Friday, September 04, 2009

FASINPAT: A Factory that Belongs to the People

Americas Program, Center for International Policy (CIP)

The workers at Argentina's largest worker-controlled factory are celebrating a definitive legal solution to a nine-year struggle for the right to work and workers' self-determination. The provincial legislature of Neuquén voted in favor of expropriating the Zanon ceramics factory giving the workers' cooperative FASINPAT the right to manage the plant definitively. Since the workers occupied Zanon in 2001, they have successfully set up a system of workers' management, created jobs, duplicated production of ceramics, supported community projects, and spearheaded a network of over 200 recuperated enterprises. Zanon, renamed FASINPAT or Factory Without a Boss, can now continue production without threat of eviction from their factory.

Zanon Belongs to the People, Support the Workers.

Zanon, still Latin America's largest ceramics manufacturer, is located in the Patagonian province of Neuquén, a region with rich working class traditions, history, and mystique surrounding the red desert, rich forests, and crystalline lakes. The workers officially declared the factory under worker control in October 2001 following a lockout of the factory bosses.

In Argentina, more than 13,000 people work in occupied factories and businesses, otherwise known as recuperated enterprises. The sites, which number more than 200, range from hotels, to ceramics factories, to balloon manufacturers, to suit factories, to printing shops, and transport companies, as well as many other trades. Most of the occupations occurred following the nation's 2001 economic crisis when unemployment rates soared above 25% and poverty levels hovered over 50%. Zanon, as one of the largest and foremost factory occupations, became a symbol for millions of workers who lost their jobs during the worst economic crisis in Argentina's history, in which thousands of factories shut down. The cooperative has proved that factories can produce without a boss.

Legal Victory

At a little past midnight on August 13, the legislature, controlled by the right-wing party the Popular Movement of Neuquén (MPN), voted for the law to expropriate the Zanon ceramics factory. The expropriation law passed 26 votes in favor and nine 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. Many activists from Buenos Aires travelled 619 miles to Neuquén to support FASINPAT's fight for the expropriation law, including workers from the worker-run Brukman suit factory, occupied Hotel BAUEN, rank-and-file union representatives from the subway system, and public hospital employees.

"When we found out that they were going to vote, we called our supporters. About 3,500 people participated in the protest including social movements, human rights organizations, teachers, unionists," said Jorge Bermuda, a veteran worker at the factory in an interview with the CIP Americas Program in Buenos Aires. Despite strong Patagonian desert winds, hundreds waited for the final legislative decision, huddled around bonfires. As the legislation voted, supporters watched from a screen transmitting outside the government building. Onlookers gathered in awe and immediately joined in to celebrate with the workers without bosses. Burly ceramists in their beige work clothes and blue jackets with the embroidered FASINPAT logo embraced each other in tears and joy, releasing the grief and happiness of the long struggle for control of the factory.

"This is incredible, we are so 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."

The workers credited the community's support for making the objective of expropriation become a reality. "The vote wasn't only the victory of the 470 workers at Zanon, or the original 150 who took over the plant, but the victory of an entire community that gave their support," said Bermuda. During the debate on the bill, deputy representatives took note of the fact that over half the population supports the factory expropriation in hands of the workers.

Aside from a political victory, the expropriation of the Zanon plant sets a legal precedent for terms of legislation in favor of other workers' cooperatives that have taken control of businesses closed down by their owners. The bill voted in Neuquén is the first expropriation without reimbursement by workers; the state will pay privileged creditors Luis Zanon's debt of 22 million pesos (around $7 million). The main creditors include the World Bank, which gave a loan of $20 million to Luis Zanon for the construction of the plant, and Italian company SACMY, which produces state-of-the-art ceramics manufacturing machinery and is owed $5 million. These interests were pressuring Argentina's judicial system to auction off the plant to pay off the debts.

Although previous expropriation bills have passed locally, no expropriation law has made it to vote on the national level, meaning workers' cooperatives must assume the debt left by the previous business firm. In return for this agreement, FASINPAT agreed to sell materials to the province at cost.

