FASINPAT (Factory without a boss): an Argentine Experience in Self-Management
The workers at
We are proposing a major change in how a factory is run. We have built new social relations in the factory. We have built alliances with universities, unions, and unemployed worker organizations. Zanon is not an isolated experience or crazy idea, it is a concrete experience that a group of workers have put into action. Many people talk about Zanon as a laboratory for experimenting with workers' dreams. After five years, this is no longer a laboratory: we are demonstrating an economic alternative to what the capitalist model proposes.
Alejandro Quiroga, a Zanon worker
As the largest recuperated factory in
In 2001 Zanon's owners decided to close its doors and fire the workers without paying months of back pay or indemnity. Leading up to the massive layoffs and plant's closure, workers went on strike in 2000. The owner, Luis Zanon with over 75 million dollars in debt to public and private creditors, fired en masse most of the workers and closed the factory in 2001 — a bosses' lockout. In October 2001, workers declared the plant under worker control. The workers camped outside the factory for four months, pamphleteering and partially blocking a highway leading to the capital city Neuquén. While the workers were camping outside the factory, a court ruled that the employees could sell off remaining stock. After the stock ran out, on March 2, 2002, the workers' assembly voted to start up production without a boss.
Legality vs. Legitimacy
The plant functioned for almost four years without any legal standing whatsoever. By taking over an abandoned businesses and running it without any legality the workers questioned the very logic of private property. The workers put into question what is legitimate, the workers' right to defend their jobs or an owner's right to private property acquired at the expense of public subsidies and exploitation of workers? Using direct political action and breaking the logic of private property has been a key tactic in gaining legal status for many of the recuperated enterprises that follow the slogan: occupy, resist, and produce. When asked why community members should defend Zanon, Raul Kellerman who has worked at the factory for over 25 years answered, "because the factory belongs to the people and we defend jobs."
Since the worker take over the long-term demand at Zanon has been for national expropriation under worker control. However, the workers have fought a parallel battle in federal court for legal recognition of the FASINPAT ("Factory Without a Boss") co-operative. They have carried out innumerable political actions to pressure the courts to recognize the co-operative.
As part of self-management, workers have had to organize themselves to defend their factory. Self-defense against violent attacks has been the backbone of radicalization and production at Zanon. The government's response has been violent, using different tactics to evict the factory workers. The government has tried to evict them five times using police operatives. On April 8, 2003, during the most recent eviction attempt, over 5,000 community members from Neuquén came out to defend the factory. In addition, workers have faced physical attacks and threats. In March 2005 a group of four individuals kidnapped and attacked the wife of an employee at Zanon. They forced her into a green Ford Falcon, a model of car security operatives used to kidnap activists during the dictatorship, sending a chilling reminder of the military's human rights abuses. They tortured her and cut her face, hands, arms, and breasts. On all occasions, the workers' collective responded that they are willing to use their legitimate right to defend themselves and their factory by any means necessary.
In October 2005, FASINPAT won a legal dispute, pressuring federal courts to recognize it as a legal entity that has the right to run the co-operative for one year. As the October 2006 expiration date neared, the worker assembly voted to step up actions and community efforts in 2006. On October 20, 2006, the workers won a longstanding legal battle for federal recognition of FASINPAT for three years.
The phrase "self-management," derived from the Spanish concept of "auto-gestión," means that a community or group makes its own decisions, especially those kinds of decisions that fit into processes of planning and management. Zanon workers are putting into action systems of organization in a business in which the workers participate in all of the decisions. Worker self-management in
Growing unemployment, capital flight, and industry break-up served as the backdrop for factory takeovers. Argentines lived through the nation's worst economic crisis ever in December 2001. Unemployment hit record levels---over 20% unemployed and 40% of the population unable to find adequate employment.
Creating new social relations under self-management
As soon as the workers began to produce without an owner or boss, relationships inside the Zanon factory were re-invented: breaking with hierarchical organization, alienation, and exploitation. Prior to the workers' occupation, production inside Zanon was set to maximize the company's profits, reducing salaries to the minimum possible levels, cutting corners on worker safety measures and pressuring workers. This made it possible to keep high production levels, while having the least amount of workers on the factory line.
