VioMe

mural

Athens      Perhaps nothing so epitomizes the “crisis” in Greece, as it is universally called, than the VioMe, 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 VioMe.  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 VioMe.  Banks in the new political economy of Greece had now displaced workers as the primary debt holders, endangering the future of VioMe.  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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Life Stirring in “Remnant” Unions in Pacific Northwest

public lands in Seattle for housing

Corvallis    Driving through rush hour on both sides of Portland early in the morning in route to Oregon State University I was listening to an interview on KBOO, the 50-year old community radio station broadcasting from that city.  The interview was with a professor at Berklee Music College in the Boston area who didn’t teach music but political science.  He had written a book he was promoting about eco-socialism, and they were discussing it enthusiastically.  At one point, the host mentioned the Dakota Pipelines fight in 2017, and the fact that a number of building and trades unions had supported the pipeline against the native peoples and many progressive groups.  He bemoaned the fact that what he called “remnant unions” were so often on the wrong side of environmental issues.

Remnant unions?!?  Wow, we think of the fact that unions are embattled, losing court cases, fee payers, and overall density of membership compared to total jobs, but even though we know intellectually that only one in twelve workers are now in unions, there’s something about calling these once mighty workers’ organizations “remnants,” like they are the last of a dying breed, that is a gut punch.

Talking to union organizers and activists at the screening of “The Organizer” in Seattle at Southside Commons organized by LeeAnn Hall, Derek Birnie, and Jonathan Rosenblum and sponsored by SEIU locals, UAW, One America, and others and listening to the questions after the documentary was reassuring though.  There’s still life stirring in unions on the coast.

I caught up with an organizer involved in a UAW drive at Tesla in Fremont, California for the last three years, who was hopeful given worker response to the Elon Musk craziness of recent weeks.  He reported that they were more upset about the constant pressure on production and confused about the hundreds of “volunteers” who are Tesla-fan-owners who come in to help boost sales at the end of every quarter for this desperate company.  Another big bunch, also with the UAW, was organizing student teachers and adjuncts at the University of Washington, and were raring to go.

An organizer from California told me about working closely with ACCE, the former California ACORN, on trying to unravel the impacts of Prop 13, finally!  He was more discouraging on the prospects of the coming statewide referendum that would allow cities to enact rent control in California cities that ACCE has been leading, but it’s still a fight, so no one can count them out yet.

An organizer reported booming out to work with the great provincial union and ACORN ally in Canada and internationally, the British Columbia Government Employees Union.  He had his hand in the municipal elections there as well as being blown away about the progress BCGEU has made in achieving over 50% density among casino workers in BC.  Ok, that’s Canada, but getting back to the US, I caught up with old comrades with SEIU as well.  One organizer told me about the plans moving forward for SEIU to spearhead a project to build 500 units of affordable housing in Seattle where average housing sale prices have been astronomical and have priced workers out of the city.  They had convinced the Washington State legislature to allowing surplus state land to be used for such publicly beneficial purposes for free, rather than requiring market price acquisition, making such projects feasible, which could be a real breakthrough for both labor and the community.

In the questions and comments part of the screening, people advocated for hard discussions about mistakes we were making in organizing and a clear-headed evaluation of our organizing models.  I even got a great question about organizing in Argentina! For sure, there’s still signs along the Pacific of union revival, but it was also clear why I support these screenings.  They are great organizing tools to bring the community of organizers together, and that gives me hope on many different fronts as well.

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