The Zanon workers argued that the government should not pay Luis Zanon's debts, 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 to investments into the factory.

"If someone should pay, Luis Zanon should pay, who is being charged with tax evasion," said Omar Villablanca from FASINPAT. The FASINPAT collective presented a previous expropriation bill, from which the current law passed was adopted, that would have cancelled the debt to creditors. More than 100,000 people signed the petition to get this bill passed.

Roots of Zanon

Union of ceramic workers and employees of Neuquén. Photo: Obreros de Zanon.

The massive factory, spanning several city blocks, was built in an isolated industrial park along Route 7, a highway leading into the capital city of Neuquén. The Zanon ceramics plant was inaugurated in 1980, three years before the nation came out of the nightmare of the dictatorship that ruled the nation with terror from 1976-1983. Officers from the military dictatorship and Italian diplomats presided over the ceremony, which included blessings from a Monsignor of the Catholic Church. Luis Zanon, or Luigi, thanked the military government "for the atmosphere of security and tranquility that the Armed Forces have provided since they took charge on March 24, 1976." That fateful date in 1976 marked the beginning of one of the bloodiest eras for Argentina, in which the military terrorized the nation and forcefully disappeared 30,000 workers, activists, and students.

Conditions inside Zanon previous to the workers' occupation led to an average of 25-30 accidents per month and one fatality per year. In the years of Zanon's production, 14 workers died inside the factory. Former management enforced rules to divide workers and prevent communication among ceramists as a way of controlling union organizing independent from company interests. Many workers recount how they had to organize clandestinely to win control of the union.

Carlos Villamonte participated in the efforts to win rank-and-file union seats, organizing secretly in the late 90s. "It was very difficult to win back the internal union at the factory because we had to do it clandestinely. The company had a very repressive system. They didn't let you in another sector, talk with fellow workers, or even use the bathroom freely. Many times we had to communicate by passing notes under the tables in the cafeteria or walking through each sector making secret times and places to meet. We found ways to evade the bosses' and bureaucratic union's control." One such way was forming a ceramists' soccer team. Between practices, games, and tournaments, workers were able to strategize how to win shop-floor union representation.

After the rank-and-file workers' union movement at the factory won control of the ceramists union in 1998, the struggle culminated with a bosses' lockout in 2001. The workers were fired and the factory closed down—still owed severance pay and millions in unpaid salaries. This led to a workers' protest camp outside the plant. 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. Many at the plant believe that the rank-and-file workers' movement gaining control of the union catapulted the fired workers into occupying the factory and starting up production after the company closed the doors.

Future of Autogestión

Autogestión obrera—workers' self-management—implies that a community or group makes its own decisions, especially those decisions that fit into the process of production and planning. One of the major feats of Zanon was putting into production a massive beast of a factory with an organization based on equality and democracy without trained professional managers, punitive systems, or hierarchical organization.

FASINPAT wokers celebrate the passing of the law to expropriate the Zanon ceramics
factory. Photo: Obreros de Zanon.

The FASINPAT collective grew from 250 workers to 470. They began by producing 5,000 sq. meters of ceramics a month when they first occupied the plant in 2001. They soon managed to increase their production to 14,000 sq. meters a month. By 2008, FASINPAT produced 400,000 sq. meters a month, a record for worker control at the factory.

Although they continue to have the capacity to produce at those levels, demand has dropped lately, leading to the decision to adjust production levels. "In 2009, because of the crisis, we've dropped production to 250,000 sq. meters a month," explains Bermuda, who participates in technical planning at the plant.

Due to the crisis and slumping construction industry in the region, sales of ceramics have dropped by 40%. Unlike, their capitalist counterparts, the FASINPAT worker enterprise has taken on the task of cutting costs, not personnel. "We now have the legal aspect resolved, now we have to resolve production and fight for energy subsidies," said Omar Villablanca, a young worker at Zanon who was recently voted general secretary of the provincial-wide ceramists union. He visited Buenos Aires shortly after the victory to provide support for workers on strike at the Terrabusi cookie corporation who are fighting against lay-offs and voluntary pay cuts. "Factories that shut down are generally the result of a management that doesn't want to invest a peso of profits toward saving jobs."

