Worker-Run Cooperatives in Buenos Aires




D

uring
the economic crisis of 2001, when politicians and banks failed,
many Argentines took matters into their own hands. Poverty, homelessness,
and unemployment were countered with barter systems and grassroots,
micro- credit lending programs. Community groups were created to
provide solidarity, food, and support in neighborhoods across the
country. 


Perhaps
the most well known of these initiatives was the recuperation of
bankrupt factories and business, which were occupied by workers
and run cooperatively. There are roughly 200 worker-run factories
and businesses in Argentina (most of them started in the midst of
the 2001 crisis); 15,000 people work in these cooperatives and the
businesses range from car part factories to rubber balloon producers.
Two recuperated businesses with stories that are representative
of this movement are the Hotel Bauen and the Chilavert book publishing
factory. 



Hotel
Bauen 



H

otel
Bauen first opened during the military dictatorship in 1978 when
Buenos Aires hosted the World Cup. From that time on, the hotel
was a meeting place for big business owners, people connected to
the dictatorship, and politicians, such as former Argentine President
Carlos Menem. Ironically, since the worker takeover in 2003, Hotel
Bauen has been the meeting place for left-leaning activists groups
and union members. Recently, the city’s subway workers went
on strike and much of their decision making and organizing was coordinated
from the hotel. 


Marcelo
Iurcovich ran the hotel for years until 1997, when he sold it to
Solaris, a Chilean company. In 2001 the hotel went bankrupt and
on December 21, Solaris fired all of its workers. The majority of
the 90 employees went without work for 12 to 14 months. “Our
decision to take over the hotel wasn’t capricious,” explained
Horacio Lalli, a member of the hotel’s cooperative. “A
lot of the people here were fathers and mothers of families. There
was no work. We had to do something, so after a lot of meetings
we decided to take the hotel back.” 


On
March 21, 2003 Hotel Bauen’s workers gathered at night at the
intersection of the streets Corrientes and Calloa in downtown Buenos
Aires. They walked the short distance to the hotel and entered the
building. Cheers filled the air. They had succeeded in the first
step of the recuperation process: occupy. 


The
hotel was far from being in working condition. A lot of the material
and equipment had been sold by the previous owners or stolen. The
workers still faced months of hard work getting the hotel back on
its feet. “Throughout this time businesses and students in
Buenos Aires helped us out by gathering money for us so we could
eat,” Lalli explained. “Yet we were afraid the hotel bosses
would come back and kick us out. This period of time was full of
fear.” 


It
took the workers until August 2004 to reopen the hotel. To this
day, the fate of the hotel remains in the hands of a judge. According
to Lalli, the judge will probably decide that the workers need to
pay rent or buy it from the previous owner. 


In
the meantime, the hotel is back in business. Though it is still
not entirely in working order, it is a bustling center for political
and cultural events and generates enough profit to keep the operation
going. The workers are running their business as a cooperative.
Not everyone gets the same salary, but all major decisions are made
in assemblies attended by all the hotel’s workers. 


Fabio
Resino has been working at the hotel since it was taken over by
the workers in 2003. “If the hotel had been running cooperatively
for years it would not have closed. There was a lot of corruption
and bad management with the previous owner,” he explained.
“You could ask all 90 people that work here today and they’d
all respond that they prefer this system to working for one boss.
It takes more time this way, you have to work for more hours with
fewer resources, but it’s worth it. 


“Before,
we worked for a boss,” he continued. “Now we work for
ourselves. When it is a cooperative, you want to work better because
it is your business, your own process. Before, workers were numbers.
Now we are people.” 



Chilavert 



T

he
Chilavert book publishing factory is located outside the center
of Buenos Aires in a quiet neighborhood. On the front of the building
is a colorful mural which contains the slogan of the recuperated
business movement: “Occupy, Resist, Produce.” 


The
factory is divided into offices, a kitchen, a cultural center, and
a large area full of printing and book binding machines. The machines
vary in age; some of them are from the 1950s and the newer ones
are from the 1970s. People of all ages work or help organize community
events. One woman works in the cultural center on the second floor;
another sorts articles for a journal Chilavert produces. A musician
stops by to use the computer to print a flier for one of his concerts.
Teenagers work as interns and learn the intricacies of book layout
and design. Towards the end of the day, dozens of people show up
for salsa classes in the cultural center. The factory has a festive,
communal feel to it, but work still goes on—a book of poetry
and a science textbook were being produced. 


