Workers Defend “Recovered Factories”
by Yeidy Rosa
When Luis Zanon decided to abandon the ceramic factory in Argentina’s southern province of Neuquen, over which his family had held legal ownership since 1984, the factory’s debt was more than $170 million. Following Argentina’s economic collapse in 2001, the Zanon family left the country, accessing foreign accounts that had accumulated millions, and presumably leaving the factory to become a forgotten warehouse with broken windows, overgrown weeds and rusty machinery.
But 266 out of the 331 employees of the Zanon factory–some of whom had worked there for more than 15 years, and all of whom were owed months in back pay–had a more creative response. They would continue going to work every day, producing the tiles and running the factory themselves. In place of the strike, where labor is withheld in protest, Zanon’s workers opted for re-inventing forms of labor and counter-power, where organizing emerged out of participation in lived experience.
Today, Argentina’s “recovered factory” movement includes more than 200 businesses that have been successfully producing without owners or bosses, incorporating more than 10,000 otherwise unemployed or underemployed workers. Threats of eviction, kidnapings, police violence, terror by hired gangs, direct opposition from local politicians and apathy on the part of Argentina’s current president, Nestor Kirchner, are all obstacles to the movement–and constant reminders of a weak transition to democracy from the military regime that ruled Argentina from 1976 until 1983.
As workers struggle to gain legal status for their cooperatives and full expropriation of the factories within a court system designed to protect private property, a network of solidarity has formed strong links despite the state’s repressive apparatus. A laboratory of democracy within the factories and their surrounding communities has emerged, where a concrete alternative to corporate capitalism has redefined success as the creation of work and social inclusion, rather than a measurement of profits.
The Argentinazo Crisis of 2001
The failure of the neo-liberal model is epitomized in the case of Argentina, as 20 years of unrestrained borrowing left the country with the world’s highest per-capita debt by the end of 2001. When the government defaulted on its $140 billion debt to the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and private lenders such as Bank of Boston and Citibank, the peso, pegged one-to-one with the U.S. dollar by President Carlos Menem (1989-1999), devalued 70%–forcing half of the country’s 37 million residents below the poverty line overnight. Once the jewel of Latin American economic prosperity, Argentina found itself with unemployment rates as high as 25 percent. Menem had doubled the country’s gross domestic product by privatizing almost all national assets. Despite a rise in unemployment due to downsizing brought about by privatization, banks continued to loan Argentina billions of dollars. On December 19, 2001, the citizens of Argentina woke up to find their bank accounts frozen. With this, Argentina’s working middle class nearly evaporated.
Over the next two days, mass protests and demonstrations were staged by groups of workers and large sections of the (now former) middle class, as a shocked nation poured onto the streets of all the major cities. Over the next week, the populace forced out a total of four presidents. By refusing to wait until the next election to vote the president out, the citizens of Argentina exercised horizontal accountability in its ultimate form. “Que se vayan todos!”( “They must all go!”) was the popular cry. Argentina was holding accountable not only individual politicians, but the system itself. Notwithstanding, the country was left devastated, as police repression left 35 dead, thousands wounded and another 4,500 imprisoned. Shortly after, civil society spontaneously organized popular assemblies and elaborate barter systems termed trueque, and the piquetero movement of unemployed workers organized protests throughout the country.
The Workers Take Over
Referred to as occupied or recuperated factories, worker-run factories, grass-roots cooperatives, factories under worker control, self-organized and self-managed factories or democratic workplaces, the recovered factories of Argentina are a concrete economic alternative to corporate capitalism. The pattern is typical: The owner, after a period of cutting back on worker wages and benefits in order to cut on costs and minimize debt, locks out workers and abandons the property, perhaps filing bankruptcy and liquidating other assets in order to salvage whatever possible. The workers, defending their jobs and livelihood, organize and prepare to occupy the property, opting to get the factory running again, rather than face unemployment. Working together with other organized sectors of the community, the workers gain support from students, unions and members of the unemployed worker’s movement known as piqueteros. Together, they stage demonstrations, camp out on the property and produce literature regarding their struggle. The space is then recovered and production begins. When state forces attempt to evict the workers, the aforementioned groups unite and collectively prevent police entry. The internal organization of the factories is based on horizontalism, direct democracy and autonomy.
This process is not limited to factories, as other recovered workspaces include clinics, book publishers, hotels, supermarkets and bakeries. A working-class solution and successful act of resistance, it has not come with ease and does not enjoy certainty or security. Legal attacks, death threats and physical harm have come to workers at many of the 200 recuperated businesses operating without bosses, owners or foremen since idle workplaces began to be taken over in the late 1990s. Yet of those recovered since the 2001 economic crisis, which left 3,900 bankrupt factories in Buenos Aires alone, 60% have taken on more personnel, employees earn more, and production is higher than at the time of abandonment.
Though unique circumstances surround each case, the dominant pattern within recovered factories is the practice of direct democracy and direct action, with decisions made in a general assembly and each worker having a vote and a voice. Some are demanding to be recognized as co-operatives while others want state ownership, but all demand a say in what happens to the bankrupt businesses.