A major challenge now to worker-run factories will be to devise production plans to respond to uncertain markets. Zanon's legalized status will allow the workers to focus on production and implementing technology. But they don't plan to eliminate their worker training programs. The factory assembly, which is the decision-making body at the plant, has voted to start up a primary school and high school for workers who weren't able to finish schooling. More than half of the workers at Zanon do not have their high school degrees. "We are working to train our workers. Primary and secondary school are one aspect. The next step would be to prepare a few compañeros to go to university for engineering, or whatever they would like to study."

In a 2004 article on Zanon, researcher on Latin American social movements Raúl Zibechi wrote, "The ex-Zanon workers hope that the Argentine government will decide to recognize their status and let them continue to operate under their own control." Many experts researching the role of the government and its persistent refusal to recognize that Argentina's 200 recuperated enterprises had created over 10,000 jobs, predicted that a definitive legal solution would take years, and it did. As a writer who has followed the development of workers' self-management at Zanon, I also shared the disbelief, joy, and emotion at the good news.

In over nine years of legal battles and uncertainty, the workers running Zanon were able to create more than 200 jobs; build health clinics and homes for families in need; donate ceramics to hundreds of cultural centers, libraries, and community projects; support strike funds for workers fighting for better working conditions; build a network of social movements; devise a democratic assembly and coordinating system within the factory that replaced hierarchy; not to mention successfully run a factory that the previous owner wanted to close for good, imagine what they can do now.

At Zanon, workers constantly use the slogan: "Zanon es del pueblo" or Zanon belongs to the people. The workers have gone to great efforts to ensure that the community benefits from worker control at the factory.

"I feel as if the law is our contribution to the working class, it's our grain of sand for workers to recuperate hopes that they can change things," said Raul Godoy, a worker and steadfast activist from the factory. While other recuperated enterprises are fighting eviction threats and other legal challenges, they can now look to the FASINPAT collective as a beacon of success. And other workers who are facing firings will be more inspired to follow the example of the Zanon workers of running their own factories and putting them at the service of the people.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

The Soy Republic of Argentina

March Against Soy
The increasing export of genetically modified crops is part of a regional trend with Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay now adopting a soy-based economic model. Argentina has made a radical shift toward soy, which has displaced cultivation of many grains and vegetables and even its beef production, the nation’s diet staple and renowned around the world. Once a highly industrialized nation and agriculturally diverse, Argentina now uses more than half of its total arable land for monoculture soy. The majority of soy production is controlled by "growing pools" or financial speculators that buy or lease land from small farmers who can’t afford soy’s high production costs. In all, some 47 million tons of soy was produced in 2008.

Argentina’s farmers have recently resumed a nation-wide strike in protest over the government’s agricultural policies. This protest is the latest episode in a long standing dispute between the agricultural sector and President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner over tax exports on soy. The fertile South American nation is now the world's third largest producer of soy, trailing behind the United States and Brazil. The boom in soy production in Argentina has reaped record profits for soy farmers and multi-nationals marketing bio-technology for the mono-culture crop in recent years, but it has taken its toll on food production, traditional farmers and the environment.

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have increasingly played a key role in the economy and in the planet’s food supply. Nearly 95% of soy grown in Argentina is genetically modified, adopting the Roundup Ready technology marketed by Monsanto. The majority of the soy grown is for export to China and the EU which use soybean grain for feed and poultry lots.

Unlike the Banana Republics still intact in many parts of Central America, which exude violence to keep governments, workers and the population at large in line with big business interest, the soy model or "soy republic" adopted in many countries in South America operates by sheer market force and consolidation. Agribusiness giants Monsanto, Dow and Cargill have developed mechanisms to make dictatorships an unnecessary luxury. What Argentina and other South American nations do have in common with Banana Republics is the colonial development model, or better put anti-development model, where the nation reverts to relying on exporting a single cash crop to First World nations. However, dictatorships that used terror, torture and censorship in the 1970’s and early 1980’s are responsible for laying the ground work for privatization, liberalization of trade barriers, deregulation of environmental standards and land concentration which ripened the region for the GMO invasion. The soy republic model has led to economic dependency on transnational investments, food sovereignty risks, displacement of rural populations, degradation of soil and water systems, severe health threats from the use of pesticides and herbicides and a long list of social problems such as increased inequality and unemployment.

