As unemployment figures creep up past 10 percent in the United States and Europe, workers are scrambling to find solutions to joblessness. Around the world, the phenomenon of worker occupations and boss-napping has spread as desperate workers resort to direct action at the workplace to prevent companies from firing them and liquidating assets. Workers have taken more radical measures in the fight against injustices brought on by bosses unleashing attacks against employees through voluntary pay reductions, downsizing, and firings.
Factory occupations have been used since the onset of the industrial revolution as a strategy for workers to defend themselves against deplorable work conditions, unsafe workplaces, and retaliation. Recently in Latin America, workers have used factory occupations not only to make demands heard, but to put worker self-management into practice.
In Argentina and other places in Latin America, workers rediscovered the factory occupation almost a decade ago in 2000, and occupations spread as the nation faced a financial crisis in 2001. Like today, growing unemployment, capital flight, and de-industrialization served as the backdrop for the factory takeovers in 2001.
The phenomenon of worker occupations continues to grow as the world falls deeper into the current recession. Nearly 20 new factories in Argentina have been occupied since 2008. Today, some 250 worker-occupied enterprises are up and running, employing more than 13,000. Many of these sites have been producing under worker self-management since 2002, providing nearly a decade of experiments, strategies, and mistakes to learn from.
On January 5, 2009, workers at Arrufat, a chocolate factory in Buenos Aires, got the news that they were fired. Diana Arrufat, owner and heiress to the factory, left a poster on the gate of the factory to inform the workers they no longer had jobs. The 50 workers still employed hadn’t been paid their salaries for much of 2008. “They fired us without having to look at our faces. They abandoned us,” says Alberto Cavrico, who had worked at the plant for more than 20 years. That same day they opened the factory gate and remained inside the factory. Now the workers are producing sweet delicacies without the supervision and exploitative practices of a boss.
The owners of Indugraf printing press shut down operations in a similar manner in November 2008. The printing house workers in Buenos Aires occupied their plant on December 5, the same week that workers in Chicago decided to occupy the Republic Windows and Doors plant (see “One Year Later: The Republic Windows Story”), to demand severance pay and benefits after being abruptly fired. Currently, they are fighting to form a cooperative and start up production without a boss.
Self-Management and New Social Relations
“The most important factor, and most subversive, is that the recuperated enterprises confirm that businesses don’t need bosses to produce,” says Fabio Resino from the BAUEN Hotel. The 19-story, 180-room hotel has been open for business since workers took it over in 2003. It operates despite a court eviction order and void of legal recognition. The hotel has been a resource for the new occupied factories; many of the workers from the new takeovers have come to the BAUEN Hotel seeking advice and support. The BAUEN collective forms part of a network of enterprises that are building democratic workplaces, community projects, and solidarity networks.
Most of the worker takeovers were initiated to guarantee that the owners wouldn’t be able to liquidate assets before filing bankruptcy to avoid paying workers indemnities and back salaries. Workers’ actions steadily grew from a measure to safeguard their jobs to a means of implementing self-management. With little hope that bosses would ever return to pay workers what they owed, workers devised plans to start up production with no boss or owner.
In many of the worker-occupied factories, as soon as the workers began producing without a boss or owner, relationships at the workplace were reinvented. The workers broke with the capitalist model of hierarchical organization, alienation, and exploitation. For some, this transition occurred smoothly, and for others the change was a difficult challenge. Asking what to do next and how to do it led workers to organize themselves in various alternatives to the capitalist business structure.
The recuperated enterprises have devised systems to democratize decision-making in a participatory manner, while at the same time competing in the market. Resino from the BAUEN
Hotel says, “Because there is no capital stock or boss, new relations are created in which the workers discuss and decide in a more or less democratic way the fate of the enterprise: how to distribute profits equitably, where to invest, how the enterprise is organized and administered.” In almost all of the occupied sites, workers are paid equal salaries no matter what position they hold or type of work they complete.
Where a capitalist business has a vertical pyramid structure in which the coordinator class gives instructions while workers passively take orders, many of the recuperated enterprise structures resemble a circle structure with working teams communicating with each other in networks. The cooperative model results in a more dynamic and horizontal organizational model that is socially viable rather than exploitive.