Perhaps the most crucial issue the movement has brought to light is that of legitimate ownership: What claims do workers have over factories and the machinery within them, and how does this challenge normative notions of private property? This takes on a particular relevance, since part of Menem’s neo-liberal policies was to heavily subsidize businesses such as those now “recovered” by the workers. In this way, the factories were built and run with public funds and on public land, leading workers and community members to consider themselves the subsidizers of the factories and the machines therein.
Though the government of Argentina gave many recovered businesses temporary two-year permits to function, these have all expired. The Federal Supreme Court of Argentina has ordered the eviction of workers, offering instead government-sponsored micro-enterprise projects for 150 pesos a week (roughly US$50). In the recovered factories, where all are paid equally, a worker may earn up to 800 pesos. The workers’ response has been to lobby the courts to recognize the workers’ administration as legitimate and legal. Within the present legal limbo, it is impossible for workers to secure bank loans for machinery repair or replacement costs. In defending the autonomous management of their workplaces, the workers are also petitioning the courts for a one-time government subsidy of US$5,000 per job to cover start-up costs.
The Case of FaSinPat
In Neuquen, the Zanon ceramic factory has been renamed FaSinPat by its workers, short for “Fabrica Sin Patrones” (“Factory Without Bosses”). It is the best-known and most politicized of all the recovered factories, producing without an owner or boss since March 2002. The Zanon family, who gave Italian names to the tiles they sold, had never paid taxes, had exploited workers and had stolen land and raw resources from the region’s indigenous Mapuche community. Under the management of the Zanon family, the factory had between 25 and 30 serious occupational accidents per month and one fatality per year.
Since the workers recovered the factory, working relationships have been reinvented; elected committees oversee the running of the plant and all decisions are made in assembly on general consensus, everyone has the right to be heard, every worker has a vote, all workers are paid equally, and there have been no occupational health and safety crises. There have been 170 new hires as of April 2005, production is higher than when the Zanon family locked out the workers, and the tiles now have Mapuche names in honor of the factory’s neighbors and allies.
The workers keep the community informed and involved, and a space has been created within the factory for meetings, art exhibits, musical events and community gatherings. The FaSinPat workers have resisted five eviction attempts with the solidarity and help of the Mapuche, neighbors, students, workers from the piquetero movement, and even the prisoners of the nearby Prison #11–who shared their food rations with workers when they initially recovered the factory. They have also received support from the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo–the organization of mothers and grandmothers of some of the 35,000 students, workers, union organizers and activists who disappeared during the “Dirty War” waged by the military dictatorship of 1976-1983, who have marched in Buenos Aires’ central Plaza de Mayo since 1977, demanding to know the fates of their loved ones.
Each eviction attempt has been ordered by the Federal Supreme Court and, each time, the police have been met by thousands of people defending the workers. But the eviction attempts have become increasingly violent. On March 4, a worker was kidnapped and tortured in a green Ford Falcon–the same make and model that security operatives used during the Dirty War.
For one week this past April, bids were accepted on the factory in a court-ordered process for paying back the debt as an alternative to declaring the company bankrupt. Under Argentina’s new bankruptcy law such “cram-down” bidding makes it easier for private (often foreign) companies to take over Argentine assets. When the week passed and nobody had placed a bid, the workers at FaSinPat considered it a step forward in their struggle to be legally recognized as a cooperative. But the judge who announced the cram down suddenly made an exception, accepting a bid that came in after the deadline. The bid came from a company named Ocabamba SA. Its owners are the son and wife of Luis Zanon.
Some recovered factory workers have adopted the cry, “Stop Asking.” They have shown what happens when we stop asking and start doing. Their creativity has redefined their social and political relation to Argentina and the world, deconstructed hierarchical forms of production and social organization and challenged norms of legitimate ownership and private property–all through their refusal to allow their workplace to be taken from them. Their positive act of working has had the power to disrupt (neo-liberal) business as usual. Their experimental alternative to profit-driven production in their laboratory of democracy holds out the hope of new economic relations across the globe.
Shortly after his election in 2003, President Kirchner was visited by IMF managing director Rodrigo Rato. During the visit Rato said to Kirchner, “At the IMF we have a problem called Argentina.” Kirchner replied, “I have a problem called 15 million poor people.” Perhaps now, what is needed is for President Kirchner to act on the human rights platform he ran on and recognize the solution that Argentina’s own workers have forged.
Yeidy Rosa has a master’s degree in human rights with a specialty in Latin America. She is currently the administrative associate in the national office of the War Resisters League in New York City. This article was originally published in the June issue of Nonviolent Activist, the magazine of the War Resisters League, 339 Lafayette St., New York, NY 10012, (212)228-0450, www.warresisters.org.
Obreros de Zanon: Zanon/FaSinPat workers website
Grassroots Toolkit for Action on supporting the workers of Zanon/FaSinPat http://www.hellocoolworld.com/thetake/grassroots/action/urgent/
Online petition for the Zanon/FaSinPat workers
WW4 REPORT on Argentina’s political crisis:
WW4 REPORT on the legacy of Argentina’s “Dirty War”:
WW4 REPORT on the Mapuche struggle on the Chilean side of the border:
Reprinted by WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, July 10, 2005
Reprinting permissible with attribution