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As unemployment continues rising, alternative business initiatives flourish.
ATHENS, Greece — Like hundreds of thousands of other Greeks, Dimitris Nikolaidis lost his job after Greece first entered recession five years ago.
The electrician used to work for Viomichaniki Metalleutiki, or VioMe, an affiliate of the country’s largest producer of ceramic and tiles, based in Greece’s second-largest city Thessaloniki. The factory earned $3.4 million in profits in 2009 and 2010 until the crisis finally forced it to shut down in May 2011.
But nearly eight months with no income have failed to dash Nikolaidis’s hopes. On the contrary: he’s back on the factory floor, this time as one of 35 workers who occupied the plant and restarted production.
“Greek people can’t just stay at home waiting for God to help us,” he says over the din of churning machinery. “If we don’t fight, we won’t change anything.”
The factory is Greece’s first to be managed by laid-off workers, but it’s not the only such initiative amid early signs the Greek business climate is improving.
Tourism is rebounding and bank deposits have grown 9 percent after falling 37 percent between 2009 and last June.
But even if the markets are no longer spooked by the possibility Greece will leave the euro, wages continue to fall and unemployment is above 27 percent, the highest in Europe, and rising.
The resulting social symptoms have dominated the news from Greece: rises in homelessness, prostitution, suicides and anti-immigrant violence.
However, the crisis has also given birth to alternatives to traditional market and production systems such as VioMe, whose workers took matters into their own hands after they found themselves “with no job, no money and no help from the state,” says Alekos Sideridis, another worker there.
They decided to occupy the factory after the company’s management and the government dismissed their proposals for maintaining production. They have become a symbol of workers’ resistance since organizing a cooperative last October.
Production restarted in February under the direction of a democratic workers’ union with no hierarchies. The workers are back in their old jobs, although now “things work even better than before,” Sideridis says.
The first months will be critical for the survival of the self-management system, which has seen the most success in Argentina, where the "fabricas recuperadas" movement emerged in response to economic crisis in 2001.
Thessaloniki has also seen the beginning of several farming cooperatives. Some 40,000 people have retraced their grandparents’ steps by returning to work in the countryside.
Among them, Asteria Chatziargyrou says the crisis is “changing people’s minds in two senses.” Picking peppers from a shared orchard near the city, she says although some are becoming more selfish, others are “deciding to join more.”
Chatziargyrou sells what she picks in one of the new markets run by a movement called “Without middlemen,” which enables farm workers to sell their own products. By directly connecting producers and consumers, the scheme avoids high prices imposed by traditional commercial networks.
The idea emerged in early 2012 as a protest against Greeks’ diminishing purchasing power. Dozens of towns have become involved by authorizing the organization of worker-run markets.
Some producers have also set up websites where customers can order products to pick up on days markets are organized.
The crisis has also prompted barter to spread.
A hundred twenty miles south of Thessaloniki, people in the city of Volos have developed an alternative currency to the euro called local alternative units, or TEM. Organized through the internet, its popularity across the region is growing.
The rules are straightforward. An hour of work earns 6 TEM. Participants start with a balance of 300 TEM and can fall no more than 300 in debt.
Everything can be exchanged through the system — from yoga lessons to food and massages.
“It works like barter but with the chance to save the value of your work and involve hundreds of people in the exchange,” Christos Papaioannou, one of the organizers, explains.
Other groups have chosen to keep the euro while creating “urban consumer cooperatives.”
In Athens, several new supermarkets offer 40 percent discounts to members who pay the equivalent of $25 to join.
The stores can offer such deep reductions because they offer products purchased directly from producers, like the “Without middlemen” movement.
Economist Christos Emmanouilidis of Aristotle University in Thessaloniki says the new systems represent “healthy reactions” by people in dire need.
“They provide ways to facilitate transactions in situations characterized by absence of liquidity, high unemployment and economic depression,” he says.
Although the schemes won’t help overcome the crisis, he adds, they help people cope with it. With economic output forecast to fall by more than another 4 percent this year, they also show no signs of going away.
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Despite the drag of ongoing austerity, the government has predicted the economy may start growing slowly as early as the end of the year.
However, Emmanouilidis believes that may be optimistic in a country where a third of the population is thought to be living below the poverty line.
“I understand the necessity to create a positive psychological atmosphere,” he says, “but I have not seen yet a valid model that generates such an optimistic prediction for late 2013.”
Back in the VioMe factory, the workers are aware of the difficulties.
“We’re going to fight and hope for the best, Nikoladis, the electrician, says. “Even if we don’t succeed, at least we’ll have tried.”