This changed drastically through the workers' union organizing and factory take over where relations inside the plant were socialized and a new culture of camaraderie formed. Maté (a traditional tea like drink) and the comedor (the factory's lunch room) became keystones in building new social relations. One of the assembly's first decrees was to permit workers to drink maté, while working on the production lines. Maté is a pillar in Argentine culture; the hot drink is prepared and shared in a social setting among a group of people. Workers comment that drinking maté hasn't slowed down their work rhythm, on the contrary the drink has served to bring fellow workers closer and discuss problems in the factory in a comfortable setting.
Conditions previous to the workers' occupation led to an average of 25--30 accidents per month and one fatality per year. In the years of Zanon's production, 14 workers died inside the factory. Since Zanon's occupation by its workers accidents inside the factory have been reduced to a minimum, with only several minor accidents. "With the owner, you worry and are pressured. Without a boss you work better, you take on more responsibility with consciousness," one worker comments.
Organization and Syndicalism
Former management kept the workers alienated, enforcing a rule that employees from each production line had to wear a specific colored uniform. Workers from the blue line were unable to speak with workers wearing a beige uniform, etc. Employees were unable to chat freely in the lunch room, changing rooms or factory entrance. Alienation served as a method of control, preventing workers from organizing union representation independent from company interests.
Carlos Villamonte participated in the efforts to win the rank-and-file union seat, organizing secretly in the late 90s. "It was very difficult to win back the internal union at the factory because we had to do it clandestinely. The company had a very repressive system. They couldn't see you in another sector, talk with fellow workers or even use the bathroom freely. Many times we had to communicate by passing notes under the tables in the cafeteria or walk through each sector making secret times and places to meet. We found ways to evade the boss' and bureaucratic union's control." One such way was forming a ceramists' soccer team. Between practices, games, and tournaments workers were able to strategize how to win shop-floor union representation.
The struggle at Zanon didn't start with the 2001 factory takeover. A shop-floor movement won union representation elections inside the factory in late 1998, ousting the old union delegate tied to the bureaucracy and the employers. In 2000, delegates from the rank-and-file movement won the provincial-wide elections of the Neuquén Ceramists Union by a 3-to-1 margin. Recently, Neuquén Ceramists Union assembly voted in favor of a new union statute reinventing the democratic principles and guidelines for the union.
Many workers note that efforts to win the rank-and-file union seat, organizing secretly in the late 90s helped them build the organization necessary to take over the factory under worker self-management. Omar Villablanca stressed the importance of union organizing during a talk with labor organizers from Greater Buenos Aires in 2006. "Zanon is what it is today because the workers recuperated the factory's internal trade union. If we hadn't won back the union, Zanon wouldn't be functioning under worker control. The Zanon workers learned from the lessons of the internal union and listening to workers from other factories."
The death of Daniel Ferras, a 22-year-old line worker led to a major union conflict in 2000. The company didn't have a nurse or ambulance on hand and Ferras died from lack of emergency medical attention. The workers held an 8-day work stoppage and forced the company to provide an ambulance on sight. Shortly after the factory takeover, workers printed a ceramic in memoriam of Ferras, a fellow companero who died from exploitative conditions inside the plant. The ceramics hang in several parts of the factory, reminding workers of the doom they were able to escape through direct action and workers' organization.
In his essay, Workers' liberation and institutions of self-management,[i] Tom Wetzel suggests that "if we are to create a society in which the people can directly control their lives, where workers run the industries where they work, the process of self-management must emerge in self-management of mass organizations of working people." The Zanon workers' experience of fighting for control of a mass union prior to the worker take over at the plant helped create a precedent of collectively self-managing a struggle within capitalist society, and help to develop in people a sense of their power to run things. In this case, the sense of self-managing a union struggle led to autogestión of a massive factory.
The Neuquén ceramist union assembly continues to be a central organizing tool for the FASINPAT collective, although the regional ceramics union is made up workers from three other companies that continue to work with a boss and capitalist model. The Neuquén Ceramists Union last year voted in favor of a new statute, which Zanon's newspaper Nuestra Lucha considers to have revolutionized the union. Under the new statute, union delegates and rank-and-file workers are paid the same wage, the general assembly is the ruling organ, and affiliation is voluntary, as are the dues paid.