In many of these cooperatives, the worker assembly is the only “authority” in the workplace. The coordinator class or “administrative representatives” at most of the takeovers did not occupy as operators or non-managerial workers did. This meant that the workers had to learn administration and marketing, leading to challenges and mistakes but ultimately a greater opportunity for participatory planning within the workplace.
Conceptually, in a recuperated enterprise there is no capitalist, boss, or owner; the enterprise is collectively owned. For some workers, the enterprise doesn’t belong to the worker collective but to society. At Zanon, workers constantly use the slogan: “Zanon es del pueblo,” or “Zanon belongs to the people.” The workers have adopted the objective of producing not only to provide jobs and salaries for more than 470 people, but also to create new jobs, make donations in the community, and support other social movements. Work is seen as a social asset, not as an imposition.
Thousands of jobs have been created by the occupied factories. Nearly 30 workers occupied BAUEN when it was first taken over in 2003. Today, the cooperative employs more than 150. Maderera Cordoba wood shop went from 8 workers to 22, Zanon from 250 to 470, and Rabbione transport cooperative from 9 to 40.
How people are hired within an occupied factory varies. The workers at Zanon have had the most political approach to hiring. When Zanon began to produce under worker control, the workers hired former Zanon employees who had been fired. Later they began to divide the job openings for grassroots activists working with the unemployed (piquetero) worker organizations.
Many of the 200 worker-occupied businesses and factories in Argentina are being affected by the crisis. But unlike their capitalist counterparts, the worker cooperatives are taking every possible measure to avoid laying off workers. “We aren’t like the capitalists. You can’t throw workers out like they are lice,” said Candido Gonzalez, a veteran from Chilavert worker-occupied print factory in Buenos Aires, one of the first plants occupied after the 2001 crisis.
As Argentina’s economy slows down, the recuperated enterprises now have to figure out how to compete in a shrinking market. The social economy may be one solution to the deepening crisis. Within a social economy, cooperatives can function with greater autonomy than they can while competing in the purely capitalist market.
For example, with tourism slowing down, BAUEN Hotel has reached an agreement with FEDETUR, a tourist federation grouping more than 1.5 million associates from cooperatives and
mutuals in the region. Associates from other cooperatives can enjoy the services of the hotel at a fair price, and BAUEN can rely on non-capitalist customer base that understands the complexity and importance of working in a cooperative.
BAUEN can create income and a solidarity network outside of the purely capitalist international tourism market. Catering to a working-class clientele also helps the collective remember its roots as workers who lost their jobs.
The Federation of Worker Self-Managed Cooperatives (FACTA) has played an important role in supporting the cooperatives. FACTA, founded in 2006, is made up of more than 70 worker self-managed coops, many worker occupied and others worker owned, inspired by the recuperated enterprise phenomenon. FACTA’s objective is to group cooperatives together so they can collectively negotiate institutional, political, legal, and market challenges together.
As activists, women and men face many pressures, ranging from threats of state violence to fighting for legality for the cooperative on which their jobs depend. At Zanon, psychologists and social workers have provided services for workers and their families dealing with a range of issues that come with defending your job no matter the consequences.
In most cases, women in the recuperated enterprises are outnumbered by male co-workers. Some enterprises have hired women for “nontraditional” positions in the workplace, but in my observation women fill mostly “traditional” roles at some of the cooperatives. At some sites, women have formed commissions or meeting spaces to discuss the challenges women face in their workplaces, even when there isn’t a boss. Within these spaces, they also plan political actions with women from other organizations and social movements against gender oppression.
Workers from the recuperated enterprises are building new tools for action after nearly 20 years of privatization, deregulation, and labor flexibility, fed up with unresponsive unions compliant with business interests. Argentine workers occupied and started up production out of necessity. In many ways, the sites in Argentina set the stage for workers around the world to follow their example, by proving that workers can produce without a boss.
This article is based on a contribution to the Reimagining Society Project hosted by ZCommunications.