Friday, July 14, 2006

Bosses? No, Thank You! Lessons from Argentina's recuperated factories


Orginally published in Clamor Magazine, sep/oct 2005
by Marie Trigona

“What do we know as workers? That we aren’t going to save ourselves alone. We need to fi ght together,” said Jorge Benítez, an Argentinean worker at the ceramics factory Zanon, occupied and managed by its workers since 2001.
Benítez and another Zanon employee recently visited workers occupying a meatpacking plant to share what the 460 workers at the ceramics factory have accomplished. “It’s important that we become onscious of our necessity to unite and build common objectives as workers who are defend- jectives as workers who are defend- defending our job posts,” he said.

La Foresta, the newly occupied meat- La Foresta, the newly occupied meat- meatpacking plant in a barrio called La Matanza packing plant in a barrio called La Matanza on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, was built on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, was built in 1957. La Matanza, which means “The in 1957. La Matanza, which means “The Slaughter” in English, was built to house Slaughter” in English, was built to house workers working in the industrial belt’s meat workers working in the industrial belt’s meat market. In the past decade, many of the fac- market. In the past decade, many of the fac- factories in the district have been abandoned or tories in the district have been abandoned or have severely cut back their personnel. have severely cut back their personnel.

Nationwide in Argentina, thousands of Nationwide in Argentina, thousands of factories have closed and millions of jobs factories have closed and millions of jobs have been lost in recent years. Today, unemployment stands at 19.5 percent and underemployment at nearly 16 percent, meaning that over a third of workers (approximately
5.2 million) cannot fi nd adequate employment. Half of the population lives in poverty. But many compañeros have stood up to resist against this destiny.

For nearly 50 years meat-processing has been the lifeblood of La Matanza, with generations of families working inside the La Foresta plant. Most of the factory’s employees have worked there for decades, through the good times and bad times. In 1999, the plant went bankrupt, and a series of businessmen rented the facilities, making quick profi ts and then abandoning the factory for greener pastures. In January 2005, the last such renter, MEYPACAR, told the remaining 186 workers that the plant would be closing temporarily for renovations. MEYPACAR never reopened the plant.

“A lot of compañeros have left part of their lives inside this factory, some working here for over 30 years. We’re tired of the bosses who come here to make money and then they leave. They don’t care about anyone,”
said one La Foresta worker, unnamed in this article due to the extralegal nature of the plant occupation. La Foresta workers decided to stay inside the plant waiting for past months’ salaries that MEYPACAR had indebted, but management never showed up and there is little likelihood that bankruptcy laws will ever force them to pay back salaries to the workers. Faced with little other option, the workers decided to organize in order to restart production as a worker cooperative. Since March, 70 workers have been occupying the plant to prevent the machinery and equipment from being ransacked. They are in a fi rm political and legal fi ght to keep their factory and start up production without a boss or owner, under workerself management.

Argentina’s occupied factories and enterprises are an advanced strategy in defense of the working class and in resistance against capitalism. The experiences of worker selfmanagement/organization have directly challenged capitalism’s structures by questioning private property, taking back workers’ knowledge, and organizing production for objectives other than profi ts. One of the biggest worries that the workers at La Foresta have is how to self-manage their factory. In the midst of the legal fi ght to form a cooperative, they must also plan how they are going to organize the cooperative and the plant’s production. “We need to prove that we’re capable of successfully running this meatpacking plant,” said the cooperative’s president, during an assembly.

Luckily, they have other experiences of recuperated enterprises to look to. In Argentina, there are some 180 recuperated enterprises employing 10,000 workers. Workers from Zanon visited and shared their experience of worker control in a vital moment in the legal fi ght. On a Saturday afternoon after the weekly assembly at La Foresta, workers sit in a cooler that once held racks of beef for the screening of Zanon: Building Resistance , a
documentary by Grupo Alavío. Two workers from Zanon in their 50s visited La Foresta to express the ceramic factory’s support and willingness to collaborate with them. After the talk, workers expressed a number of
their concerns, asking questions about organization and how the ceramists took on their struggle.

In another assembly, workers at La Foresta were visited by representatives from the BAUEN Hotel, a 20-story facility that reopened under worker control in 2003. Like Zanon, BAUEN Hotel doesn’t hold any legal
status. The current president of the BAUEN cooperative spoke during the assembly, saying, “We don’t need a boss. We are capable of creating more jobs and better salaries. Another thing we know is that the boss always
benefi ts from the state, giving loans that businesses never paid back. Although we don’t have legality, we have legitimacy.” Questions from La Foresta employees included things like, “Did the workers become conscious right away, from being a simple worker to carrying out tasks that the bosses took care of before?” “How did you organize to become skilled in all of the decision making and technical planning for production?”

These assemblies have helped assuage fears, demonstrating that worker-controlled enterprises can help defend people’s jobs and successfully run a business with the support of the community. In one meeting, Benítez explained, “Under worker control, no professional stayed at our factory. Only the workers stayed. Our current treasurer is from the glazing line. We had to learn everything about sales and marketing. We work with lawyers and accountants who we trust, but they don’t make the decisions. The workers’ assembly decides what we are going to do. However, we have relations with professionals to facilitate specifi c skills training.”

The meatpackers’ assembly decided to begin formal skills training workshops and to participate in solidarity actions in the community. There has been interest in literacy training, particularly for older workers who were unable to attend school. Recently, workers have suggested building a library in one of the abandoned offi ces for compañ compa eros to read while on night security duty. Workers have also organized solidarity festivals, participated in marches, presented a documentary fi lm about La Foresta, and given talks in local schools.

“This struggle has forced us to go out and knock on doors. Before this fi ght I never participated in a demonstration. Thanks to our struggle, I’ve been to places I’ve never been to before, government buildings and getting to know other compañeros from different social organizations,” said a La Foresta administrative worker.
Along with the expectation of starting up production in the meatpacking factory, workers hope to begin internships with youths in the barrio. As working culture has been lost with increasing factory closure and joblessness, workers at La Foresta want to take back their culture and their dignity—to teach thecommunity that workers can run a factory even better without a boss or owner.

Grupo Alavío recently premiered a documentary
“La Foresta belongs to the workers”
about the meatpackers’ struggle.

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