VioMi

mural

Athens      Perhaps nothing so epitomizes the “crisis” in Greece, as it is universally called, than the VioMi, a former metallurgical factory in the industrial district not far from the airport.  In 2011, when the full brunt of the economic collapse hit the country and the Greek owner of the plant suddenly shut the factory down, the workers took over and occupied the factory to protect their jobs and in outrage that they were left holding the bag and owed back wages.  At the time of the occupation, the fact that the workers were the primary creditor made it impossible to evict them, though in the “new” Greece seven years later that issue has now become contentious.

health clinic

While I was in Thessaloniki my visit overlapped a festival being held on the grounds of the factory.  I toured the location and visited with many participants along with my newfound friends. Banners commemorating the occupation had been hung for the festival.  Murals had been completed or were in progress.  Space had been set aside in the cavernous vastness of the factory for large and small workshops and discussions about any number of topics from the political situation currently to the promises and potential of cooperatives, like VioMi.  There were booths and stalls assembled along the runway between buildings where local producers and some other cooperatives and artisans were displaying their goods from jewelry to wine to potatoes.   There was of course a coffee and tea stand.  The fire was lit for barbecuing skewers of meat and sausage.  Stages and sound systems were being set up for a final concert later in the evening of my visit on the last night of the festival.  People milled around, taking it all in.  There was a good spirit.

workshop

I visited a workshop run by Omnia.tv, an investigative journalism organization based in Athens and Thessaloniki.  They had dug deep into police attacks on youth.  Like similar web-based news sites in the US and elsewhere, they were stepping into issues where larger papers had deserted the field.  I talked to reporters with the public television station who were covering the festival.  I was impressed with their commitment to keeping the story alive.

 

The workforce had gone as low as eight, but had now somewhat rebounded to twenty.  Unable to repeat the prior production regime, now the factory produced high quality soaps, dish washing liquid and other bio-hygiene cleaning products sold throughout Greece and in some neighboring countries.  I had heard of this operation originally in Sofia, Bulgaria earlier in the year.  Talking to various people around the event, enthusiasm for the project was mixed with concern.  The crowds were not as large as they had been in the past.  There was no defeatism, but the continuing crisis had worn down both activists and workers who worried about next steps and sustainability.

Part of the objective of the festival turned out to be to raise some funds to support worker defense in coming court cases where the previous owner and the banks were now challenging VioMi.  Banks in the new political economy of Greece had now displaced workers as the primary debt holders, endangering the future of VioMi.  They were accused of taking equipment illegally.

Workers have responded similarly in other crises.  Factory takeovers were common around Buenos Aires during the financial issues there also triggered by debt.  These are valiant struggles to align priorities with people rather than profits, but the very nature of these fights makes the odds long without a rethinking of people as the first order of every business.

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Europe Really is Different than the United States

in line for donations in Athens by Crete farmers

Thessaloniki   The point is so obvious that it almost seems trivial.  Of course, Europe is different from the United States and every country within the European Union is also different from the others in history, culture, and often language.  No visitor fails to remark about the feeling in Europe of walking in ancient footsteps. Walking by a Greek column that is not a replica but an artifact is as common as remnants of construction during this Roman emperor or another.

Yet, the differences I notice are so much more than that the longer I stay and the more I travel.  If the wealth of an England or France seems eye to eye with the United States, Greece seems more like Mexico or even Paraguay.  Here people grudgingly say that the economy is slightly improving, but still talk of “the crisis” in Greece as the daily occurrence that they still feel everywhere.  University professors’ shop at the co-op store, not just because of a political persuasion but also because with their salaries have been cut to shreds, it is what they can afford.  Students who once enjoyed free education are now having to cobble together money to stay in school.  A sign in the men’s washroom, written in English, said perhaps too much about the situation, as the letters shouted “We Need Toilet Paper!”

The social welfare system is an entitlement for the unemployed in a way that US workers would find unimaginable.  Talking by Skype last week to a young man in Frankfurt, Germany about organizing a tenants’ union there, it was not a surprise that he was on public assistance while he tried to pull these pieces together.  For students the same is true and reduces the panic of joblessness and opens the door to opportunity to find a place whether in Greece or Scotland or France.

The political diversity of multi-party experience may seem fractured, but is actually invigorating.  Casual introductions that include the fact that so-and-so was a former Communist city councilman or that this one or that were key activists in the anarchist community or that this tavern owner or landlord or even neighborhood were well-known as anarchist strongholds.  In the United States such a comment would seem extraordinary, possibly subversive, and the subject of a special feature on Fox News, but in Greece it is so commonplace that it hardly bears mentioning.  Politics of almost all persuasions seems mainstream rather than marginal.  In a multi-party politics rather than a two-party system one has to cultivate a certain tolerance because it is impossible to predict where the party slightly left or right might end up your coalition partner in government or opposition.  The choices can both make or break politicians and parties, raising some up, and destroying others.

The nuances are almost impossible for a stranger visiting from afar, as I am, to navigate without constant guides who prove their worth by the paths they point both away from trouble and to the company of friends.  Being accused of having an “American perspective” is an insult and a caution.  Listening and watching for the clues is constant, because the lessons are everywhere and the learning curve is steep.  To assume something is the same in Europe as in America is a guarantee of falling over the cliff.

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