Democratic Social Relations
Carlos Saavedra, a Zanon worker with over 10 years laboring on one of the glazing lines, says that every worker in the plant has equal standing. "For the workers the decisions should be decided by the assembly as the only authority in the factory. It shouldn't be like the old administrative system with managers, unionists or one delegate who decides what is to be done." At Zanon every worker is paid the same wage, with the exception of a small pay difference based on seniority, but seniority based on who withstood the old boss, firings, stand-off, and occupation.
The workers at Zanon have had the most political approach to hiring workers. Today, the plant employs 473 workers, more than 230 of whom were hired after the plant came under worker control. When Zanon began to produce under worker control they hired former Zanon workers who had been fired. Later they began to divide the job openings for grass roots activists working with the unemployed (piquetero) worker organizations.
Workers at Zanon have developed a coordinator system to organize production and basic functioning. Each production line forms a commission. Each commission votes on a coordinator that rotates regularly. The coordinator of the sector informs on issues, news, and conflicts within his or her sector to an assembly of coordinators. The coordinator then reports back to his or her commission news from other sectors. The workers hold weekly assemblies per shift. The factory also holds a general assembly, during which production is halted, each month.
Every month the bookkeeping coordinator gives an extensive report on the income and expenditures at the plant. During the assemblies workers decide how profits should be used. One month, the assembly voted on a pay bonus for workers as the production quota goal for June, 2006 went above expectations. Workers also voted in favor of hiring 15 new workers. Who will get the job is decided on criteria based on family needs, political commitment to the struggle, and technical experience. One participant also brought up the possibility of workers rotating to explore other areas of worker management.
While the factory has adapted democratic practices, many workers have found that smaller meetings have been more effective for workers to address specific concerns or volunteer ideas.
Women at Zanon created a Women's Commission (Comision de Mujeres de Zanon ) in 2004 after a national congress on gender and equality in the Coastal city of
The objective of the Women's Commission is for the women at the factory to build their own space to meet and discuss prejudice they face in a sexist society. Many of the FASINPAT women have triple roles as working women, mothers, and activists, with particular challenges women must face. Many of the workers have said that the Women's Commission has served as a space to discuss the challenges women face in their workplace, even when there isn't a boss.
The Commission also functions as a group providing solutions to different problems that come up in the factory, whether related to politics or production. One issue the workers' assembly has still to resolve is the need for day care for children, not only for mothers but the majority of workers who are fathers as well. The Women's Commission has organized specific activities like giving away decorative ceramic calendars in the city center, meeting with other women from social movements, and coordinating activities like a talk on domestic violence in the factory for November 25: International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.
Under worker control, no management or professional stayed at the factory. The workers not only had to re-learn the process of production but also other traditionally administrative areas like sales, book keeping, and production planning. Workers at Zanon regularly work with lawyers, accountants, and other professionals whom they trust, but the professionals don't make decisions. The worker assembly votes on technical decisions. Professionals have provided specific skills training for workers at Zanon. However, for many of the recuperated enterprises there is a deficit of trustworthy professionals.
In June, 2006 the plant produced over 410,000 square meters of ceramic tile, a record for the factory since the take over in 2001. "Quality control is the responsibility of all the workers," said the plant's production coordinator, Francisco Murillo who has worked at Zanon for 15 years. The factory has competed successfully within the domestic market, which is growing. Zanon ceramics plant is one of
Over time industrial buyers realized that Zanon workers had developed a high quality and low price product, in a market where most producers exported the majority of production. Many workers say the legal status of the co-operative has allowed them to catch an edge on the market by to getting rid of middlemen. Currently, the FASINPAT co-operative is invoicing all sales, purchases and payments with legal status. Unusual for industrial plants, Zanon features a show room where locals can buy ceramics directly from the plant with a discount.
Capacitación - Empowerment
Autogestión implies that manual and intellectual production is divided equally to benefit all collective members. In the factory, the assembly is attempting to implement a rotating system for manual tasks as well as tasks that involve conceptualization. In the midst of running a business and fighting legal battles, long-term production planning and training often becomes last priority. However, with production in full-steam and growing, the Zanon collective is slowly taking steps towards developing training programs. It is a political decision to make training and education accessible to all workers.
