Worker-run Factories in Argentina

By Andreas Ramos

Two hundred factories and businesses in Argentina have been seized by their workers and are now run democratically by the workers. In the midst of an on-going depression, with unemployment still hovering above 20%, some Argentine workers have demonstrated over the past four years that there are other ways of running the economy.
The "recovered factory" movement began in later 2001, when the economy was slowing to a halt and millions of workers massed in the streets to prevent the imposition of martial law. Many companies, in a terminal crisis, were emptied, abandoned by their owners, or went bankrupt. In many cases the main creditors were their own workers, to whom months worth of already meager salaries were owed, or who had been fired without compensation. Confronted with permanent unemployment, workers began to organize and take factories into their own hands.

Taking over

At Brukman clothing factory in Buenos Aires, the owners started to accumulate debts, especially in wages to their workers. They kept promising they would have the money; they made them wait for hours for their paychecks and finally asked them to wait

another day, or another week. One day, the workers just decided they would not leave the factory until they got paid. The owners claimed that they would go get the money. The workers waited all night, the next day, and the owners never came back, abandoning the plant. A few days later, the workers decided to start producing again and declare the factory their own. This was December 2001, just a few days before the huge demonstrations that brought down the President De la Rúa.
At Zanon ceramic factory, the situation was similar: the owners owed the workers a lot of wages, and they decided to declare bankruptcy. Before the factory closed the workers just seized it and started producing on their own. This was much tougher than Brukman, as it is a much larger factory. All middle-administration just left the factory too, so the workers had no access to the computer systems. They are slowly reconstructing the entire administration. The situation here is harder on the judicial and political front, too. The government of the province of Neuquen, where Zanon is located, is in clear cahoots with the Zanons (the owning family), and they are more eager to send the police in. The workers have only survived because of the strong solidarity ties they developed with other unions, parties, and activist groups. Repeatedly, the police have surrounded the factory, and only by mobilizing the community to go and surround the factory too have they avoided open repression.

Birth of a Movement

In this way was born a movement of recovered factories that already counts more than 200 members, from small cooperatives like the bread-stick maker Grissinopoli to mid- and large-sized factories like ceramic producer Zanon and the metallurgical plant IMPA. The situation within the different companies is diverse: sometimes the take is declared illegal and the factory has to be guarded 24 hours a day by its workers, confronting numerous repression attempts. The workers in such factories are more militant and revolutionary, and many believe in a new model with no State intervention. They don't want legal recognition--their position is that they have their rights and they'll defend them by fighting. Other such workers are demanding that the State expropriate the factories, but that they be run by the workers.
In some other cases, new cooperatives are created that seek -and sometimes get- legal recognition.  The workers in these cases just want to keep their jobs, get better wages and enjoy more freedom, but they are not allergic to the State and building ties with "decent" politicians.

Making it work

But, most important, all companies are characterized by their horizontal organization, where the main decisions regarding production, distribution of tasks and earnings, are taken democratically in workers' assemblies. At least at the plant level, they are proving that economic production can be run democratically by workers, not dictatorially by the capitalists. Many factories have started grouping with others and gave birth to the MNER (National Movement of Recovered Companies), and the MNFR (National Movement of Recovered Factories), among others.
Solidarity ties within each factory, among different ones, and with the community are the keys to the survival of the movement. Many times workers have to spend days resisting repression, without raw materials for production, locked in, and it is there where mutual help and the solidarity among organizations becomes crucial and makes the difference. Sometimes solidarity takes other forms. Some people from a middle-class assembly in Buenos Aires took over a medical clinic that had gone bankrupt, and many physicians volunteered their time there. Soon, they became the health provider for the workers of occupied factories.
Another key factor has been the support by progressive sectors of the middle-classes that began especially after the economic collapse of 2001. With their mobilization power, mainly within the City of Buenos Aires, middle-class workers have helped prevent a number of eviction attempts and have provided links between the recovered-plant workers and legal-aid organizations, or health providers.

Ongoing battles

The attacks on the most militant plants, such as Zanon, are continuing, as is the workers defense of their factories. On Friday, March 4, 2005 a group of four individuals (three men and a woman) kidnapped the wife of an employee at Zanon. They tortured her and cut her face, hands, arms and breasts. In response, 5,000 protestors participated in a march to Neuquen's government house on March 8 to denounce cases of death threats, physical attacks and torture. The attacked woman led the march. Meanwhile, in Buenos Aires, social movements and human rights groups organized another protest outside of the provincial government's offices in the city's center.

No Permanent Solution

Such incidents make clear that the recovered factory movement is not a solution by itself-it cannot exist indefinitely in a hostile capitalist environment. Plants have no access to the capital they need to repair machinery or buy new equipment.  Either the movement will be a step towards wiping out capitalism and replacing it with a worker-run economy, or eventually it will wither.
But for now, after 2002's devaluation of the Argentine currency, new possibilities for industrial production in Argentina have emerged. Demand has grown, and big companies that depended on imports are not doing great. The small to mid-sized factories seized by the workers managed to adapt quite well to cope with the local demand.
Although the modest recovery in the economy stopped the growth in number of recovered factories, the ones already existing are starting to consolidate, increase their production and even incorporate new workers. Many evictions have been stopped and those organizations that wish it are being legalized as cooperatives. The movement is still alive and kicking.