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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Toronto Elections Goes Canada Crazy, Notwithstanding

Woodhaven, Ontario       In Paraguay the frame of reference was constantly back to the end of the dictatorship thirty years ago and the process of rebuilding civil society, institutions, and a democratic tradition in their country.  Suddenly in Canada for the annual fall organizer training sessions and management meetings for ACORN Canada, I found myself trying to unravel the wildness of the Toronto election crisis precipitated by new, rightwing populist Trump-wannabe Ontario Premier and former one-term Toronto city councilor, Doug Ford, against a frame of reference that seemed more common to Paraguay’s history than that of Canada’s.

What’s going on here?  City council elections were set in Toronto since the spring in the city’s 47 districts.  Candidates lined up, declared, and away they went.  Ford, the new Premier of Ontario, seems to have become confused about whether he was elected or enshrined to the throne, and unilaterally ordered the 47 districts cut to only 25 without so much as a never mind it seems.  Commentators, pundits and politicians seem to ascribe it mainly to old feuds from his time on the council and his late brother’s raucous ride as Mayor of Toronto.

Of course, there was legal action by the councilors and not surprising there was a judicial ruling, and this is where it really starts getting weird as Ford channels his inner-Trump to the outer extreme.  The court ruled that the move abridged the Charter of Rights and was unconstitutional.  Judge Belobaba wrote in his decision that “It appears that Bill 5 was hurriedly enacted to take effect in the middle of the city’s election without much thought at all, more out of pique than principle.”  The Toronto Star summarizing the judge’s decision added that he “blasted the province for failing to justify the cut to council, saying it submitted little evidence to support a hastily prepared argument that the legislation would result in more effective representation or that it would make council more efficient and save money.”  So, the October elections in a little more than a month were back on in 47 districts.

The court’s decision upset Ford, whose understanding of an independent judiciary seems in tune with President Trump’s.  According to the Star story, he claimed,

“I was elected. The judge was appointed. He was appointed by one person…A democratically elected government, trying to be shut down by the courts — that concerns me more than anything,” he said, adding the courts have made him feel like “I’m sitting here handcuffed, with a piece of tape over my mouth, watching what I say.”

So, he claims he’s going to fix that and overrule the Judge using the “notwithstanding” clause passed initially to prevent the secession of Quebec from Canada and only designed for extraordinary circumstances, and never used previously in Ontario though it has been employed once in Quebec, Alberta, and Saskatchewan.

So, in the Canadian circus, Ford is calling the Ontario parliament into session to pass a bill to overrule the judge and is appealing Judge Belobaba’s ruling to the higher court.  It’s a US Senate kind of problem though, because Ford has the party line majority to muscle through his new bill, so no one knows what and who will really be before the voters in October so the only thing certain is that lawyers will be running in and out court.

When this whole democracy and basic democratic rights thing is not just under fire in Hungary, Poland, Turkey, India and elsewhere around the world, but in the United States and, oh my god, even Canada, we’re really in the middle of a citizen rights’ conflagration totally out of control.

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