Some workers from the FASINPAT collective are working on several education initiatives, including a library. The assembly will vote on a project to build a library inside the factory for the 470 Zanon workers. Literature will include technical training books, history books, and other literature. The library may also serve as a meeting space for study groups where workers can develop writing, reading, and public speaking skills. A number of workers have pushed to develop training programs and production planning along with Neuquén's public
The dream for Jorge Bermudez, an engineer supervisor at the factory, is for every worker at FASINPAT to have the opportunity to study. "The most exciting thing would be for all the compañeros to have the opportunity to rotate in all of the job posts in the factory, get an education and train themselves in a technical profession." He added that workers assume responsibility to improve their factory, not for personal benefit. "One of the advantages of worker control and equal salaries is that workers who take on job responsibility chose to do so to learn something new, rather than pursuing hierarchy and a higher salary."
The Zanon collective has faced challenges to increase political participation of all workers in decision-making and street actions. In some cases, new workers and even some old timers have been reluctant to participate in political activities while off the time clock. Orientation is especially important so that new workers understand where they are working, the history of worker self-management and the importance of workers controlling their own destinies. Education and orientation would facilitate accountability and solidarity.
Education initiatives could help to assuage fears and reluctance to participate in decision-making at the plant. Sharing knowledge and developing skills would help to avoid dependency on particular people so that all workers can become effective agents of social change.
The plant has taken numerous precautions to ensure that every aspect of the plant's functioning is run by workers, especially communication. The workers' assembly quickly voted to form a press commission, made up of a small group of workers who do press work and have numerous tasks---ranging from informing local and national media of political actions in defense of worker control at the Zanon ceramics factory, to developing community projects, and informing the workers' collective of news at the plant. The press commission has transformed from a small group producing press releases and pamphlets, to a highly skilled political branch at the plant, producing radio programs, newspapers, a website, and videos.
Nuestra Lucha, Zanon's newspaper focusing on working class struggles began publishing in 2002. The newspaper which printed 8,000 copies monthly was an important motivator in coordinating workers' struggles nationwide. The newspaper stopped publishing in 2006, due to a drop in circulation and disorganization. However, the FASINPAT press commission has taken on numerous new projects directed to the community and workers.
FASINPAT hosts two weekly radio programs on local community radio stations. The programs have a regular audience who tune in to an hour long program featuring news from the Zanon plant, local news from social movements, interviews, live calls from listeners, and rock music. The press commission has made great efforts to start up a video program, so that workers can film and edit their own stories without having to rely on outsiders to produce documentaries. Grupo Alavío, a direct action and video collective has helped facilitate regular video workshops at the plant. Several workers have produced short commercial spots for a local TV station to promote the rock concerts the plant regularly hosts. Workers from the plant filmed Rata Blanca's performance, a massive concert held in the plant's stock lot, which over 15,000 people attended. The workers' assembly voted to copy over 500 DVD's of the Rata Blanca video to be distributed among workers and within the community.
Most importantly, the press commission has helped coordinate communication within the factory. Newsletters circulate among the collective informing workers of the plant's current legal challenges, news from the production lines, financial news, and updates from coordinators. However, communication could be improved. During assemblies some workers have disputed the need to put resources (monetary and human resources) into expanding the press commission. Learning communication skills like filming and writing has been a fundamental part of transforming the FASINPAT experience. In many cases, watching videos in groups or creating an effective media campaign has been instrumental in creating a new working class subjectivity.
Producing for the Community
Besides producing ceramics the factory has committed itself to projects like donating ceramics to community centers, building homes for working class families, hosting student field trips, and printing ceramic alphabets for schools. During an interview with Omar VillaBlanca, he was interrupted by a phone call from a public school teacher coordinating a visit to the factory. "One of our slogans is that we have opened our doors to the community. We bring the school children to visit to find out for themselves what a factory in production looks like and so they know they can build another kind of society," he said. In the press office at the factory, the walls are lined with thank you posters hand-made by grade school students. For many students visiting Zanon is a curious and moving experience. VillaBlanca said that the students usually ask a long list of questions. "The first question they ask is, ‘why isn't there a boss?'" The school visits have served as an outreach tool because most of the students talk about their visit with their families at the dinner table.