The
factory started in 1923. It was then called Gaglianone after the
family who ran the business for decades. Gaglianone was well known
in Buenos Aires as a producer of high quality art books and material
for the major theaters in the city. However, in the 1990s the business
had less and less work and a lot of the equipment was sold, salaries
were lowered, and people were fired. In April 2002, the factory
closed its doors. 


Out
of necessity and a desire to keep their place of work functioning,
the workers decided to occupy the factory and rename it Chilavert,
after the street it is on. At the beginning of the occupation, they
clandestinely produced books (as illegal occupants of the building,
it was against the law to do so). After producing them, they snuck
the books through a hole in the factory’s wall and into the
neighbor’s house. Though the hole has since been repaired,
Chilavert workers have proudly placed a frame around this exposed
brick section of the wall. 


A
climactic moment came on May 24, 2002 when eight patrol cars, dozens
of police, eight assault vehicles, two ambulances, and one fire
truck showed up at Chilavert to kick the workers out. The 8 workers
occupying the building were accompanied by nearly 300 other people,
including neighbors, students, and workers from other cooperatives
who were there to help defend the factory. The massive group intimidated
the police and when it became clear that blood was about to flow
from both sides, the police retreated. 



Occupy,
Resist, Produce 



C

andido
Gonzalez worked at Chilavert for 42 years before participating in
the worker takeover. During an interview, Candido smiled often and
was clearly proud of Chilavert and its history. He has been deeply
involved in the business for years, especially since the worker
takeover. After a recent heart attack he attributes to stress and
overwork, he said he plans to take it easy. That didn’t stop
him from attending the fifth annual World Social Forum in Brazil
and participating in a recent city-wide subway strike. 


“Occupy,
resist, and produce. This is the synthesis of what we are doing,”
Candido said. “And it is the community as a whole that makes
this possible. When we were defending this place there were eight
assault vehicles and thirty policemen that came here to kick us
out. But we, along with other members of the community, stayed here
and defended the factory.” 


He
recalls this fight with tears in his eyes, “It is normal for
you to fight for yourself, but when others fight for your cause
it is very emotional.”  


Part
of the local economy in the neighborhood depends on Chilavert for
business. “We get transportation, ink, food, coffee, and paper—there
is a paper factory 15 blocks from here—all in this neighborhood.
Chilavert helps the economy and if this factory closes, the neighborhood
suffers.” 


Twelve
people work at the factory and, unlike other cooperatives in the
city, everyone has the same salary. Major decisions are made in
assemblies and community-based activities play an important role
in the weekly agenda. On the second level of the building there
is a cultural center, which is used for salsa classes, movie screenings,
discussions, poetry readings, parties, art exhibits, and dances. 


Since
the worker takeover, Chilavert has produced many books on social
and political themes, with titles such as

The Unemployed Workers
Movement

,

What are Popular Assemblies


,

and

Piquetera
Dignity



“Every
decision, every assembly, every book published, has something to
do with politics,” a Chilavert worker, Julieta Galera explained.
“The idea is to make books and works of art that have something
to do with our political vision. There is a lot of prejudice against
recuperated factories in Buenos Aires. People think we don’t
work hard enough. But Chilavert does some of the best work in the
business.” 



Though
Chilavert is one of the most famous of the recuperated businesses,
its story is still unknown to most Argentines. “We almost don’t
exist in the newspapers or the TV programs because we aren’t
with the government,” Candido explained. “There are some
200 recuperated, cooperative businesses in Argentina. That’s
not a lot compared to all the others that are not run this way.” 


Candido
doesn’t think much of current president Nestor Kirchner and
doesn’t attribute Chilavert’s success to any politician.
“We didn’t put a political party banner in the factory
because we are the ones that took the factory. All kinds of politicians
have come here asking for our support. Yet when the unions failed,
when the state failed, the workers began a different kind of fight.
If you want to take power and you can’t take over the state,
you have to at least take over the means of production.” 


Candido
pointed across the room to a giant safe in the corner. Across the
top of the safe was the name, Gaglianone. He laughed and shook his
head. Perhaps that’s where the old boss hoarded all of his
money. “Now,” Candido explained, pulling out a bottle,
“this is where we keep the whiskey.”



 





Benjamin Dangl
is currently working as a freelance journalist in Latin America. He
is the editor of www.UpsideDown World.org, an online magazine about
activism and politics.