Fralib is a herb processing and packaging factory located 20-odd kilometres away from the southern French port city of Marseille. The previous owner of the factory, chemical and agri-food giant Unilever, decided 3 years ago to move production of Lipton tea abroad to save on labour costs. The 80 workers, through protest and boycott campaigns, have demanded that the factory stays open and, after this proved impossible, they decided to take production into their own hands. They have recently restarted the machines of the big factory to produce a test batch of linden tea based on local produce, and they are currently looking for ways to restart production in full capacity. It is one of a handful of European factories that, with or without a radical or transformational discourse, have moved towards workers’ self-management of production.
Video by politis.fr
The occupation of businesses by workers and their democratic management through horizontal decision-making processes is a centuries-old practice, that has however reemerged around the turn of the century -most prominently in Argentina, where currently there are about 300 workplaces “recovered” by about 15.000 workers.Can this model also constitute a viable solution in Europe, not only to growing unemployment and poverty, but also to the very exploitation and alienation that lie at the core of capitalist production? This was the main question that the first European “Workers’ Economy” international meeting, held on January 31 and February 1 at the occupied factory of Fralib, tried to address. The idea behind these independent and self-funded events was born 7 years ago in Argentina, with its 2-decade long tradition of factory occupations. Soon after similar events were held in Brazil and Mexico.
Dangers also lie ahead in the case of economic success. How can the workers safeguard the radical character of the experiment and avoid becoming an “alternative” multi-shareholder capitalist enterprise guided by the profit principle or using wage labour? In answer to that, many participants pointed towards the close relationship with the wider community. It is not sufficient for production to be worker-controlled, although it is a necessary first step to break the vicious circle of capitalist exploitation. Production should also be socially controlled, it should be environmentally and politically sound and grounded on the values of respect and solidarity.The workers of VioMe echoed these concerns when they announced that, in the statute of the upcoming cooperative that is aimed at legalising their activity after their first anniversary of workers’ self-management, they recognise the figure of the “solidarity supporter”. This is any member of the wider community that commits themselves to consuming a certain amount of products of the factory, and in exchange has the right to have first hand information about the struggle, participate in workers’ assemblies, and help in decision making through an advisory vote. A bridge is thus built between workers’ and social control of production.
When it comes to creating a humane economic activity based on equality and solidarity, there are no predefined rules. The workers’ imagination and their will to struggle for a better world are the only limits. The “Workers’ economy” event at Fralib was inspiring and empowering for everyone involved, and it might well have sparked the creation of a Europe-wide movement of occupation of the means of production and of workers’ self-management.