Zanon workers in 2006 inaugurated a home they built for a family who had lost theirs in a fire. Workers cried at the inauguration from the emotion of providing solutions for a working class family in dire need. The neighborhood only has one luxury, a church. There are no paved streets, gas lines, or health clinics. The FASINPAT assembly voted to build the home, concluding that workers must resolve their own problems autonomously from the state, political parties or institutions because the government doesn't want to resolve inequity.
Zanon has held rock concerts and theater productions open to the community. The massive concerts have been very effective in generating support for the recuperated enterprises. The concerts have received major news attention from media outlets reluctant to publish news about the recuperated enterprises. In September, 2006, more than 15,000 fans and supporters attended the concert mentioned above, featuring heavy metal veterans Rata Blanca in Zanon's stock lot. The 470 workers from the worker-controlled factory organized the entire event---building the massive stage, putting up posters, and selling the low-cost tickets.
One of the keys to Zanon's success has been the insertion of the workers' struggle into the community. According to VillaBlanca the workers have a lot more at risk than a factory. "First all the jobs are at risk, secondly the community work we've developed wouldn't be possible. Also we'd lose an experience developed over five years that has become very valuable for workers nationally and internationally."
At the factory's entrance, a group of art students have constructed a mural made of broken ceramics. The mural tells of the history of the struggle inside Zanon. It begins with men and women around a large pot cooking above a fire. During the months outside the factory neighbors, students, and workers from the piquetero movement demonstrated solidarity---giving funds and groceries for the workers' campaign. The prisoners from the jail behind the factory donated their food rations to the workers. Social organizations such as Mothers of Plaza de Mayo have acted in solidarity, some of the women who are 70-years old have declared that they too will defend the factory with their lives.
Zanon has formed a broad mutual solidarity network among local community groups, workers in struggle, and recuperated enterprises nationally and internationally. Unlike, the worker-run factories in
Ties with Occupied Factories
The Zanon co-operative, formally named FASINPAT, functions as an autonomous entity but also forms part of the Ceramists Union in Neuquén. Zanon is the only recuperated factory demanding national expropriation of their ceramics plant under worker control. FASINPAT does not form part of the recuperated enterprises largest grouping, MNER (National Movement of Recuperated Enterprises). Over 40 worker-run businesses---among them BAUEN Hotel, Chilavert printing factory, Pismanta Hotel and Spa, La Foresta meatpacking plant, Maderera Cordoba woodshop, and Zanello tractor manufacturer---belong to MNER. The Peronist MNER, led by Eduardo Marua, has been very effective in creating legal tactics for the occupied factories. Zanon regularly coordinates activities with recuperated enterprises belonging to MNER.
BAUEN Hotel, Chilavert, and Zanon have worked together in a coalition for a national expropriation law. The government has offered short-term solutions, giving temporary legal ownership to workers who have recuperated their workplace. This legal permit is usually granted for anywhere between two and five years. A definitive expropriation law for factories producing under worker control would provide legal security for jobs and allow workers to dedicate their energy to improving factory production and community projects.
On a local level, BAUEN Hotel has become a prime example of coalition building and development of a broad mutual support network. In the midst of legal struggles and successfully running a prominent hotel, the co-operative's members haven't forgotten their roots. BAUEN, a 19-story worker run hotel, has become a political center for worker organizations, including Zanon. The floor is covered with beautiful high-quality porcelain tile, a trade between worker controlled Zanon ceramics factory and BAUEN. Regularly, Zanon workers and other social activists put on activities and stay at the hotel while visiting
Many Zanon workers have had the opportunity to travel abroad and share their experience. Workers in
Representatives from worker-controlled factories and businesses from
The agreements between recuperated enterprises have had the most concrete impact. Even in the case of
Challenges for Autonomy and Autogestión
Workers at Zanon have maintained their autonomous vision while having to rely on the state for legalization and also producing within the capitalist model. The experience is so strong because the workers put into practice models for autonomy and self-management before using the terminology. They experimented with those ideas out of necessity, but their past experience in union organizing and alliances to working class organizations helped build the path toward autogestión. At Zanon there is a strong working class identity, that's to say they identify with working class liberation struggles. They recognize the social conflict with capitalists, with a perspective of emancipation for the working class. "Zanon represents a triumph for the working class and represents the possibility of organizing society in another way: without bosses and the pressure of having to serve somebody that takes all the money and leaves the rest destitute," says one worker.
