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Worker-Run Cooperatives in Buenos Aires
D uring the economic crisis of 2001, when politicians and banks failed, many Argentines took matters into their own hands. Poverty, homelessness, and unemployment were countered with barter systems and grassroots, micro- credit lending programs. Community groups were created to provide solidarity, food, and support in neighborhoods across the country.
Perhaps the most well known of these initiatives was the recuperation of bankrupt factories and business, which were occupied by workers and run cooperatively. There are roughly 200 worker-run factories and businesses in Argentina (most of them started in the midst of the 2001 crisis); 15,000 people work in these cooperatives and the businesses range from car part factories to rubber balloon producers. Two recuperated businesses with stories that are representative of this movement are the Hotel Bauen and the Chilavert book publishing factory.
H otel Bauen first opened during the military dictatorship in 1978 when Buenos Aires hosted the World Cup. From that time on, the hotel was a meeting place for big business owners, people connected to the dictatorship, and politicians, such as former Argentine President Carlos Menem. Ironically, since the worker takeover in 2003, Hotel Bauen has been the meeting place for left-leaning activists groups and union members. Recently, the city’s subway workers went on strike and much of their decision making and organizing was coordinated from the hotel.
Marcelo Iurcovich ran the hotel for years until 1997, when he sold it to Solaris, a Chilean company. In 2001 the hotel went bankrupt and on December 21, Solaris fired all of its workers. The majority of the 90 employees went without work for 12 to 14 months. “Our decision to take over the hotel wasn’t capricious,” explained Horacio Lalli, a member of the hotel’s cooperative. “A lot of the people here were fathers and mothers of families. There was no work. We had to do something, so after a lot of meetings we decided to take the hotel back.”
On March 21, 2003 Hotel Bauen’s workers gathered at night at the intersection of the streets Corrientes and Calloa in downtown Buenos Aires. They walked the short distance to the hotel and entered the building. Cheers filled the air. They had succeeded in the first step of the recuperation process: occupy.
The hotel was far from being in working condition. A lot of the material and equipment had been sold by the previous owners or stolen. The workers still faced months of hard work getting the hotel back on its feet. “Throughout this time businesses and students in Buenos Aires helped us out by gathering money for us so we could eat,” Lalli explained. “Yet we were afraid the hotel bosses would come back and kick us out. This period of time was full of fear.”
It took the workers until August 2004 to reopen the hotel. To this day, the fate of the hotel remains in the hands of a judge. According to Lalli, the judge will probably decide that the workers need to pay rent or buy it from the previous owner.
In the meantime, the hotel is back in business. Though it is still not entirely in working order, it is a bustling center for political and cultural events and generates enough profit to keep the operation going. The workers are running their business as a cooperative. Not everyone gets the same salary, but all major decisions are made in assemblies attended by all the hotel’s workers.
Fabio Resino has been working at the hotel since it was taken over by the workers in 2003. “If the hotel had been running cooperatively for years it would not have closed. There was a lot of corruption and bad management with the previous owner,” he explained. “You could ask all 90 people that work here today and they’d all respond that they prefer this system to working for one boss. It takes more time this way, you have to work for more hours with fewer resources, but it’s worth it.
“Before, we worked for a boss,” he continued. “Now we work for ourselves. When it is a cooperative, you want to work better because it is your business, your own process. Before, workers were numbers. Now we are people.”
T he Chilavert book publishing factory is located outside the center of Buenos Aires in a quiet neighborhood. On the front of the building is a colorful mural which contains the slogan of the recuperated business movement: “Occupy, Resist, Produce.”
The factory is divided into offices, a kitchen, a cultural center, and a large area full of printing and book binding machines. The machines vary in age; some of them are from the 1950s and the newer ones are from the 1970s. People of all ages work or help organize community events. One woman works in the cultural center on the second floor; another sorts articles for a journal Chilavert produces. A musician stops by to use the computer to print a flier for one of his concerts. Teenagers work as interns and learn the intricacies of book layout and design. Towards the end of the day, dozens of people show up for salsa classes in the cultural center. The factory has a festive, communal feel to it, but work still goes on—a book of poetry and a science textbook were being produced.
