Thursday, August 13, 2009

Factory in the Hands of Workers (Zanon belongs to the people - FASINPAT wins definitive expropriation)

The workers at Argentina's occupied ceramics factory FASINPAT won a major victory this week, the factory now definitively belongs to the people in legal terms. The provincial legislature voted in favor of expropriating the ceramics factory and handing it over to the workers cooperative to manage legally and indefinitely. Since 2001, the workers at Zanon have fought for legal recognition of worker control at Latin America's largest ceramics factory which has created jobs, spearheaded community projects, supported social movements world-wide and shown the world that workers don't need bosses.

"This is incredible, we are happy. The expropriation is an act of justice," said Alejandro Lopez the General Secretary of the Ceramists Union, overwhelmed by the emotion of the victory. "We don't forget the people who supported us in our hardest moments, or the 100,000 people who signed the petition supporting our bill."

Hundreds of workers from the FASINPAT factory, factory without a boss, waited anxiously until the late hours of the night for the legislature's decision. The expropriation law passed 26 votes in favor and
9 votes against the bill. Thousands of supporters from other workers' organizations, human rights groups and social movements, along with entire families and students, joined the workers as they waited outside the provincial legislature in the capital city of Neuquén. Enduring the Patagonian winter weather, activists played drums and shouted: "here they are the workers of Zanon, workers without a boss."

FASINPAT has operated under worker control since 2001 when Zanon's owners decided to close its doors and fire the workers without paying months of back pay or severance pay. Leading up to the massive layoffs and plant's closure, workers went on strike in 2000. The owner, Luis
Zanon, with over 75 million dollars in debt to public and private creditors (including the World Bank for over 20 million dollars), fired en masse most of the workers and closed the factory in 2001-a bosses' lockout. In October 2001, workers declared the plant under worker control. The workers subsequently camped outside the factory for four months, pamphleteering and partially blocking a highway leading to the capital city of Neuquén. While the workers were camping outside the factory, a court ruled that the employees could sell off remaining stock. After the stock ran out, on March 2, 2002, the workers' assembly voted to start up production without a boss. Since the occupation, the workers renamed the factory FASINPAT (Factory without a Boss).

The workers set up a stage with a giant screen for the thousands of support
ers to view the legislative vote. As the decision was read, workers embraced one another in tears in disbelief that after 8 years of struggle they finally won legal control of the factory. "This decision reflects an organized struggle that won the support all of society," said Veronica Hullipan from the Confederation of Mapuche. She said that the network of Mapuche indigenous communities in the Patagonia have supported the Zanon workers' struggle and said legal decision is a "political triumph of workers' organization."

Zanon workers reminded their supporters that the struggle of Zanon, was also the struggle of Carlos Fuentealba, a public school teacher from the province of Neuquén killed by a police officer during a peaceful protest in defense of p
ublic education. The Zanon workers have not only created jobs, but they have supported workers struggles locally, nationally and internationally. Workers from FASINPAT were present at the protest where Fuentealba was shot point blank in the head with a tear gas canister, in police repression ordered by the conservative ruling coalition of Neuquén MPN, which has ruled the Patagonian province since the 1976-1983 military dictatorship.

"This is an important chapter in the struggle of the Zanon workers, who have been fighting in the streets for more than 9 years. First they tried to evict us in order to auction off the factory, the workers' struggle and the community pressured the government to expropriate the factory," Raul Godoy, Zanon worker told the national news daily Página/12. Today, the plant exports ceramics to 25 countries.

Many legislative representatives wanted to demand that the workers at the self-managed factory "guarantee a pact for social peace." But for the workers, the pact for social peace is broken when businessmen fraudulently go bankrupt and throw hundreds of workers out into the street. "The capitalists are constantly declaring war with tariff increases, by privatizing public companies and with firings. Before this situation, the workers must defend themselves; and the workers at Zanon commit to defending ourselves, in the street, however we have to."