The workers at Zanon are putting into practice direct action for workers' liberation that goes beyond demanding small gains for workers' rights. They are proposing something revolutionary, get rid of the bosses and allow workers to organize themselves democratically. This logic is intolerable for the state.
Zanon has successfully overcome state challenges posed such as legal battles and violent attacks. While doing so, the FASINPAT collective has turned into a major mobilizing factor in the Neuquén province. The local government has faced highly organized groups with broad bases of mutual support that Zanon has helped to build and sustain. Worker self-management in Neuquén has also helped build popular power among local social movements.
Beyond legal attacks,
The best way for the recuperated enterprises to survive is to create an alternative market for products produced inside the recuperated enterprises. Bartering products manufactured by worker-run enterprises among a network of recuperated workplaces and local organizations would guarantee that a percentage of production becomes profitable for the community and workers. Creating an extensive bartering market, could be one way to by-pass the capitalist market and directly benefit the community.
Almost all ceramics produced at Zanon are destined for the capitalist market. The assembly has also discussed the need to produce other products for the benefit of the community, even though ceramic tiles are used to build homes, schools, and hospitals. For now, the FASINPAT collective is focusing on using profits generated from the market to fund community projects.
Other autonomous solutions include generating funding independent from the state to help new recuperated enterprises get started. There is an urgent need to open new recuperated enterprises. A movement of recuperated enterprises could pull together a collective fund specifically for getting new recuperated enterprises started. This would be a solid motivation for workers to take over their workplace, knowing that they have support.
New Subjectivity and Working Culture
Along with defending jobs, recuperated enterprises are also creating a new culture and subjectivity. Worker self-management creates a sense of pride, self-worth, and control over one's destiny. Worker self-management has helped many workers around the world realize that they have the ability to build tools for liberation and fight against exploitive conditions. Zanon workers often say that taking over their work place and production has changed their views of the world and themselves as part of the working class. They know that they don't need a boss to run a factory or society.
Whenever the workers took over the plant, the factory or workplace became a physical space for liberation. A new working culture is being built in many of these spaces. Building cultural centers and holding concerts have been important strategies for the working class to recuperate its culture of dignity and freedom. In front of a crowd of 10,000 people, Raul Godoy, Zanon's union delegate greeted spectators and celebrated that the concert is being held without bosses or police at the factory. Through self-managing cultural events, Zanon workers have sent a message that the working class is capable of creating its own culture and art.
The factory takeover has been used for over a century as a tool for working class liberation. In many historical struggles, the factory take over was simply used to make demands heard rather than taking over production. The Argentine working class has been devastated from 30 years of intense neo-liberal policies. In order to implement the current economic order a military dictatorship had to disappear 30,000 labor activists and students during the 1976--1983 military dictatorship. In a moment when the Argentine working class is recently recuperating from the blows against labor laws and privatization, Zanon is proposing a model radically different from the capitalist model. Zanon in putting into practice a production model based on equality, direct democracy, and solidarity. FASINPAT is creating new working class subjectivity for the working class world wide.
The state has been directly threatened by the experience at Zanon. The process of transforming working class subjectivity is difficult to reverse; hence the state and capitalism push to prevent workers from building their own culture of dignity and freedom. FASINPAT has set an example for workers all around the world, a glimpse of how society could be organized after capitalism. What's keeping these experiences of worker takeovers from multiplying? This is the biggest challenge for workers at Zanon, the spread of autogestión outside the factory.
Despite political and market challenges, Argentina's recuperated enterprises represent the development of one of the most advanced strategies in defense of the working class and resistance against capitalism and neo-liberalism. Worker-run businesses have battled for laws to protect workers' jobs and opened legal doors for other recuperated enterprises. Many of the recuperated factories have built an extensive international solidarity network among Latin America's some 300 recuperated enterprises in
[i] Tom Wetzel "Workers' liberation and institutions of self-management" ZNet website: http://www.zcommunications.org/znet/viewArticle/4332 (February 27, 2006)