A window into the development of a movement for worker cooperatives in Argentina and its inspiration to workers fighting for dignity and economic equality around the world.
The economy is pretty untrustworthy in Argentina right now – the economy’s 30% inflation will eat away at your paycheck till there is nothing left and it’s not wise invest with Argentina pesos. It is very difficult to conduct business at all given the frustrating lack of transparency of most monetary transactions. Which is why it’s incredible that worker-owned businesses have flourished in the rubble. In Argentina, worker ownership requires trust against all odds. As a student of economics and a young activist, I have held the worker-ownership model in Argentina up as a beacon I could orient towards, an alternative and a method of resistance that might be widely applicable.
The Spark for the Movement: Economic Crisis in 2001
For the past two months, I have been visiting, interviewing and working with the worker-owners of Argentina’s empresas recuperadas, or taken factories. The movement of taken factories gained enormous momentum after the Argentine economic collapse of 2001, when foreign investors saw Argentina’s strong industrial sector crumble, and closed up shop. The economy lost thosands of factories that supplied millions of jobs. Workers at some of these factories saw the lunacy in letting their former workplaces lie cold and vacant while they were out of work and already knew how to run the businesses and operate the machines. One by one, they began to occupy their factories and demand the right (protected under Argentina’s constitution) to work, and to re-start production as a worker-owned cooperative, resulting in more than 180 cooperative factories employing over 10,000 workers.
The workers’ logic was that since their labor produced all the added value for the products, and their employers had walked away from their businesses, that it was their only option and also their right to run the factories themselves, under horizontal direct democracy. Once workers decided to take over their factory, a long and often complicated judicial process awaited them. They camped out for months in or near their workplaces to ensure the former bosses didn’t gut the factory and sell the machines in the middle of the night.
Early in the process, many occupations turned violent as police tried repeatedly to evict the entrenched coop members. But the process has now become more streamlined and normalized. I met one group of workers in the middle of the recuperation process. Their little camp on the street was filled with laughter, music and homemade empanadas delivered by other members of the movement, worker owners who already won their battles for the right to produce.
This movement provided immense hope for many around the world who saw factory occupation and recuperation as the beginning of a paradigm shift; a chance to build a new system within the broken shell of globalized capitalism. The flood of energy and idealism was undoubtedly released in the US by a film by Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis called The Take, documenting a successful factory recuperation. I gained a window into the maturation of this dream in Buenos Aires now 11 years after the first factory take over, of a movement that through its institutionalization process has held fast to some fairly radical principles, while beginning to access mainstream markets.
The stories of the workers I’ve interviewed are filled with contradiction, with relentless struggle against oppression and with degrees of triumph. My time in Buenos Aires helped me to redefine the meaning of dignified work, and provided a frame for the global struggle for worker self-determination. Studying the coop movement in Argentina and identifying pieces that could be translated for the movement in the US, we have so much to learn from our friends in the South.
La Matanza: A Coop With Very Old Problems and Brand New Solutions
We turned onto a side street of a dirty industrial district on the edge of Buenos Aires and parked in front of a warehouse belonging to La Matanza, a worker owned cooperative since 2003 that makes screws. At the time of its factory take over, the workers hadn’t been paid for ten months, so they staged a fifteen day occupation of their factory to ensure that the owner couldn’t ferry the stock away and sell it off. The nine current members (or socios) of La Matanza are aging, most close to sixty years old. Some have worked in the dim, cold interior of La Matanza for forty years and now are building new relationships based in horizontal authority and collective decision making with the men they worked next to for so long.
Business is pretty good at La Matanza with a stable client base and higher than average returns (they’re not called wages in a coop). They feel secure in their work. The biggest problem, everyone said was the delays they experience when the machines break down. “Well, how old are the machines?” I asked. They looked at each other, shrugged, and said casually, “Around one hundred years old.” This factory started producing screws before the dictatorship, Juan Peron, and the Falkland Islands War and nearly everything that has shaped the face and the fate of Argentina today. When these centenarians break down, the workers take them apart, honing new parts out of scrap metal and coax them back to life. But it takes a couple days, and that’s their biggest impediment to production.
They display intimacy, the men and their machines. One member was showing me how a compressed air pump stamps the Phillips-head imprint onto the head of a screw and stuck his smooth calloused fingers so close to the pumping mechanism that I began to wince, bracing for the yowl of snagged flesh. But he knew he was safe. He knew the cadence of the rotation, showed me with pride how his craft works. Some of these men have spent more time with these machines, inside this dim cold warehouse where everything is covered in eerie, shimmering dust, than they have with their families, their friends. Than they’ve spent outside in the open air. This is the price of industry.
