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(en) Media: Worker control in Argentina

From Chuck0 <chuck@mutualaid.org>
Date Wed, 13 Nov 2002 02:29:56 -0500 (EST)


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> From: "El-Amine, Zein" <Zein.El-Amine@MWAA.com>
"The idea that a capitalist is needed to organise production is being 
demystified," said Christian Castillo, a sociology professor at the 
University of Buenos Aires.

Worker control breathes life into ailing factories

Reed Lindsay  reports from Buenos Aires on a rare - and
controversial - success story amid the ruins of
Argentina's economy.

For nearly a year, the workers at the Grissinopoli
bread stick factory saw their weekly salary steadily
decline from 150 pesos to 100 and then to 40.

Finally, on June 3, with the firm headed for
bankruptcy, the workers demanded recompense. The plant
manager offered 10 pesos to each of the 14 employees,
and asked them to leave the factory. They didn't budge.

"He closed the shutters, and we stayed inside," said
Norma Pintos, 49, who has worked at the factory, in the
middle-class Chacarita neighbourhood, for 11 years. "We
just wanted to keep coming to work."

But what began as a last-ditch effort to save their
jobs, or at the very least to receive some back wages,
turned into a dogged effort  to gain control of the
factory.

The workers began taking turns guarding the factory 24
hours a day, surviving by asking for spare change at
the public university and selling empanadas, chorizos
and home-made bread on the street.

Four months later, the city legislature expropriated
the factory and handed it over to the workers. In
October, Grissinopoli began producing bread sticks
again.

In little more than a year, workers have seized control
of scores of foundering factories across Argentina.

Even more remarkable than the takeovers has been the
worker-led resuscitation of the factories, which in
some cases are doing better than under their previous
ownerships.

Apart from saving thousands of jobs and softening the
precipitous decline of the nation's once formidable
industrial production, the factory takeovers are
defying hard-and-fast notions about the relationship
between capital and labour.

They have also begun to alarm conservatives, who  view
them as a threatening private property rights. But in
this crisis-laden nation of 37million, where more than
half the population is below the poverty line and 34per
cent of the workforce is unemployed or underemployed,
the workers have won government sanction and strong
public support.

As darkness descends over the murky Riachuelo River
that marks Buenos Aires' southern boundary, the nearby
Ghelco ice-cream factory still hums with activity. Men
in green uniforms mop floors while others sort papers
in the front office.

In February, the owners of the factory, once the
nation's leading maker of the flavoured powder used in
making ice-cream, locked the doors and soon afterwards
filed for bankruptcy. The workers, who were owed the
equivalent of  thousands of dollars in back wages and
benefits, were left to fend for themselves as they
awaited the outcome of a long and uncertain legal
process.

At the urging of Luis Caro, a lawyer who has
represented some 40 occupied factories, the workers
formed a co-operative and mounted a permanent protest
in front of the factory, preventing attempts to remove
any equipment or inventory.

After three months  the bankruptcy judge allowed them
temporarily to rent the factory. In September, the
Buenos Aires legislature expropriated Ghelco - the
first seizure of its kind in the city - and handed the
keys to the co-operative.

Now 43 of Ghelco's former employees, all of whom worked
on the factory floor, run the company.

While they say they enjoy working for themselves,
bringing the company back to life has not been easy.
Many are working 12-hour days as they juggle new
managerial or administrative duties with their former
production posts.

"Before, when it was time to leave, we were out the
door ...  now, it's nine at night and we're still
here," said Claudia Pea, who labels containers and
cleans the bathrooms when she is not greeting customers
and clients as a receptionist.

Across the Riachuelo in the province of Buenos Aires,
business is booming for the 54 members of the Union and
Force Co-operative, who occupied a metallurgical plant
for six months before securing legal control through an
expropriation last year.

The workers are earning more than twice as much as they
did as employees and are set to take on 20 new members,
almost all of them sons of current workers. With demand
high for their copper and brass pipes and taps, they
are expanding the plant and have plans to export their
products.

The workers are as surprised as anyone else at the
factory's success.

"The fellows still think this is all a dream," said the
co-operative's president, Roberto Salcedo, 49.
"Nowadays if you lose your job you know that you aren't
going to find work again, and much less at our age."

If shrewd industrialists with an open credit line ran
these companies into bankruptcy, how can
worker-controlled co-operatives with no capital and no
business experience be thriving  during the worst
economic slump in Argentina's history?

Having the books wiped clean of old debts has not hurt.
But more important, the workers say, are the profits
freed by eliminating the owners' hefty take and the
higher salaries paid to managerial staff.

As in most of the occupied factories, the Union and
Force Co-operative has an egalitarian pay scale.
Decisions are made by direct vote in regular assemblies
and each worker earns the same, based on the previous
week's profits.

Caro estimates that workers have taken over 100
factories and other businesses nationwide. While most
takeovers have been at factories, they have also
included a supermarket, a medical clinic, a Patagonian
mine and a Buenos Aires shipyard.

Often, the owners have struck a deal whereby the
workers  take over production in exchange for payment
of  rent or forgiving back wages or benefits. Other
factories are still in a state of legal limbo. But the
ultimate aim for many worker-controlled factories is
expropriation.

In the past two years, 17 factories have been
expropriated in the province of Buenos Aires and in
recent months three in the capital. Provincial and city
legislators are drafting bills that would create a
government agency to assist in the formation of
co-operatives and facilitate the expropriation of
bankrupt companies to hand them to the workers.

However, dissent is brewing among influential economic
interests, and as a result political support for
expropriations may be waning, said Beatriz Baltroc, a
Buenos Aires city legislator who has been a leading
proponent of the expropriations.

While the first two expropriations in the capital were
approved unanimously by the city legislature, the
centre-right Radical Party has since reversed its
position, refusing to vote on the expropriation of
Grissinopoli.

"The property of the owners is being ignored in order
to transfer it to the employees. This is not  an
expropriation, it is a confiscation," said Gregorio
Badeni, a constitutional lawyer. "Expropriations can
only be declared in cases of public benefit. In these
cases there is no public benefit. There is benefit for
20 or 30 people."

But with local support for the factory-occupying
workers strong, authorities have had little success
removing them by force.

In March, about 200 people from neighbourhood
assemblies and human rights groups converged on the
worker-controlled Brukman textile factory, forcing the
retreat of 70 riot police who were acting on a judge's
order to reclaim the property.

"The idea that a capitalist is needed to organise
production is being demystified,"  said Christian
Castillo, a sociology professor at the University of
Buenos Aires.

"If things improve economically, this movement perhaps
may fade away. But the idea of worker control is out
there."

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