GMO Approval

GMO soy was swiftly approved for cultivation in Argentina in 1996, under former Agricultural Secretary Felipe Sola. A 180-page file report, prepared by GMO giant Monsanto was written in English, with no Spanish translation made available, and was the only document evaluated before Sola approved GM soy after only 81 days of review. The former secretary and now investor in the soy industry won a seat in the legislature in the June 2009 elections, riding in on his opposition to President Cristina Kirchner's decision to increase the export tax on soy. Many of the ministers and congressional representatives involved in the passage have since become investors in the soy market.

When Argentina approved the cultivation of GMO in 1996 14 million acres were used for soy production. By 2008 that area grew to 42 million acres. In his brilliant account of the world food system in Stuffed and Starved, Raj Patel describes the consolidation that spans the entire global market. According to Patel, 10 companies control half the world’s seed supply and 10 firms control 84 percent of the nearly US$30 billion pesticide markets. Agro-chemical firms Monsanto, Dow, Bayer and Dupont lead Argentina’s market. In an ironic twist the term "The United Soy Republic" has been coined by the genetically engineering industry to describe a map of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil and Paraguay with increasing tracks of land dedicated to soy.

Sky rocketing commodity prices for soy due to increasing demand from the EU, China and India has driven a group of eager investors to enter the countryside. "The first group that benefit are obviously agro-business corporations, other than Monsanto the export/transport companies like Cargill, Bunge and ADM that sent the soy bean to the EU and China to feed animals," says Carlos Vicente, head of information for Latin America at GRAIN, a non-profit supporting small farmers. "The second group that benefits in the short term is the ‘growing pools’ and large land owners in Argentina that have seen quick and extraordinary profits producing a concentration of wealth and land."

GMO on Strike

In the Republic of Soy, a major showdown between mono-crop farmers and government has taken place. Both sides are fighting over an export tax on the lucrative crop. The latest strike came after the President vetoed a farming law that would have exempted farmers from draught struck areas from paying export levies. The farmers are also angry over President Cristina Fernandez's refusal to lower the 35% tax. Cristina Kirchner’s soy export tax is a policy carried over from her husband, former president Nestor Kirchner, who upped the tax to 35% as an emergency measure to revive the economy after the 2001 crisis. Unwilling to lose profits, the agrarian sector decided to go on strike, literally freezing the sale of grain and cattle, the longer the protest the more likelihood for food price increases and food shortages.

"Countries accepted the soy model mostly because many ministers, deputies, senators and mayors are investors in soy, secondly, at least in the case of Argentina, the state has received income through taxing exports," says Javier Souza, agricultural engineer and regional coordinator of the Latin American Action Network for Alternative Pesticides. It’s unlikely that the government will reverse its support of the export levies on soy, as revenue from soy exports topped nearly 16 billion dollars in 2008, bringing crucial income for the government’s treasury reserves.

On the eve of the farmers’ latest strike, GMO giant Monsanto received the "Prize of Gold" as the best business in Argentina for 2008 from Fortuna Magazine. The company sold over 2.7 billion dollars in seeds and herbicides used in the Roundup Ready package, controlling 50 percent of the seed market. In an interview with Fortuna Magazine, Bernardo Calvo, President of Monsanto’s Latin American branch, said that Argentina still has exponential capacity to expand the production of GMO soy and corn. For Monsanto, the agro-government conflict "the instability caused from the conflict between the countryside and government is here for the long haul and even if this company doesn’t participate in politics, for us it is better in countries and regions where our producers and governments are successful."

