Bio Me

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= in the northern city of Thessaloniki; the first worker-run factory in Greece.



John Restakis:

"Bio Me is situated at the outer reaches of the city where the urban centre bleeds into the industrial suburbs that have the typical look of nowhere. Just next to the factory is the vast expanse of a parking lot that surrounds the familiar blue and yellow bulk that is IKEA. I arrived here with Makis Anagnostou on a blistering Monday afternoon to meet the workers that had taken over the factory after it had been bankrupted and abandoned by its owner. That was in July, 2011.

Makis is a bear of a man. He sports a thick moustache reminiscent of Nietzsche, and intense brown eyes that give life and force to the passion with which he speaks, easily and at length, about his ideas and his mission at Bio Me. He is a workingman's philosopher. And although he has no formal title, he has emerged as a spokesman for the group.

On my arrival in Thessaloniki, Makis picked me up on a monstrous Kawasaki that carried us off growling through the streets of the city in search of food and a quiet place to talk. He was warm and hospitable and open in that way that only Greeks can be as he related to me the remarkable story of Bio Me.

Bio Me produced industrial adhesives and glues for the ceramics industry. It was profitable. Between 2000 and 2006 sales doubled and European revenues held steady despite the recession. Bio Me was at this time one of the top twenty firms of Northern Greece.

But the factory was also part of a company group whose owner had taken on a debt of nearly three million euros to finance expenditures at Filkera & Johnson, the mother company. This debt was being financed wholly from the revenues of Bio Me. In addition, the holding company was carrying an existing debt of 35 million euros that became impossible to pay when the crisis hit. By April 2009, the revenues of the company were no longer sufficient to carry both the debt and operating costs. Bio Me was unable to pay its workers.

The workers at the factory feared for their jobs. They had seen what was happening and alerted the owner that not only was the factory being put at risk, but that it was unethical to imperil in this way the livelihoods of its employees. During this period, through cost-cutting measures initiated by the workers, Bio Me was able to slowly close the gap owed to workers.

But on July 27, their worst fears were realized when the owner abandoned the factory and disappeared with the debt still unpaid. The board of directors disappeared shortly after. It was a factory without a head.

Despite this, the Bio Me employees continued to work to try and save the company. To raise revenue, they started a recycling program that netted them over 36 tons in waste paper alone. By selling this and other recyclable waste the factory earned enough money to help pay for the essential living costs of workers who were in most desperate need of help. There were fears that some might take their lives, as had been happening with frightening frequency throughout Greece.

The idea to form a co-operative took root soon after a small group of workers, Makis among them, began meeting to discuss how to save their jobs. They understood that a factory operating under direct worker control had to be run along entirely different lines.

Co-operatives have a long, and largely forgotten, history in Greece. During the Ottoman era co-ops played a crucial role in the Greek war of independence by using their capital to provide arms and supplies for the guerrilla bands that led the revolt against Turkish rule. Nearly a century before Rochdale in the UK, the residents of the small mountain village of Ambelakia just south of Thessaloniki, organized what is now regarded as the world's first modern co-operative.

The Common Company of Ambelakia managed the production and shared the profits from the sale of the scarlet red yarn that was famous in that region. In 1780 more than 6,000 residents of this village -- men, women, and children -- owned shares in a community co-op that had 24 workshops, warehouses, laundries, dyeing facilities, as well as trading agents and co-op branches in Vienna, Trieste, Dresden, Hamburg, Amsterdam and London where the yarn was brought to market by the co-op's own ship, the "Calypso."

What Makis and his friends found as they sought a solution to their employment problem was that, in this time of crisis, the co-op was being rediscovered.

They were inspired by the example of the coffee house where they regularly met -- it was owned and operated by the young employees who worked there. If they can do it, they reasoned, why can't we? They took the proposal to a Bio Me workers' meeting.

"Everyone was there," Makis said. "Forty-two workers. When a vote was taken to form a co-operative to save the plant, 98 per cent voted in favour."

Today there are between 25 and 30 workers who work for the co-op. Everyone receives the same pay regardless of what they do or how long they have been there. All decisions are made in a general assembly by those who are present. And everyday brings with it a host of difficulties and obstacles to overcome. When I was there, the issue of the hour was how to prevent the electricity from being shut off." (