Who wants to work for a boss? I’m guessing that most people would say no. Since the birth of capitalism, workers’ movements have pondered the utopian dream of liberating the working class from exploitive bosses. Argentina has been home to a phenomenon called recuperated enterprises. When the owner decided to shut down a factory or business, workers decided to save their jobs and physically occupy their workplace. Overtime the worker takeovers caught on. Today more than 200 worker run businesses are up and running. In the very heart of Argentina’s capital Buenos Aires, workers at a 20 story hotel are making this utopian dream a reality.
Walk into the BAUEN Hotel, and most guests are astounded by the 70’s inspired décor. The BAUEN hotel operates like any other hotel, but with one big difference. There is no boss or owner. Guests appreciate the hotel’s convenient downtown location and cultural events. Locals also enjoy the BAUEN’s newly renovated front café called Utopia.
But things weren’t always bustling at this starlit hotel. María del Valle, a BAUEN worker recalls the workers’ decision to occupy the abandoned hotel. "Sometimes, I ask myself why am I here? We were able to recuperate a 20 story hotel, 220 rooms, 7 salons, a theater-bit by bit. The first carpets we cleaned with scrub brushes on our hands and knees. A very small group of companeros."
In the midst of Argentina’s worst economic crisis in December 2001, the hotel was ransacked and remaining workers were fired by the former owner Mercoteles. A group of 15 workers along with supporters took over the hotel on March 28, 2003.
Arminda Palacios is a seamstress who has worked at the hotel for over 20 years and was there when the workers who decided to cut off the locks on a side entrance into the hotel during the initial occupation. "Us workers and all of our supporters we entered the hotel through the entrance on Corrientes Ave. The workers’ entrance was on Corrientes. We simply entered. There was a small lock. They cut the lock off and we walked in. We went to the reception area. When we saw there was electricity, we didn’t think there was going to be electricity….we started to hug and cry."
The BAUEN Cooperative recently celebrated their 5 year anniversary of workers’ self-management. But the celebrations were bittersweet. The BAUEN cooperative, like many of the recuperated enterprises, was forced to set up shop without any legal backing whatsoever.
After 5 years, the Cooperative still has no legal standing and faced a court ordered eviction notice last year. Manuel Benitez, a cooperative associate at the hotel says that despite legal support, the public still supports the workers rights to defend their jobs. "A judge has ruled that the hotel should be handed over the original owner Marcelo Iurcovich. With the eviction notice, they gave us 30 days. We did many actions with organizations. We’re still here thanks to the organizations and demonstrations held in the street in front of the hotel. We’ve appealed the eviction notice, but the appeal has been delayed. Once the appeal decision comes, I don’t know what is going to happen. We’re here because of our support from the public."
When the eviction notice arrived in July, 2007 – thousands mobilized not only against the eviction, but for a long term legal solution for the hotel. 150 workers are currently employed at the BAUEN cooperative. "During my 20 years working at this company, I got to know the bosses well. For us negotiation has been a bad word, and much more right now. We don’t have to negotiate with them! Because the BAUEN is ours, even if the bosses don’t like it!" That was Arminda Palacios again, a 68-year old worker and cooperative advocate, at an assembly held shortly after the eviction notice was delivered.
The eviction notice came in response to a petition by the Mercoteles group, which the court recognizes as the legal owner of the property. Appearing in court in 2006, Marcoteles Director Samuel Kaliman was unable to provide the court with Mercoteles’ address, board member names and other legal information.
The federal court has accepted a appeal on behalf of the BAUEN cooperative which has temporarily delayed the eviction order. According to Federico Tonarelli, Argentina’s worker-occupied factories which provide jobs for more than 10,000 people need a definitive legal solution. "The recuperated enterprises don’t have a definitive legal framework. A national expropriation law would not only provide workers with the legal right to the buildings, but a framework for all the recuperated enterprises."
Back at the hotel, the 150 BAUEN cooperative associates continue to reinvent social relations and reverse the logic of capitalism. Marcelo Duharte has worked at the BAUEN for over 20 years. He says that the workers are accomplishing what capitalists are not interested in doing, creating jobs. "Even though the recuperated enterprises are just a grain of sand, we’re changing small things, not everything that we would like to. Slowly were incorporating a new concepts. Not just workers taking over property, but we’re creating another economy and making our lives more dignified through work. If the state doesn’t implement policies to create jobs, there are workers with their humility, transparency and honor implementing a new philosophy for work."
Despite market and legal challenges, the BAUEN cooperative continues to improve services and open its doors to other workers challenging the system. Human rights activists, unionists and community organizers regularly use the hotel’s facilities for meetings and events. Argentina’s worker occupied factory movement is rallying across the country for a national expropriation law in the face of eviction orders and legal uncertainty. At a massive rock concert held last year, thousands voted to resist against a forceful eviction of BAUEN and other occupied factories.
Marie Trigona is a writer, radio producer and filmmaker based in Buenos Aires. She can be reached at [email protected]