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Worker Occupations and the Domino Effect


For many the worker occupation of the Chicago Republic Windows and Doors plant on December 5 may have come as a surprise. But for US workers who are facing a very bleak economic horizon – the Chicago sit-down strike has ignited a spark amongst workers fed up with corporate bailouts and job losses. In the midst of an overwhelming financial crisis, massive layoffs and a deepening economic recession workers are left with little other option that to take direct action in order to defend their rights.

In Chicago, a group of workers decided to occupy their plant – to demand severance pay and benefits after being abruptly fired. Inside the plant, 50 workers rotated during the occupation – sitting firmly on fold out chairs and taking care of the now quiet machinery. Outside, supporters and fellow unionists carried banners in solidarity with the Chicago sit-down strike stating "Bank of the America gets bail out, workers get sold out."

The workers at the Chicago Republic Windows and Doors plant are setting an example for the millions of people who are set to lose their jobs in the US recession. They are the voice of workers who see the emergency bailout plans for Wall Street as unfair and ultimately hurt working America. One of the winners on Wall Street, Bank of America, the second largest bank in the US and major beneficiary to the government’s bailout plan for banks, refused to loan the company Republic Windows and Doors 1.5 million dollars the company owed to the 200 workers in severance and vacation pay.

"Millions of workers in the United States are seeing their jobs torn away from them or their work hours reduced. Most are just swept under the rug by management," says Daniel Gross, organizer with the Industrial Workers of the World. The unemployment rate in the US has hit a 15-year-high with nearly 1.9 million jobs lost thus far in 2008. With the economy showing no signs of recuperating in the coming months, unfair layoffs and fraudulent bailouts may just be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Gross continues, "The Republic Windows and Doors workers would have gone that way too. But instead they took the simple, elegant step of sitting-down and occupying their factory."

Worker occupations have been used since the onset of the industrial revolution as a strategy for workers to defend themselves against deplorable work conditions, unsafe workplaces and firings. In Latin America, workers have used the factory occupation not only to make their demands heard but to put into practice worker self-management.

Argentina’s workers lived through a similar crisis eight years earlier, during the nation’s worst financial crisis ever in December 2001. Growing unemployment, capital flight, and industry break-up served as the backdrop for factory takeovers. Unemployment hit record levels – over 20% unemployed and 40% of the population unable to find adequate employment. The result was hundreds of factories and businesses occupied by the workers. In most cases the workers occupied their workplace to demand unpaid salaries, severance pay, social security and past due vacation time. In many cases the occupation was a guarantee that the owners wouldn’t be able to ransack machinery and remaining stock to later sell off. But their demands steadily grew to safe guard their jobs. With little hope that bosses would ever return to pay workers what they owed, workers devised plans to start up production with no boss or owner what so ever.

More than 10,000 workers are employed by Argentina’s 200 worker occupied factories. Many of these recuperated enterprises are now facing eviction threats. The workers at the Argentine worker occupied factories often say that they are accomplishing what bosses aren’t interested in doing, creating jobs and producing for the community.

Reflecting on the current economic crisis in the US, many Argentine workers without bosses are wondering when US workers will follow in their footsteps.  At a panel discussion on recuperated enterprises in November Ernesto Gonzalez, a worker at the worker-run Chilavert printing press posed this question. "Imagine if we had General Motors in Detroit under worker control…we could change the world. Why not if it happens here on the opposite end of the world?"

The idea of America’s automakers in Detroit producing as workers cooperatives may seem like a crazy dream. For Gonzalez, who works at a Chilavert a worker occupied print factory in Buenos Aires, this dream is a reality. During the South American nation’s financial crisis in 2001, he occupied his workplace and fought until he and his fellow workers won legal recognition.

But it wasn’t Detroit where automaker GM is eagerly awaiting a 15 billion dollar emergency loan. Workers occupied their factory in Chicago, home of the Haymarket martyrs and hub of radical union organizing, in one of the first US factory occupation since the sit-down strikes of the 1930’s.  

Both the Chicago Windows and Doors occupation and Argentina’s worker factory takeovers reflect a strategy of workers defending their rights and taking hold of their own destiny. Hard times require desperate measures – workers in the US are finally standing up. "The result [of the Chicago sit-in strike] has been electrifying," says Gross. "Workers around the country are expressing solidarity and ideas are percolating in terms of people’s own work situations." In a show that times are changing, even president elect Barak Obama sent words of support for the Republic Windows and Doors workers.

Meanwhile, in Argentina some of the most successful examples of worker self-management are facing serious legal attacks. Many of these recuperated enterprises are now facing eviction threats, with local and national government unwilling to grant laws in favor of worker self-management. Hotel BAUEN is one such example. The 19-story, 180 room hotel has been operational since workers took it over in 2003. Last year a federal judge issued the BAUEN cooperative an eviction notice. A national expropriation law may be the co-op’s last legal resource, with the eviction notice still withstanding.

According to Fabio Resino, a worker from the BAUEN cooperative, fears over imminent job losses in Argentina’s economy spiraled by the deepening global crisis may be fueling the government’s refusal to back worker occupied factories. "BAUEN’s situation is not an isolated process. It’s an attack to stop a process which began in 2001, when workers took over business that the former bosses were emptying out. Now is a very critical moment for the country, where the global crisis can cause factory closures and mass firings like we have been seeing. For many of those in power, it’s not convenient to have the example of the recuperated enterprises which is why the recovery of businesses and worker self-management is being attacked."

Argentina’s worker occupied factories have successfully put into a practice ideas that directly challenge the logic of capitalism: Occupy, Resist, Produce. They have built democratic workplaces, community projects and solidarity networks with social movements around the world. But most importantly, they have questioned the capitalist model of putting profits over people. This may be the clue to why Argentina’s government does not support many worker self-managed factories and businesses.

Many colleagues have drawn parallels between the Chicago factory sit-in and Argentina’s worker uprising. "Though the worker occupation of Republic Windows and Doors is different in many respects to examples of worker occupations in Argentina, it is worth reflecting on the strikingly similar situations workers in both countries found themselves in, and how they are fighting back," wrote Upsidedownworld.org editor Ben Dangl in a recent article. Dangl is correct that workers worldwide may be inspired by the unexpected decision made by the Republic Windows and Doors workers to occupy their plant to make their demands heard.

The Chicago factory sit in not only offers a window into hard times, but also a strategy into building change from the ground up.  Could the occupation in Chicago set into motion a domino effect? Argentina’s worker occupied businesses and factories offer a window into what the world would look like if the domino effect would be set into motion on a massive scale. The world would be a place without bosses, hierarchy, oppression or exploitation. Who knows, the occupation in Chicago and the success of worker self-management in Argentina may be signs that the world is ready for this utopian dream to become a reality.

Marie Trigona is a writer, radio producer and filmmaker based in Buenos Aires. She can be reached at [email protected]. For more information on Argentina’s recuperated enterprises visit www.agoratv.org

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