One day in May 2011, during the peak of Greece’s financial crisis, Alekos Sideris and his coworkers at Vio.Me, a producer of industrial adhesives in the northern city of Thessaloniki, were greeted with grim news.
The management’s parent company, Philkeram Johnson, had once been a profitable enterprise, employing 350 people and exporting ceramic tiles to 29 countries. Now, saddled with $5.3 million in debt, it was filing for bankruptcy, and Sideris and his 69 colleagues would all be flung into the job market in a country where more than one in five people were already without work. After more than a year of delaying paychecks, the company was ready to close up shop and walk away, despite owing more than $1.7 million in debts and compensation to its employees.
Sideris, a burly, now 51-year-old with a dense goatee, had worked at the factory for six years as a machine operator. When he heard about the bankruptcy, his first thought was for his wife and two daughters at home. “It was a huge shock,” he told The Nation. “When you hear that you are going to lose your job, you start thinking [about] the responsibilities you carry, like your family and kids.”
But rather than passively accept his fate, Sideris banded together with his co-workers to fight back. Forty employees decided to occupy the roughly 25,000-square-foot factory and continue their daily work, surviving mostly on unemployment checks. “The thought of leaving behind all of this and going into unemployment was never there,” he said. “We didn’t accept the debts of the bosses.”
After months of failed negotiations with the Ministry of Labor, and unsuccessful appeals to central trade unions for help, the remaining workers of Vio.Me cast a vote—and by upwards of 97 percent, they agreed to reopen the factory and run it on their own. By February 2013, the production line was up and running again, but it was now churning out new products: eco-friendly soaps, detergents, and fabric softeners.
Today, the Greek government, currently led by the left-wing Syriza party, is celebrating what it calls the end of the economic crisis. On August 20, the country will officially exit the European bailout program, but the working class, which has been devastated by a decade of crippling austerity measures—including pension cuts, shrunken wages, and tax hikes—has little cause for rejoicing. Unemployment still hovers around 20 percent, part-time work is on the rise, and the minimum wage has decreased by about one-fifth since the beginning of the crisis. Against that backdrop, workers across the country, including those at Vio.Me, fear their own crisis is far from over.