It has been nearly five and a half years since a national uprising in Argentina exploded onto the streets of Buenos Aires in response to the economic crisis prompted by failed neo-liberal policies and IMF development plans. The economy’s collapse plunged Argentines in to poverty, unemployment and insecurity, and highlighted the harsh realities and dire failings of global capitalism. While Argentines rioted against the government corruption, misery and systematic inequality that plagued their country, movements of resistance were born. Worker recuperated factories, organizations of unemployed, and popular neighborhood assemblies sprang up in an effort to oppose the injustice of capitalism.
The recuperated factory movement continues to be a source of inspiration. In a trend that The Economist magazine described as a “testament to the erosion of property rights,” worker self-management has risen to the forefront as a means to resist the instability of capitalism. Indeed, throughout Argentina workers have struggled to take control of production, safeguard jobs, and operate without bosses. In the process of challenging the capitalist mode of production, many recuperated enterprises have attempted to transform a culture of competition, instability and fear in to one of solidarity, equality and cooperation. This summer, I visited several recuperated enterprises and talked with cooperative workers about the experiences they have had taking back their livelihoods.
Una Empresa Nacional
The Bauen Hotel has become an important symbol of the recuperated factory movement in the city of Buenos Aires. After the previous owners fired workers and shut down, around 40 employees decided to take it back and, with the help of other worker cooperatives and social activists, occupied the hotel in 2003. Since then the workers have struggled to get the hotel up and running while operating it democratically and under principles of fairness and equality. “That’s the idea,” said Jorge, a Bauen employee, “to keep it as democratic as possible and free of exploitation.” Despite the hotel workers’ resourcefulness, they continue to operate in opposition to the state. The hotel has fought for legality while drawing strength and support from social and political groups. “While we may not have legality,” Federico from the hotel explained, “we have community legitimacy.”
Bauen’s present is especially striking upon consideration of its past. Opened in 1978 — during the height of the brutal military dictatorship responsible for the implementation of neo-liberal policies, violent state repression, torture, and the disappearance of at least 30,000 Argentine citizens deemed “subversive” by the regime — the hotel was considered a symbol of the ruling elite. Later, the hotel served as the prime gathering point for the movers and shakers in international business and the corrupt politicians who did their bidding. “[Ex-President] Menem and all the other scum hung out here,” said Jorge about the hotelŐs roots. Indeed, gazing at the commanding view offered by one of the top floor suites, one can imagine the owners of capital and political power looking down at the city like lords over their kingdom. But now the hotel belongs to its workers and instead of exploitation and inequality the hotel represents a more egalitarian and just social vision.
“After the economic collapse in 2001,” described Federico, “tourists started flooding in due to the decreasing value of the peso. We saw that we could survive were others couldn’t.” The Bauen workers were able to, somewhat ironically, use the detrimental economic effects of neo-liberal policies to defend their livelihoods as workers and resist the system itself. “No one can say that we aren’t revolutionary,” he said, “when we charge some yuppie 2000 pesos for a room — enough to pay a worker’s monthly salary.” Since taking the business over in response to mass unemployment and instability, Bauen has been able to hire over a hundred new workers. “Yeah, I like working here,” a worker named Lucio said, “You have the ability to learn new things.” Rather than the suspicion and individualism that pervades most capitalist workplaces, knowledge sharing and skills training are encouraged at the hotel and viewed as being in all of the workers’ collective interest.
An important aspect of the hotel is the space it provides for worker organizations, various social and political groups, and cultural activities. Solidarity permeates throughout Bauen and it has become a meeting place and organizational center for different worker and community groups. The city’s subway workers used the hotel as a strike headquarters, eventually winning concessions in their struggle for increased wages and shorter hours. The hotel lobby itself displays Bauen’s links of support with other cooperatives. A worker run shoe cooperative displays sneakers in the front window and the hotel’s cafe sports sparkling floor tile from the Zanon ceramics factory — whose workers stay at Bauen without charge when they make the trek to Buenos Aires from Neuquen. In addition to occupying and running the hotel, the workers at Bauen support the production of working class culture and powerful murals of class struggle line the walls of the hotel lobby. On the weekends, musical performances and film screenings take stage. There are also radio programs and theatrical productions put on at the hotel on a regular basis.
“The only politics I have is work,” said Fermin, a worker at the recuperated Chilavert printing press in the Buenos Aires neighborhood of Pompeya. “I don’t think it’s right that the boss gets fat while workers suffer.” The Chilavert factory was occupied in 2002 after the previous owner fired employees, defaulted on back pay that he had promised workers, and — upon claiming bankruptcy and squandering the workerŐs pension funds — attempted to illegally sell off printing machines. After putting up with the lies, unpaid wages and liquidation of their livelihood, the 8 remaining employees, with support from the community and other worker cooperatives, claimed their ownership rights as workers and took over the plant. “I spent most of the occupation in the kitchen,” chuckled Fermin before describing how the occupying workers stood down a police backed eviction attempt. “I called the news and told them that if the police came in it would be a genocide.” Now the plant employs 15 workers paid roughly equal depending on family needs and all decisions are made democratically.
Like Bauen, solidarity and cooperation are fundamental to Chilavert as an entity. In addition to the numerous printing jobs they take on in order to survive in the market, they also print pamphlets, journals and books detailing political events and the movement’s struggle. A striking example of how recuperated factories are transcending capitalist mentality is the cultural space at Chilavert used by community members and workers. Overlooking the shop floor, the space contains paintings, books, art supplies, musical instruments and a stage, all of which facilitate another kind of production at Chilavert — one that seems as hopeful as the prints and texts pumped out below. In the office space at the front of the shop, volunteers from the public university are building a library to document the movement’s history. The factory is a burgeoning center of cultural and political activity, surviving in the market against odds and championing worker self management and community solidarity as an alternative to the insecurity and crisis of capitalist organization.
Fermin has worked at the factory for decades and has been subjected to all sorts of indignities throughout the years. Being lied to be the old owner was especially trying. “He would travel all over the world and then tell us he was broke,” he remembered while standing in the factory’s kitchen. “Once I walked in on him in here with a big pile of money. He kicked me out.” When the previous owner went bankrupt he claimed to have spent his employees’ pension funds. Now, Fermin receives only a fraction of what he put towards his retirement throughout the years. But along with financial necessity, Fermin works to “keep the apprenticeship chain” unbroken and pass on the knowledge that is so vital to the continued existence of the Chilavert worker’s cooperative. Fermin’s story reflects the struggles and successes of the recuperated factory movement in Argentina, as well as the hope and possibility that they represent. Ultimately, the words of Natalia, a volunteer at Chilavert, ring true. “Being a worker in a recovered factory,” she said, “is a political position itself.”
While fighting to exist in the hostile environment of the market, some individual enterprises have succumbed to old hierarchical structures of organization and undemocratic decision making processes. The lack of capital, precarious legal standing, state hostility, and difficulties creating a sustainable alternative market, have put tremendous pressure on worker controlled enterprises and the ideals of horizontalism and equality. While the limitations and obstacles that the factories face in building a movement offering an alternative can’t be ignored, neither can the sense of possibility and hope that is offered by their survival.
The Bauen Hotel and Chilavert printing press are strong examples of how recuperated businesses in Argentina have struggled to survive within the market while maintaining and strengthening networks of support and community solidarity that resist worker exploitation and offer a possible solution. Over five years after the economic disaster that threw the country into depression and despair, their success at surviving in direct opposition to capitalist reason and transcending a culture of division and competition is both remarkable and hopeful.