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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 supporters 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 public 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, just 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 [email protected]

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