Originally published in Znet, October 10, 2003
by Marie Trigona
Taking this factory to produce without an owner, producing without bosses is what's important for us," worker from occupied factory Del Valle Ceramics. Argentina's worker occupied factory movement has been an example of resistance for workers all over the world.
In response to the process of deindustrialization and flexible labor markets, thousands of workers have said enough to exploitation of the working class by bosses and owners. In today's Argentina there are over 200 re-occupied factories and businesses employing some 15,000 workers. Capitalism's tendencies to concentrate capital and transnationalize have wrecked Argentina. Industrial centres have been replaced with abandoned, crumbling factories and joblessness.
In search for cheaper labour markets factories have moved to new regions or concentrated production. Argentina's economic collapse has swelled the ranks of the poor and jobless to levels never seen in its history. Today, 58% of the population live below the poverty line and 44% are either unemployed or underemployed. In the shambles of an economically ruined nation, a practice of protest remerged: production under worker self-management/control. Historically, the working class has always had tools for liberation--striking, work slow downs, machinery sabotage, road blockades and factory occupations.
"We're part of the method of compañeros trying to work for themselves. The factories that close are factories we'll put to work. This is the politics of the Ceramist Union, like the compañeros are showing. We know if Zanon loses then we lose too. We'll lose the initiative that we have now to put this factory to work," explains Luis Calfueque, worker at Del Valle and the Ceramists Union of Neuquen.
We were introduced to the Del Valle Ceramics factory struggle during a visit to Zanon, a huge ceramics factory producing under worker control and employing over 600 workers. The southern province of Neuquen is home to both factories, where the native clay like soil has provided the region with primary materials to sprout ceramics industries. When we arrive at Del Valle Ceramics factory, night has already fallen. Several workers on night security meet us sitting around a fire, to fight the intense cold and lack of lights. They begin telling anecdotes about how the electric company cut the electricity that day due to the factory owner's past due utility bills.
Del Valle produced cement bricks for constructing buildings. The factory is old, with two warehouses holding elementary machinery, mixers, burners, production lines, and lots for merchandise. "In the beginning of this conflict, we started in 2001. It also started with firings and the factory owner's [Miguel Winter's] disappearance without paying us. This conflict started when two or three paychecks weren't paid in October of that year. Because of our needs, we had to camp outside the factory. We were outside about 5 months in 2001. In that moment we were 23. From the beginning we knew that some were going to hold out and others no," relates Calfueque. After over two years of struggle and factory shutdown, the original fifty workers have been reduced to five. This year the workers occupied the factory.
Every night compañeros rotate shifts guarding the factory to defend it against a government ordered eviction and from the owner stealing machinery from the factory. Calfueque explains security inside the factory, "To block the doors we put piles of material, in all of the doors as security so that they don't come and take more of anything. Maybe we would find ourselves without enough people for security rounds or maintain the factory if a police operative comes. They came many times to evict us, with armed police with rifles to come in here and take us out. But we haven't put down our guard."
After the occupation earlier this year, the owner sent men in the middle of the night to take a piece of machinery from the production belt. Without this piece, production is impossible. The machinery is out of date, absolute and has no having no value what so ever. The piece was taken out to sabotage plans to continue production under worker control.
Hunger and misery have become far more common than a dignified paying job. In the past year and a half, the real salary (workers' salaries and unemployment subsidies) fell to one-third of what it was before December 2001. Salaries and subsidies have not been adjusted to correlate to inflation after the peso devaluation.
"Those of us here now, we have taken this method to make this factory produce. We don't think about begging ever again for an unemployment subsidy because we know that if we relax our position we are really…the working class is really plastered, we're millions of unemployed," affirms Calfueque. Argentina's government has responded to wide-spread unemployment by providing more unemployment subsidies (planes de trabajar) of $150 pesos per month or a little more than $50 U.S. dollars.
The market has used these subsidies to set standards for salaries, the $150 subsidy requires the recipient to complete 4 hours of work 5 days a week. I've met individuals working in public school cafeterias as part of this plan. Many employers, considering how much is paid for 4 hours of work, pay $300 for 10 hours-5 days a week.
