstery, only instead of doing so for train cars or new production, they engage in upcycling—taking used products and, through the process of changing them, giving them a higher value, yet less of an ecological imprint.
After a long struggle and final victory, Fralib—a tea producing plant in France—went from producing tea for such companies as Lipton to now producing organic herbal teas with a direct relationship to the organic farmers in the region where they are located. Again, as with the others, the workers at Fralib are making the conscious choice to break with industrial-chemical and non-ecological production and to make something else instead—both in terms of how they produce (horizontally) and what they produce (environmentally-friendly goods).
While sales and salaries are still relatively low in most of the workplaces—Fralib and Fabrique du Sud being the exceptions—almost all are beginning to make a living. The survival of most of these recuperated workplaces is in no small part due to the support they receive from people in the community, who see their fates tied to that of the workers.
VIO.ME: LESSONS FROM ARGENTINA
Vio.Me is probably one of the best and most concrete examples of South-North relationships between recuperated workplaces. It is also one of the most innovative recuperations with regard to the relationship with the wider community and new visions of collaboration and production. In part, this innovation stems from lessons learned from Argentina.
In 2012, after having unsuccessfully tried to obtain 1.5 million euros in back pay and compensation owed by their bosses and facing a totally unresponsive government, the workers occupied the workplace—in this case meaning a number of buildings and a few hectares of land.
When the workers first occupied the factory they had not yet decided that they would be putting it back into production. It was hard to imagine at first what that might look like in a country like Greece, in the absence of any recent precedents to guide them. But the workers also knew that the bosses and the government would never respond to their demands. They had heard of the experience in Argentina, but as they explained, that all seemed so distant.
Fortunately the workers of Vio.Me were connected to a global solidarity network, and the Greek movements (the basis of what later became the Vio.Me Solidarity Initiative) raised the funds to allow a worker from Argentina—who had already gone through the process of recuperation—to meet with the Greek comrades. As the workers at Vio.Me now reflect, meeting with Lalo, from a factory that had gone through the same experience they were going through—a factory that now was producing—helped them imagine more concretely what it would entail to do something similar in Greece.
It was the final push of confidence they needed to make their decision.
THE SOLIDARITY INITIATIVE
As soon as the workers of Vio.Me occupied their workplace, support poured in from all sectors of society. As with the experience of the Argentines, however, many trade unions and left-leaning political parties did not originally support the process. Using the same argument made around the globe by the more traditional left, many unions complained that the occupation was an anti-union action since it did not go through them. The Communist Party and some inside SYRIZA even argued that recuperation would make the workers owners (petit bourgeoisie, to be exact) and thus capitalists—clearly not something to be supported.
In many ways, this was a fortunate rejection as it opened the path for a solidarity initiative that did not involve groups vying for leadership. The workers are the ones who lead the initiative, and many thousands are now working in support of their effort. Solidarity is expressed in many ways, from people physically being present at the workplace to help defend it against eviction attempts, to the coordination of assemblies—together with the workers—where the community can have a voice in the decisions that affect them.
Like their Argentine counterparts, the workers of Vio.Me are clear that the main reason the struggle has been able to succeed is because of its close relationships with the movements and the community. As the workers were deciding what to do, the local community and the social movements immediately began to come together. What resulted from their meetings was mass rallies and concerts in support of the recuperation, at times numbering in the thousands—as well as the formation of the Solidarity Initiative.
The Solidarity Initiative is an assembly-based community group that works together with the workers from Vio.Me to help defend, spread and deepen their struggle. The Initiative began in ways similar to the Argentine recuperated workplaces, with neighbors and groups coming over to defend the workplace, and then beginning to use it as a space to meet and create a sense of community. But at the same time, having learned from Argentina, they are now going beyond it into unchartered territory.
The Solidarity Initiative, for example, different from the Argentine supporters, is comprised of a vast array of people and groups—organized and unorganized—subscribing to many different political ideologies, from anarchists, socialists, communists, radical leftists and autonomists, to all sorts of unaligned individuals. This is a big advance, particularly considering the sectarianism of radical politics in Greece. Sadly, deep divides between ideological groups preventing such alliances remain common in most places around the world. Not so with the Solidarity Initiative.
In the Solidarity Initiative’s assemblies, which always include workers as well, discussions take on a wide range of topics, from how to continue to support the struggle to issues directly related to production and distribution. The latter area—production—begins to place control of the workplace more and more into the hands of the community, taking yet another step in the direction of recreating and reorganizing what production processes could look like in society as a whole, and not just in individual workplaces.
One of the co-founders of the Initiative describes their functioning as follows:
Self-management is an idea that brings together different ideologies from the left. What the Solidarity Initiative does is to help the workers organize and carry out the campaigns of Vio.Me—though now it has less and less responsibilities since the workers are taking more and more into their own hands.
At first we helped a lot with foreign language communications and helped organize political campaigns, like marches, writing texts, and so on. Of course we did this with the workers and the workers had a final say. It is important to be clear that we are two different entities, so sometimes, for example, the workers write a text on an issue and the Solidarity Initiative writes a different text. But again, the workers have a final say—the Solidarity Initiative always has at least five workers in the assemblies, and they have significant influence over any decision.
Many still argue that the experience of recuperating workplaces is not an alternative to capitalism. And perhaps, in and of itself, it is not. However, workers who would have been unemployed are no longer. Recuperation is therefore successful in resisting part of the consequences of economic crisis. But it also goes beyond that: these same workers, rather than feeling depressed and having their dignity crushed, are instead leading the way for others to take back control over their own lives.
As Makis, the spokesperson for the assembly of Vio.Me explains, it is not that one recuperated workplace will end capitalism, but the experience is a sort of flexing of the collective anti-capitalist muscle, building towards a broader experience of worker self-management that can eventually lead to a community-based self-administration of society. The vision is one that goes beyond resistance, towards the development of new forms of social relations.
The experiences of the recuperations are vast and profound, challenging capitalist value relations and creating something new in the process. The challenge consists first of all in reclaiming private property and making it something collective, cooperative and common—challenging the very foundation of the capitalist economy.
Second, and perhaps even more important, is the creation of new values and value systems, distinct from the relationship to values and value under capitalism. Around the world there are many tens of thousands of workers directly involved in recuperations and hundreds of thousands more involved in the process at one level or another. This is already creating new relations on multiple levels, as most of these initiatives function through assemblies and horizontal forms of organization, creating alternative ways of relating and less exploited and less alienated lived experiences among those involved.
While these new relations break with the rules of capitalist production, they are simultaneously creating a new value-based relationship to production. Their rule—the rule of those in the movements—is not the accumulation of capital surpluses, but of affect and networks of solidarity and friendship. This new value is experienced at the subjective level, in the changes taking place inside people and their relationships to one another, but also, concretely, in the new ways of living based in these relationships.
As described by Ernesto Lalo Paret from the recuperated workplace Cooperativa Unidos por el Calado, the Argentine worker who visited the workers of Vio.Me:
This process has all of the problems you could imagine, but it has made factories viable that for their previous owners were not viable. Also, what is viability in a society so full of shit? An economist might tell me about the worth of something in terms of cash flow, but it is the person who is recovering their self-esteem, recovering their self-worth and self-confidence, who puts the factory back to work.