The factory started in 1923. It was then called Gaglianone after the family who ran the business for decades. Gaglianone was well known in Buenos Aires as a producer of high quality art books and material for the major theaters in the city. However, in the 1990s the business had less and less work and a lot of the equipment was sold, salaries were lowered, and people were fired. In April 2002, the factory closed its doors.
Out of necessity and a desire to keep their place of work functioning, the workers decided to occupy the factory and rename it Chilavert, after the street it is on. At the beginning of the occupation, they clandestinely produced books (as illegal occupants of the building, it was against the law to do so). After producing them, they snuck the books through a hole in the factory’s wall and into the neighbor’s house. Though the hole has since been repaired, Chilavert workers have proudly placed a frame around this exposed brick section of the wall.
A climactic moment came on May 24, 2002 when eight patrol cars, dozens of police, eight assault vehicles, two ambulances, and one fire truck showed up at Chilavert to kick the workers out. The 8 workers occupying the building were accompanied by nearly 300 other people, including neighbors, students, and workers from other cooperatives who were there to help defend the factory. The massive group intimidated the police and when it became clear that blood was about to flow from both sides, the police retreated.
Occupy, Resist, Produce
C andido Gonzalez worked at Chilavert for 42 years before participating in the worker takeover. During an interview, Candido smiled often and was clearly proud of Chilavert and its history. He has been deeply involved in the business for years, especially since the worker takeover. After a recent heart attack he attributes to stress and overwork, he said he plans to take it easy. That didn’t stop him from attending the fifth annual World Social Forum in Brazil and participating in a recent city-wide subway strike.
“Occupy, resist, and produce. This is the synthesis of what we are doing,” Candido said. “And it is the community as a whole that makes this possible. When we were defending this place there were eight assault vehicles and thirty policemen that came here to kick us out. But we, along with other members of the community, stayed here and defended the factory.”
He recalls this fight with tears in his eyes, “It is normal for you to fight for yourself, but when others fight for your cause it is very emotional.”
Part of the local economy in the neighborhood depends on Chilavert for business. “We get transportation, ink, food, coffee, and paper—there is a paper factory 15 blocks from here—all in this neighborhood. Chilavert helps the economy and if this factory closes, the neighborhood suffers.”
Twelve people work at the factory and, unlike other cooperatives in the city, everyone has the same salary. Major decisions are made in assemblies and community-based activities play an important role in the weekly agenda. On the second level of the building there is a cultural center, which is used for salsa classes, movie screenings, discussions, poetry readings, parties, art exhibits, and dances.
Since the worker takeover, Chilavert has produced many books on social and political themes, with titles such as The Unemployed Workers Movement , What are Popular Assemblies , and Piquetera Dignity .
“Every decision, every assembly, every book published, has something to do with politics,” a Chilavert worker, Julieta Galera explained. “The idea is to make books and works of art that have something to do with our political vision. There is a lot of prejudice against recuperated factories in Buenos Aires. People think we don’t work hard enough. But Chilavert does some of the best work in the business.”
Though Chilavert is one of the most famous of the recuperated businesses, its story is still unknown to most Argentines. “We almost don’t exist in the newspapers or the TV programs because we aren’t with the government,” Candido explained. “There are some 200 recuperated, cooperative businesses in Argentina. That’s not a lot compared to all the others that are not run this way.”
Candido doesn’t think much of current president Nestor Kirchner and doesn’t attribute Chilavert’s success to any politician. “We didn’t put a political party banner in the factory because we are the ones that took the factory. All kinds of politicians have come here asking for our support. Yet when the unions failed, when the state failed, the workers began a different kind of fight. If you want to take power and you can’t take over the state, you have to at least take over the means of production.”
Candido pointed across the room to a giant safe in the corner. Across the top of the safe was the name, Gaglianone. He laughed and shook his head. Perhaps that’s where the old boss hoarded all of his money. “Now,” Candido explained, pulling out a bottle, “this is where we keep the whiskey.”
Benjamin Dangl is currently working as a freelance journalist in Latin America. He is the editor of www.UpsideDown World.org, an online magazine about activism and politics.
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AnnouncementsLABOR - May 1 is May Day. Workers of the world will celebrate the 124th anniversary of International Worker’s Day. Born out of a call for an 8-hour workday in the United States, this day is an opportunity for all workers to show their solidarity with one another, as well as to renew the call for labor rights.
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