Workers without bosses at a turning point
In recent years leading up to Argentina's 2001 financial crisis, thousands of factories have closed and millions of jobs have been lost. Many workers have decided to defeat the destiny of unemployment, taking over their workplace and recuperating their dignity as workers. More than 180 recuperated enterprises are up and running, employing more than 10,000 Argentine workers at cooperative-run businesses, which were closed down by bosses and reopened by employees. In almost all cases workers took over businesses that had been abandoned or closed by their owners in the midst of a financial crisis.
Many worker controlled factories today face hostility and frequently violence from the state. Workers have had to organize themselves against violent eviction attempts and other acts of state violence. This impacts the workers and the enterprises as it means that employees have to leave the work place, invest energy in a legal battle and fight for laws in favor of worker recuperated businesses.
To counter oppose an uncertain legal future, many recuperated enterprises have mobilized to press for the government to resolve their cooperative's legal status. On October 27, workers from Renacer domestic appliance cooperative, CUC worker run shoe company, BAUEN hotel, City Hotel, BahÃa Blanca ex-Paloni slaughter house, La Foresta meat packing cooperative and Zanon-FaSinPat worker run ceramics plant rallied outside a federal court to push for a national expropriation law.
Many of the recuperated enterprises have functioned and competed in a capitalist market for years with no legal standing. Without legal support, many worker run businesses have fallen behind in competition, unable to catch an edge on the market and get rid of middlemen.
Since 2003, workers have operated the BAUEN cooperative hotel with no legal standing or government subsidies. Since taking over the hotel on March 21, 2003, the workers have slowly begun to clean up the ransacked hotel and rent out the hotel's services. The hotel re-opened with 40 employees and now employs some 150 workers.
Employees rallied throughout December last year to pressure the Buenos Aires city government to veto a law in favor of putting the hotel back into the hands of the former owner. The B.A. government refused to veto the law. If the BAUEN cooperative does not succeed in pushing through a new favorable law they risk losing their hotel.
A dozen workers from Renacer (Ex-Aurora) traveled over 5,000 kilometers for the rally in Buenos Aires, to press for the permanent expropriation of their plant. The Renacer domestic appliance producer cooperative formed in 2000 after the former owner decided to shut down operations, owing banks and workers' thousands of dollars in unpaid salaries. The plant formerly known as Aurora produced washing machines. For decades industry activity had declined in the region, which is the most expensive places to live in Argentina. Ushuaia is also known as "the end of the world," with a harsh artic climate, less than 500 kilometers from the Southern Artic.
"The auctioning off of our plant is a constant threat, we are looking for a permanent solution so we can produce our own products independently of the state," explains Monica Acosta, the current president of Renacer. Over 100 workers and their families rely on the cooperative, which hasn't been able to put out full production inside the plant. "Most of the expropriation laws that recuperated enterprises have won last two years. After two years, the cooperative has to go through the process once again and look for a legal solution in order to continue to produce." Without subsidies and much less a permanent solution, the cooperative has had to work for companies like Sanyo, piece milling appliance parts.
"There are months when we take home 300 dollars, but there are other months when we don't have enough resources to take home a pay check. After paying taxes and our costs we end up failing to meet our basic necessities," says Acosta. She also says that workers not only have to figure out how to successfully run their business but also worry whether authorities will pass a law to evict the business. "We have to do two things simultaneously: produce and struggle. We can't stop either, because the day we stop fighting or producing the recuperated enterprises are fried. We know that no politician in this oligarchic and imperialist state is going to permit workers to own the means of production."
Hundreds of workers from several other worker run factories joined the Renacer cooperative in their demands for a national expropriation law, including the workers from the FaSinPat cooperative. The workers from the ceramics plant Zanon celebrated a recent victory. On October 20, the workers won a long standing legal battle for a federal court to legally recognize the FaSinPat cooperative for three years.
The long term demand at Zanon is for national expropriation under worker control. However, the workers from Zanon have fought a parallel battle in federal court to legally recognize FaSinPat (Factory without a boss), their worker cooperative. 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 cooperative for one year. Earlier this year with the October expiration date nearing, the worker assembly voted to step up actions and community efforts.
According to Omar Villablanca, a Zanon worker who has worked at the ceramics plant for 9 years, FaSinPat will never put down their arms in the fight for a national expropriation law. "We didn't win a three year legal status for FaSinPat because the judges are understanding people. We won legal recognition because we [the workers] fought for the courts to see what we've accomplished. The workers are the only ones willing and restore a factory that was in ruins that had a million dollar debt that the former owner Luis Zanon left behind. We [the workers] were the only ones capable of creating jobs. Nationwide politicians speak of Zanon and the rest of the recuperated enterprises, but they haven't approved policies that would provide a definitive solution so that the more than 10,000 workers employed at worker run businesses can work without the pressure of risking eviction."
With legal status, the FaSinPat can concentrate on production planning, improve working conditions and community projects. As part of their celebration, the FASINPAT cooperative has invited workers to visit Zanon to learn that workers can function without a boss or owner. The workers' assembly has resolved that the body of workers is now in the position to teach other workers from the four and a half years of learning from worker self-management.
Though, Villablanca made it clear that even with a temporary legal status, the FASINPAT collective will not abandon their roots. "The first thing that we did after receiving the news that the judge approved our 3 year legal status was to vote in a our workers' assembly that we have to continue to march in the streets and to support other workers' and grassroots struggles."
During the October 27 rally workers from Renacer, BAUEN and Zanon expressed their solidarity with workers who days before faced a violent eviction. Over 50 police officers violently attacked 14 workers who were occupying a gas station in a Buenos Aires neighborhood. Two years after the owners claimed bankruptcy, the workers formed the Punta Arenas cooperative. They are demanding that the gas station be expropriated and handed over to the workers in compensation to back salaries that the owner never paid. Despite differences with the pro-capitalist lawyer Luis Caro who represents the Punta Arenas cooperative, worker run businesses from diverse groupings said: if they mess with one of us, they mess with all of us.
"Factories that close down are factories of death that kill entire families," said Fernando Velazquez from City Hotel, a worker run and recovered hotel in the coastal city of Mar del Plata. The occupied factories and enterprises are proving that they are organizing to develop strategies in defense of Latin American workers susceptible to factory closures and poor working conditions. While these experiences are forced to co-exist within the capitalist market they are forming new visions for a new working culture. "Factories that close down should be recovered by the workers and the courts must recognize the right to work," commented Velazquez. "We all deserve definitive expropriation because we are recuperating jobs and dignity."
Marie Trigona is an independent journalist, writer and documentary maker based in Buenos Aires. She can be reached at email@example.com