Flexible Politics at Cooperativa SG Patria Grande
My next stop outside the city was a coop called SG Patria Grande. As soon as we stepped in from the bright sunlight I was surprised by a flurry of color and activity. Boxes were flying around the warehouse, being chucked from the loft and unceremoniously corralled into the open doors of a truck. Everyone working was young, under thirty-five, and was bustling around, whistling and cracking jokes. The boxes flew through the air with such ease because this coop distributes a wide array of intentionally lightweight disposables. Every imaginable extrusion of Styrofoam and cardboard and wrapping paper and Kleenex lay carefully ordered in yet another layer of packaging, in a warehouse stacked to the ceiling with what amounts to pre-trash.
The coop has a dream of using funds from their distribution business to open a responsibly produced bulk food store and restaurant, and seem very serious about making the transition, but know they will rely on revenues from pre-trash for the next ten years at least. They’re trying to offer more corn-based compostable products, but they are not confident that these products are a viable long term alternative.
I began chatting with Julio, one of the founders of SG. He is 35, super alert, casual and bounced around on the soles of his bright red converse as he spoke with us. He started SG with more than a dozen friends when they were in their late twenties. They are all from middle class backgrounds, much younger than other coop socios I’ve met, and very concentrated on building cooperativism as a social movement. SG would like to host a coop summit to get all movement leaders together to share stories and create both business and personal connections. They hold workshops in cooperative business management and are a great resource for their fellow worker owners to access legal and technical information.
He said that when they first started, there were just a few stacks of boxes at the back, and now they’ve crept forward so that the room is nearly bursting. The huge back stock is a measure of the good health of this growing cooperative. On one wall of the warehouse there is a huge colorful mural of a masked Zapatista warrior with a baby on one hip (also in a black mask) and waving the rainbow checked indigenous flag. In the US, it would be unthinkable to see such a blatant representation of a clearly subversive group like the Zapatistas in any sort of capitalist business establishment.
Even odder, is that this Zapatista mama was flanked on the wall by a life sized cut out of Christina Fernandez de Kirchner, Argentina’s current lady president. This is the type of small business her rhetoric is intent on supporting, although in practice she strongly favors supporting massive (Argentine, not foreign) corporations. More importantly perhaps, she represents a distinctly mainstream “business as usual” attitude with regard to capitalism that clashes with the chants of “que se vayan todos” (“get them all out”, with regards to the power elite) that rang through the streets in 2001 when the empresas recuperadas movement was born. That was a time where people were desperate enough to imagine what a more radical shift might look like.
The empresas recuperadas movement helped people to envision what an economy based in solidarity and horizontal decision making might be, how that would change their daily lives and their relationships to their neighbors. But small gains for people clawing their way back towards middle class have tempered that vision, and many social movements in Argentina have once again set their sights on reform and not revolution. Julio saw me staring in bewilderment at the two women on the wall, he just smiled again and said mischievously, “We like a little bit of everything at SG.”
The socios at SG are doing admirable work through their plans to supply more sustainable products and continue hosting cooperative workshops. They, and the rest of the worker-owners I spent time with, are building new networks together of good and services, providers and clients, producers and consumers based in socially responsible economic principles that provide mutual benefit. The challenges they face are an aging industrial landscape and a weak currency, however their struggle has weathered 11 years already and shows no signs of going away. Their success will lead to the success of their children and their communities.
An Advancing Global Movement
While the economic conditions in Argentina have been incredibly precarious, the consciousness that evolved as a result of the crisis provided fertile ground for a vibrant movement. Similar conditions are ripening in parts of the US as well. Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis and Chicago are all looking to new economic models. Chicago is the home of the first worker cooperative takeover of a factory in the US, New Era Windows and Detroit unions are seriously considering replacing the corporate auto industry that fled with their jobs with worker-owned industries. Despite the movement’s contradictions, Argentina is still a priceless window into a new path and economic paradigm of worker’s dignity, mutual aid and trust that can provide tangible inspiration to struggling workers and communities around the world.
The Working World is now helping to turn those dreams into reality in other countries and helped New Era purchase their factory from its previous owner. Working World is a non-profit organization that provides investment capital and technical support for worker cooperatives. Upon return, all investment money is reintegrated to a locally-based revolving loan fund, overseen by the cooperatives and the community it serves. According to Working World, “We support worker cooperatives using a finance model that puts money at the service of people, not the other way around. We help design, fund, and carry out productive projects, only requiring that cooperatives pay us back with the revenues the investments generate. As active partners, we are more motivated to ensure that these projects are successful, or in other words, that finance is only used as a tool to create real, lasting wealth for those that it serves.”