Losing Farmers

Locally, provincial governments have eagerly set up favorable conditions for soy cultivation even at the cost of local farmers and indigenous communities. Chaco is one such province, closer to Bolivia’s border than to Buenos Aires, where traditional farmers have legally occupied land, but without land titles where farmers have lived for decades and tilled the soil. Ramon Alberto Lopez, leader of a grassroots organization of displaced farmers in the northern province of Chaco says soy has brought many social problems. "As the result of soy, more than 50 percent of the population were displaced from the countryside. Soy for some means profits, for us it is death."According to the official agricultural census, a total of 103,405 farmers closed down their farms between 1988 and 2002, which constitutes ¼ of farming businesses, while the average size of farms increased from 421 to 538 hectares. Soy cultivation is highly mechanized, requiring minimal labor. Pushed off land, rural populations have been forced to migrate to urban areas where housing and employment are scarce. Chaco is the second poorest province with 40 percent of the population living below the poverty line. Santiago del Estero, another province seeing record profits from new soy plantations is the poorest province.

"Families’ land has been bulldozed with the advance of soy, now we are cornered, literally surrounded by soy fields," said Veronica Gomez from MOCASE – The Campesino Movement of Santiago del Estero. More than 9,000 families make up MOCASE, a grassroots movement of traditional farmers and indigenous groups. It is estimated that more people from Santiago del Estero live outside the province than in their native Santiago del Estero. Gomez says farmers who decide to sell their land and live surrounded by soy fields, "we aren’t direct consumers of agro-toxins but we are still affected."

Poisoned Communities

Throughout Argentina in rural communities there have been reports of intoxications from the herbicides and pesticides needed in the Roundup Ready seed package sold by Monsanto. Numerous studies have shown that the herbicide glyphosate and pesticide endolsufan cause serious health effects from cancer to birth defects. Glyphosate is the top selling herbicide in the world and is widely used on soy crops in Argentina, used in the Roundup Ready package as soy beans have been genetically modified to tolerate the herbicide glyphosate. More than 44 million gallons of glyphosate is sprayed annually in Argentina. MOCASE has reported has taken more than 100 accusations of agrochemical poisoning to court in Santiago del Estero. Darío Aranda, a journalist with the national daily, Página/12, has reported on numerous communities in soy-producing regions throughout the country that have faced severe health problems, including residents in the provinces of Buenos Aires, Entre Rios, Chaco, Santa Fe, and Formosa.

Industry leaders have resisted regulations on the use of agro-chemicals. This issue is so sensitive, the government has remained silent. Argentina's current Secretary of Agriculture Carlos Cheppi refused all formal requests for an interview. His press secretary said Ricardo Gouna is "unwilling to talk about the use and regulation of agrochemicals in Argentina's soy industry." Guillermo Cal is the executive director of CASAFE—Argentina's association of agrochemical companies that counts Monsanto, Dow Agro-sciences, Dupont, and Bayer CropScience among its members. He said in an interview that municipal orders to restrict the distances which agro-chemicals can be sprayed near residential areas were completely ridiculous. "No one is going to have a problem with a product like glyphosate being sprayed near their home."

Future of the Soy Republic

GMO’s next frontier in the region will be corn, with Monsanto preparing a 200 million dollar investment for Argentina over the next three years. The company hopes that the nation’s cattle ranchers will move to feed lots, rather than grass feeding cattle. Already, cattle ranching has lost 12 million acres to soybeans in the last five years alone. And prices have been affected due to scarcity with beef prices increasing by 20 percent in the past year. According to the Sociedad Rural, Argentina’s main agricultural organization, the production of basic food staples has dropped drastically. From 1997 wheat dropped -19%, Corn dropped -31%, Oats dropped -28%, Rice dropped -23%; while soy production increased +213%.

The recent strike, which hasn’t gotten much support from small landholders or farmhands, is a sign that farmers are uncomfortable with the global drop in commodity prices. Meanwhile, consumers continue to pay high prices on food with intermediaries and agribusinesses funneling profits from the global food system. As with colonial countries ravaged by imperial powers, once profits from soy dries up due to a collapse on the global market, Argentina will be left with only the devastating impact of monoculture – displaced rural populations, nutrient depleted soil, loss of biodiversity, and poisoned communities.

Marie Trigona is a journalist based in South America. She can be reached at and Photo from Prensa de Frente

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