According to the legislation passed, the FASINPAT cooperative which employs 470 workers and exports ceramics to more than 25 countries, will remain under the control of the cooperative. The state would pay off 22 million pesos (around $7 million) to the creditors. One of the main creditors is the World Bank - which gave a loan of 20 million dollars to Luis Zanon for the construction of the plant, which he never paid back. The other major creditor is the Italian company SACMY that produces state of the art ceramics manufacturing machinery and is owed over $5 million. However, the workers have resisted the state pay-off, saying that courts have proven that the creditors participated in the fraudulent bankruptcy of the plant in 2001, because the credits went directly to the owner Luis Zanon and not investments into the factory. "If someone should pay, Luis Zanon should pay, who is being charged with tax evasion," said Omar Villablanca from FASINPAT.

Victory, then an eviction

While the victory of FASINPAT brings hope to many of the 200 occupied factories currently operated under worker self-management in Argentina, many are still facing legal attacks. Early yesterday morning, jus
t hours after the Zanon victory, a police operative evicted the factory Textil Quilmes, a thread factory occupied in the new wave of factory occupations in 2009. The four workers on night guard were evicted violently. The Buenos Aires provincial government is currently debating an expropriation bill for Textil Quilmes and several other new occupations in the Buenos Aires province. The textile workers are resisting the eviction at the factory's doors, rallying support to re-enter the factory despite police presence. They also had temporary legal protection, following an expropriation bill that was approved unanimously by the lower house in the provincial legislature.

The workers occupied the plant on February 11, 2009. "We camped outside the plant to avoid the bosses' liquidation of the machinery. And the workers decided to take a direct action, occupy and form a cooperative," said Eduardo Santillán, a Quilmes textile worker. With the remaining cotton left in the plant, the workers immediately began to produce cotton thread. At the time of the firing, more than 80 worked at the plant. In a common practice for business owners who file bankruptcy despite an increased demand for their product, the owner Ruben Ballani of Febatex owed the workers months of unpaid salaries, unpaid vacation time and social security. The workers also reported that the owner would force his employees to work 12 hour shifts, a practice outlawed nearly 100 years ago.

Six months after the workers were fired and the union (Sindicato Textil - AOT) failed to intervene, the workers at Textil Quilmes started up production. They claim that the union, who turned their backs on the workers once they were fired, is now negotiating on behalf of the bosses.

The occupations in Argentina continue to rise as the global economic crisis hits the South American nation. The Arrufat chocolate factory, Disco de Oro empanada pastry manufacturer, Indugraf printing press, Febatex thread producer and Lidercar meat packing plant joined the ranks of the worker occupied factory movement from 2008 to 2009. Textil Quilmes has fought along with workers from other factories occupied since the onset of the global economic crisis to demand expropriation laws; none have a definitive legal future.

Many independent analysts expect the global recession to hit Argentina's real economy. Unemployment rates have gone up and industry growth has halted, while the financial sector remains unaffected because it already took a major blow in 2001. Those who benefited from Argentina's economic recovery of course are now those who are using this crisis as an excuse to downsize and lay-off workers with the promise of public bailout packages and government credits.

The phenomenon of worker occupations continues to grow as the world falls deeper into the current recession. Nearly 20 new factories in Argentina were occupied since 2008. This may be a sign that workers are confronting the current global financial crisis with lessons and tools from previous worker occupied factories post-2001 economic collapse and popular rebellion. 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 lessons, experiments, strategies and mistakes to learn from.

Zanon and others from the occupied factory movement have proven that they are capable of doing what bosses aren't interested in doing: creating jobs and work with dignity. This may be why government representatives, industry leaders and factory owners have remained silent and often times reacted with hostility on this issue; they are afraid of these sites multiplying and the example they have set.

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 to support other social movements. For many at the recuperated enterprises, the occupation of their workplace meant much more than safe-guarding their jobs, it also became part of a struggle for a world without exploitation. While the Zanon victory is a step in the right direction, many of the occupations are facing eviction orders. FASINPAT can now operate legally and focus their attention to producing ceramics in a faltering economy. The Zanon collective has expressed their continued commitment to defending workers' rights and self-management, which means defending all worker occupations with slogan: "si nos tocan a uno, nos tocan a todos" "if they mess with one of us, they mess with all of us."