"There were compañeros that had to do double the work. Jobs that two workers would do, one would do alone. A compañero contracted to work here lost a finger, also another person that started working here lost his arm in the grinder," explains Calfueque. Levels of exploitation at the Del Valle factory were phenomenal. The factory is a perfect analysis of classist relationships between the capitalist and worker--understanding capitalists methods to increase earnings at the cost of the workers.
The owner raised the level of exploitation two fold, reducing salaries to the very minimum and maximizing workers' production levels. Jorge Pinaequeo delegate from the Ceramists Union and truck driver at Del Valle shows us the production line, "There were 10 people working in this part of the factory. They had the surveillance cameras here. They would watch you from inside with that camera and if you would stay standing or not doing anything, they would see you immediately. And they would come and punish you in a second. We smashed the cameras when we reoccupied the factory." For arriving 5 minutes late salaries were suspended. Raising the intensity of work (producing more bricks per hour), multi-tasking, machines replacing workers and cutting break time set the workers' rhythms of existence.
Jorge Pianequeo describes some of the conditions at the factory as sub-human, pushing the workers to the maximum without any minimum security measures. "There was only one kid working here inside. He wasn't given a respiratory guard so that he could breath o.k.. Because of the dust you couldn't see anything when you were working and the noise from the machinery was terrible. When we entered as delegates into the union, we fought so that all this would have protectors. "
He continues, "This machine worked without any guard or metal protectors. Here in this part is where the kid lost a finger. The pulley caught his finger and cut it off." According to national government statistics in Argentina, 3 workers per day die and 20,000 are injured from accidents on the job. These official statistics do not include black market work which makes up between 30-40% of national employment.
"Lacking all of that we started to demand safer working conditions, we started to demand a ton of things as a labor union. The boss also saw from his side that he wasn't able to do what he did before, cheat and cut corners," reflects Calfueque. Before Zanon and Del Valle recuperated the factory they were able to win back the Ceramists Union of Neuquen (Sindicato de Obreros y Empleados Ceramistas del Neuquen).
Previously, the union had been aligned with the bosses and owners of factories, utilizing bureaucratic union tactics to dilute workers' struggles. He continues to tell us anecdotes of struggles with the union, "Alberto Montes showed up, he was at that time the bureaucrat of the labor union. He said to us, 'boys, if you continue demanding safer conditions, you are going to lose a lot of things you have here.' And we asked ourselves, what privileges do we have? We didn't in any way have privileges. We were demanding safety and we had to do something.
He said, 'if you keep fucking around you are going to lose your food. Lift the strike or I don't know what I can arrive to.' So the compañeros decided to lift the strike because of the advice of the bureaucracy. We lifted the strike but the same we lost the food."
Strong networks have been built between the workers of Del Valle, Zanon and MTD-Neuquen (Unemployed Workers Movement). "The MTD (Unemployed Workers Movement) have supported us taking turns in security. When we start production we think about continuing [providing jobs] with them, because with solidarity we have a front that's a lot stronger," reflects Calfueque.
Worker controlled factories and unemployed workers organizations demand genuine work (no more firings, better work conditions, more jobs, reducing work days to 6 hours with the same pay and raising salaries to correspond to with prices of basis family needs) as part of protest plans. The intention of the workers at Del Valle is not only to restart production and take on new workers but also work for the community to meet basic needs of housing as Calfueque describes.
"You make ceramics to construct houses, making ceramics can bring solutions to a ton of families that today live in wooden shacks, cardboard shacks. For us that's fundamental, trying to reach the community and do something good. This factory is stopped and it's a crime that it's closed. Today or tomorrow this factory can serve the community to bring a lot of solutions. "
On the deteriorating rooftop of the factory Calfueque reflects on the determination of the thousands of workers' struggle for dignified work without bosses, foremen or owners.
"A lot of compañeros have been shut outside of the factories. They've left part of their lives inside these factories. We think this is the only solution, what is the final thing we have to do, to prove and motivate ourselves to produce. We are the ones that drive production in the nation. There's only a few owners but we're thousands and millions of workers. We're the ones who drive production in the countryside, we the ones in the industrial belts, we're the ones who produce materials to make housing. What more can they ask. We need to make an agreement among ourselves and say, factories that close are factories we can put to produce. Without an owner or bosses we can work even better."