headlines | about |

How Workers Run Argentina's “Recuperated Workplaces”

In a previous post, we described the process by which workers in 200 workplaces in Argentina occupied their workplaces and began running them themselves. In this post we will examine how the workplaces are actually run and how their workers are dealing with the managerial, economic, legal, and political questions that arise when workers try to run their own workplaces. Much of our information comes from a new book edited by Marina Sitrin called “Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina” (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2006).

After workers had occupied their workplaces and, if necessary, warded off the efforts of former bosses and police to take them back, what happened next?

In half of the occupied workplaces, the managers simply left. (Ironically, at least one survey has found that the workplaces are more productive in the cases where the management left.)

In many workplaces, the workers had worked together for years, even decades. The occupation and defense also generated strong bonds. Workers had the recent models of the highly fluid piquetero movements and the direct democracy of the neighborhood assemblies that developed out of the “rebellion” at the end of 2001. Their approach to running the recuperated workplaces similarly tended to involve a highly fluid form of direct democracy, though no single model prevails. A worker at the Clinica Medrano health clinic explains,

“Diverse groups of people have reclaimed their workplaces, and each has different structures, affiliations, and relationships. We’re politically independent. All our decisions as a cooperative are resolved in the assembly. Everything is dealt with there, even the smallest individual problems, like changes in our schedules. We do this partly so we don’t make mistakes.”

Both the experience of takeovers and the general climate of the broader Argentine social movement was highly egalitarian. According to a survey, 70 percent of the recuperated workplaces distribute wages equally to all workers; 15 percent follow a more traditional division. Workgroups who had extended conflicts with their employers were more likely to opt for equal wages.

The legal status of most of the recuperated workplaces is in limbo. A law concerning such occupations was passed, but its provisions are highly ambiguous. Probably less than a quarter of recuperated workplaces are operating under the law, and even they may not be secure because of its loopholes. Most continue to rely on direct defense of their workplaces and follow the slogan, slogan: “Occupy, resist, produce.” A coalition of recuperated enterprises are now campaigning for a new expropriation law to resolve their legal status.

In many cases recuperated enterprises continued selling to their established customers. There has been some small scale efforts at new marketing, often through neighborhood assemblies and other social movement channels. A Cooperative Assembly has attempted to distribute goods from recuperated industries. There has been cooperation within industrial sectors, with printers, for example, sharing paper purchases and loans. Recuperated workplaces have also participated in Argentina’s burgeoning barter movement. Printers, for example, exchanged services with a health clinic. There has also been some solidarity purchasing from abroad. Two networks have developed to help support employee takeovers, but so far they have been little involved coops’ economic needs.

Most of the workplaces were run down, with old and backward machinery. Most companies were heavily in debt. Most workers were poor, with no resources to call on for investment. Some have been able to accumulate resources, invest, and even grow, but most have simply struggled to produce, pay wages, and keep the lights on.

One potential source of capital could be government loans for coops. Some recuperated enterprises have indeed registered under the existing coop law and received such loans. The legal requirements for recognition as a coop do not always fit well with the fluid structure of the recuperated workplaces, however, seeming to endorse equal wage distribution but also to demand a degree of hierarchy in the workplace.

The reluctance of many workgroups to register as coops and seek government funding also reflects a deeper aversion to enmeshment with the state. Marina Sitrin describes a commitment to “horizontaldad” that emerged from the great upheavals of the early 21st century. This includes, but is more than, a commitment to direct democracy and self-management. It includes a rejection of the Argentine tradition of clientelism, of paternalistic leaders in neighborhoods, unions, and other institutions who serve as representative intermediaries between citizens and government officials. This rejection often though not always extends to political parties and unions.

After a convulsive rejection of all established politicians in which four presidents were forced to resign in one week, the government has begun trying gradually to reassert its legitimacy. At the same time that it has launched violent attacks on occupied workplaces, it has also given money, food, and buildings to social movements often started for resources. The recuperated workplace movement, like other social movements, needs these resources, but also sees dependence on them as a threat to movement autonomy.

More than seeking political support, most recuperated workplaces have oriented toward their local communities. Many have made their buildings available for community cultural activities, for example. A worker at the recuperated Zanon ceramic factory told visiting researchers,

“We always said the factory isn’t ours. We’re using it, but it’s the community’s.”

The community support garnered by such an approach we essential to the mobilizations that occurred to defend the workplaces. And the extreme popularity of the recuperated workplaces with the public has helped limit attacks.

In the long run, the future of the recuperated workplace movement may depend on wider developments in Latin America. There are over 100 such workplaces in Brazil and many in other countries as well. In November 2005, Venezuela brought together representatives of 263 workgroups from eight Latin American countries for the “First Gathering of Recuperated Workplaces” in Caracas. They signed 75 agreements for cooperation, including the exchange of goods and services; a Venezuelan tourist agency, for example, will provide vacations for Argentine newspaper workers in exchange for advertising. It remains to be seen whether the left trend in Latin American governments will continue, and if so whether they can continue to tolerate, or even encourage, such unruly exemplars of horizontaldad.

The recuperation of workplaces by their worker is not without precedent. In the early 1930s, for example, small teams of unemployed Appalachian coal miners dug small mines on company property and mined out the coal, while others took it by truck to nearby cities and sold it below the commercial rate. By 1934, some 20,000 “coal-leggers” were producing some five million tons of coal. Coal companies fumed, but community opinion solidly backed the coal-leggers – local officials would not prosecute, juries would not convict, and jailers would not imprison. Other examples include the worker takeovers of factories during the Russian Revolution and those in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War.

Whether or not such movements are likely in situations in which employers and government are not in deep crisis, they pose important questions for society. Are the present deep divisions between owners and employees, between managers and workers, really necessary? What capacities on the part of working people do those divisions conceal and repress? And what processes of individual and social change might help us find the answers to those questions?