Marie Trigona is a writer, radio producer and filmmaker based in Argentina. She is currently writing a book on Worker Self-Management in Latin America forthcoming by AK Press. She can be reached at

Worker-Run Businesses Flourish in Argentina


The Indypendent

Maria Alejendra, a factory worker in the suburbs of Buenos Aires, Argentina, spends her days cutting pieces of rawhide at the Huesitos de Wilde Cooperative. Along with the 33 other original workers at the dog treat factory, Alejandra now makes twice as much money — 2,000 pesos a month — as she did under her former boss. Alejandra, 41, who has worked at the factory for 14 years, is now able to listen to music and drink maté, a South American herbal tea, while she works.

The Huesitos de Wilde Cooperative is just one of more than 250 worker-recovered businesses in Argentina, which employ a total of 13,000 workers. Part of a broader effort to recover factories, which started after the country’s economic collapse in 2001, the workers at Huesitos de Wilde first occupied the factory and took over production in January 2007.

Though Argentina’s economy has improved since the crash, the current economic downturn has caused a recent increase in factory take overs, with a significant uptick since February.

A BIG SLICE OF PROFIT: A Huesitos de Wilde employee slices sheets of cured leather into strips that will be dyed, rolled and baked into dog treats. Workers have direct control of their profits.
A BIG SLICE OF PROFIT: A Huesitos de Wilde employee slices sheets of cured leather into strips that will be dyed, rolled and baked into dog treats. Workers have direct control of their profits.
Nearly 20 factories have been occupied since 2008, and 33 new cooperatives have been officially registered with the government in the past few months. While the government readily grants businesses cooperative status — there are currently some 10,000 cooperatives in Argentina — gaining this recognition is the first step for the few hundred recovered enterprises that wish to be worker-run. However, the government has yet to recognize the legal right of any of these recently recovered businesses to exist.

While cooperative enterprises do allow workers a greater role in company decisions, workerrecovered businesses allow employees to reclaim lost jobs, as well as receive the same wages and equally participate in management decisions, as is the case with Huesitos de Wilde.

Workers who seek to recover a business from their owners are faced with numerous challenges. In addition to often lacking management experience, the struggle to find start-up money and maintain a profitable business can often sideline reclaimed enterprises.

The workers at Huesitos de Wilde were offered guidance by an array of groups, including the Argentine Workers Center, a trade-union federation.

“Once we were taught, we came back to take over the factory,” Alejandra said.

Reclaiming factories that have been abandoned by owners provides workers with a way to counter the self-interest of some employers, according to Marie Trigona, a journalist and filmmaker who has worked with Free Speech Radio News and Z Magazine.

Businessmen often exploit crises by declaring bankruptcy so they can set up shop elsewhere and hire cheaper labor or invest their money in more lucrative projects, Trigona said.

AUTONOMOUS FACTORY: Los Huesitos de Wilde cooperative members in Buenos Aires, Argentina, chop large sheets of raw leather to be cured. These workers do not need a boss to make dog treats.
AUTONOMOUS FACTORY: Los Huesitos de Wilde cooperative members in Buenos Aires, Argentina, chop large sheets of raw leather to be cured. These workers do not need a boss to make dog treats.
While Argentina has provided business owners with the option to run cooperatives since the late 19th century, the country’s road to an option such as worker-run enterprises has not been an easy one. Argentina’s history has been plagued by neoliberal policies, such as widespread privatization, deregulation and cutbacks in social services.

Prior to the military coup of 1976, Argentina was one of the wealthiest nations in Latin America. It was the envy of the developing world, with strong labor laws and an unemployment rate of 4.2 percent. But after seven years of brutal military dictatorship — which were marked by widespread torture and the “disappearance” of 30,000 political opponents — followed by a string of pro-free market governments, these progressive policies were eroded.

By the 1990s, Argentina was viewed by the West as a poster-child for embracing neoliberal policies championed by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. But when the speculation- driven economic bubble of the 1990s burst in December 2001, the country’s banking system collapsed. Business owners declared bankruptcy, fired scores of workers and moved their money offshore, resulting in a capital flight of $18.7 billion in 2001.

