A Profile of Worker Control in Argentina

Cerámica de Cuyo

In the worn out meeting room of worker-run Cerámica de Cuyo, Manuel Rojas runs a rough hand over his face. The mechanic recalls forming the cooperative after the company boss fired the workers in 2000: “We didn’t have any choice. If we didn’t take over the factory we would all be in the streets. The need to work pushed us to action.”

After working at the ceramic brick and tile factory for nearly 35 years, Rojas joined the other two dozen workers at Cerámica de Cuyo and began to organize into a cooperative. These workers were part of national movement at a time when Argentina was in an economic crisis. Across the country, hundreds of factories, businesses and hotels shut their doors and sent their employees packing. Many workers, like those at Cerámica de Cuyo, decided to take matters into their own hands. As the stories of these workers illustrate, the cooperatively-run road hasn’t been easy.

Cerámica de Cuyo is surrounded by vineyards and artists’ homes in the bohemian community of Bermejo, Argentina , right outside Mendoza. Dust blows around the sun burnt factory yard as I sit down with Rojas and his co-worker Francisco Avila. Rojas wears a weathered blue plaid shirt while Avila has a baseball cap resting on a head of gray hair. We’re in the Cerámica de Cuyo meeting room. The ancient chairs have crumbling foam cushions. Phone numbers and Che Guevara slogans are scrawled on the walls. It’s easy to sense the wear and tear that lifetimes of labor have had on the place.

In August of 1999, the Cerámica de Cuyo owner cut wages. Though he promised it was only temporary, the lack of money pushed many employees to search for work elsewhere. Some left the country in desperation. “The boss kept promising money, so we waited,” Rojas says. “We worked on weekends, waiting and waiting, but no paychecks arrived. We had to support our families, pay the bills and everything.” In February, 2000, all the workers were fired. A year later they decided to form a cooperative and run the factory themselves.

While organizing the cooperative, they had to guard the factory to prevent the robbery of expensive equipment and machinery. Neighbors helped the workers out at this critical time, providing food, firewood and blankets. “Workers from other cooperatives came to the factory with classes, informing us how to organize a cooperative,” Avila says. “This kind of solidarity is common.”

Cerámica de Cuyo produces roofing tiles and bricks, and now employs around 32 people. Before the formation of the cooperative, the pay scales were typical, with the owner earning a lot more than the workers. Now everyone is paid the same amount and all workers have one week of vacation. Regular assemblies are organized to discuss administrative and financial topics, or to hire a new employee. Since the formation of the cooperative, they have also been able to buy newer machines.

“Before, the boss wouldn’t let us into the main administrative office. Now it’s ours,” Rojas says. “We go in there anytime to check on orders and be involved with that side of the business.”

We walk outside into the now scorching sun. One truck dumps off a load of dirt while clay is formed into bricks and tiles and sent inside to a massive kiln. Rojas works as an all around mechanic, fixing everything from fork lifts to conveyor belts. When we enter the main factory room, he is called from three directions at once with questions to answer and problems to fix. Steam rises from the hot, wet, recently cut bricks. The whole place smells like a potter’s kiln.

While Rojas works on a control panel for the conveyor belt, Avila takes me upstairs to his work area at the top of the kiln. Here the temperature rises by about 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Though it feels like a sauna, Avila is comfortable and turns up the radio to a popular cumbia song. It’s a dangerous job: “Sometimes when the electricity is shut down, and the gas keeps going, there can be an explosion, so I have to pay attention.”

“It hasn’t been easy,” Avila says. “Before, we were workers. Now we have to be lawyers, accountants and everything. Before, we didn’t worry about the machines. Now they’re all ours, so we care more about them. Now when a machine breaks down we have to wait for money and parts.”

Both admitted that one of the hardest things about working in a cooperative was that all workers, young and old, received the same wages. Rojas says, “Some people who have no experience at all are making the same per hour as those working as mechanics with 35 years of technical experience.”

Avila agrees. “Some workers want to earn more for working less. At the beginning it was all compañero this and compañero that, very glorious. But when we started working more, a lot of the conflicts broke out about salaries.”

Back in the meeting room, Rojas explains that now, whenever there is a problem, they all discuss things in the open, in assemblies. “There are always conflicts, but what’s good about it now is that we solve it together, right here.” He pounds his fist on the battered meeting table.

Benjamin Dangl is the author of The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia, (AK Press, March 2007). See www.BoliviaBook.com. Read other articles by Benjamin, or visit Benjamin's website.

3 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Jeremy Wells said on June 22nd, 2007 at 10:54pm #

    Are there lessons here for American labor movement and working people? The decrepit state of labor union leadership is such that worker management or control or cooperative management is ever discussed. As U.S. companies try to go chapter 11 to get out of paying for health care and pensions, etc. the companies should be nationalized and put under worker control before they are liquidated. Perhaps entire industries (such as energy (oil and nuclear) should be nationalized and then transitioned under worker management. Polluting industries that refuse to clean up their act, should be taken out of the hands of owners who refuse to transition, and then converted and run as a public sector business with worker management. etc.
    The current U.S. union leadership is so utterly a part of corporate management, nothing can be expected from them. A new labor party to replace the Democratic party should be created with demands such as above. Top of the list demand – end wars and military-industrial complex budget reduced by 50 percent, retrain workers and companies to produce new public transportation, affordable mass housing, rebuild infrastructure. Don’t dump working people but retrain when not ready for retirement.

    Ultimately … to end corporate capitalism and privatization of the federal government, to end wars, to start on ending Global Warming, some kind of democratic socialism is essential.

  2. jsalvati said on June 23rd, 2007 at 2:42am #

    You leave out so many important details! Where the heck did the owner go? He just up and left his factory? If the business was so profitable that he was able to pay himself much more than the workers why the heck did fire them all, ending the business? And how did the workers gain control of the factory? did they buy it? was it just abandoned?
    Also, it seems a little silly to pay workers in training the same amount as experienced, productive workers, especially since it apparently leads to many conflicts.

  3. dlarsen said on June 26th, 2007 at 11:07am #

    it does seem unjust to pay all workers the same amount. the self-management of the workplace by productive workers is essential, though difficult; but to pay all labour at the same rate is unfair given the circumstances. different skill levels and training should deserve different full compensation, unless you are living in a completely libertarian communist system where people only take what they need and there is much surplus. argentina (and most of the world) is obviously not there yet. so in the meantime, a collectivist or mutualist system with proportional wages for work completed including experience/training would help correct problems until people’s culture and educational understanding became more fully socialist. the idea for everyone to be paid the same seems a bit dictorial and reminisicent of Stalinist “communism” (who of course made most people have the same wages except for the elite) although there are no party bosses usurping the system in this workplace it seems. jsalvait brings up many good questions that should be addressed as well.