Argentine civil society responded through popular revolt against the government and economic elite. Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets and toppled four governments in a matter of weeks. Factory takeovers were commonplace, and violent clashes with police led to dozens of civilian deaths over the next several years.

In 2002, the unemployment rate was 25 percent, with another 20 percent of workers underemployed and 60 percent of the country living in poverty. Workers began taking over factories in an attempt to reclaim their livelihoods.

Argentina’s economy began recovering from the collapse in 2003. From 2003 to 2008, for “most recovered factories, the priority was growing economically, finding capital, or raising capital through work. Most of them have done pretty well, while others have just survived,” said Esteban Magnani, who has worked extensively with the recovered-business movement in Argentina and is the author of The Silent Change: Recovered Businesses in Argentina.

By early 2007, more than 170 businesses were worker-run, though the vast majority were not recognized by the government as legal businesses.

Members of the Huesitos de Wilde Cooperative credit La Base, the Argentine-based counterpart of the U.S. micro-finance organization The Working World, as well as the broader community of groups that support worker-run cooperatives, with the factory’s continued success.

This support network proved to be invaluable when the workers returned to the factory to reclaim it and discovered that most of the plant’s machinery had been removed.

With help from the Employees and Supervisors Union and a $15,000 loan from La Base, the workers were able to buy back the equipment before it was sold at the auction block as well as purchase raw materials. But the process was far from easy. For many months, workers went without paychecks, and only 33 of the original 200 workers chose to remain in the cooperative. Of the workers that left, some have found work while many are still unemployed.

The Working World, founded by Brendan Martin in 2004, offers collateral-free loans with no enforcement mechanism for repayment. While the interest rates on the loans given to Huesitos de Wilde range from 10 to 18 percent, the repayment rate for all Working World loans is 98 percent.

SCOOBY SNACKS: Workers at Huesitos de Wilde do the final task of packaging finished dog treats into plastic bags. The factory is one of hundreds of worker-recovered businesses in Argentina.
SCOOBY SNACKS: Workers at Huesitos de Wilde do the final task of packaging finished dog treats into plastic bags. The factory is one of hundreds of worker-recovered businesses in Argentina.
Though the Huesitos de Wilde Cooperative has managed to keep its factory doors open, the workers still do not own the property. They could be evicted at anytime. While Huesitos de Wilde only received preliminary approval last February under the law of expropriations, they must continue producing so they can pay off the debt owed by the former owner, thus keeping them in a state of legal limbo until they receive final approval and can be granted ownership of the factory.

According to Magnani, while the state has indicated that expropriation laws, which would provide cooperatives with legal permission to use owner assets, might be enacted, the legal support provided by this legislation would be weak.

“The future of the recovered factories, both the new and the old, is still uncertain,” Magnani said. “Of the older ones, just a few have managed to get the property of assets.”

Despite the challenges facing the workers at Huesitos de Wilde, the state of worker-run cooperatives in the United States is still far behind Argentina.

Late last year, more than 250 fired workers at the Republic Windows and Doors factory in Chicago held a successful six-day sit-in demanding vacation and severance pay.

While the factory remains open after recently being purchased by California-based Serious Materials, a company that manufactures green building supplies, only 15 of the workers have been able to return to work since May, as production has been slow. Serious Materials hopes that an infusion of federal stimulus funds for weatherization will increase demand for the company’s products and allow them to re-hire all 250 workers.

Though the workers did consider the possibility of taking over the factory themselves, Mark Meinster, a representative of United Electrical Workers, the union to which the Republic workers belong, told The Indypendent earlier this year that the lack of a recovered-factory movement in the United States made this an unlikely possibility.

“The fact that no real movement of worker-run enterprises exists in the U.S. makes this option much more difficult at this point,” Meinster said.

Despite the current global recession, the Huesitos de Wilde Cooperative is thriving, and has recently hired eight more employees. The workers remain optimistic, regardless of their lack of legal ownership of the factory.

“The truth is that you can work without a boss. We have learned that you can continue … and you can succeed,” Alejandra said.

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