While many workers around the world are worried about downsizing, lay-offs and how to protect their jobs, workers in Argentina have come up with their own solution to business closures – Occupy, Resist and Produce. Many factories, like the Zanon Ceramics plant, have been running without bosses for almost a decade. In response to a financial crisis in 2001 that wrecked Argentina’s economy, workers decided to occupy their workplaces and start up production without bosses in order to safe-guard their jobs.
Zanon Ceramics, now known as FASINPAT (Factory without a boss), has re-defined the basis of production: without workers, bosses are unable to run businesses; without bosses, workers can do it better. As the largest recuperated factory in Argentina, and occupied since 2001, the Zanon ceramics plant in the Patagonian province of Neuquén now employs 470 workers.
This month, the FASINPAT collective is a step closer in winning permanent control of the factory. The provincial government presented a bill in the provincial legislature for the expropriation of the factory. If this bill is passed, and it looks favorable, it would mean a solution to the workers’ long standing legal woes.
Since the plant began production under worker control in 2002, they have faced numerous eviction threats and other violent attacks. The government has tried to evict them five times using police operatives. On April 8, 2003, during the most recent eviction attempt, over 5,000 community members from Neuquén came out to defend the factory.
In a press release, the worker collective said that the legislature received the bill was a positive step. "The historic progress we made today was the result of a hard fight. The collective struggle and mobilization of Worker Self-management, along with the workers in this country, community support and international recognition has made this possible."
In 2001, Zanon’s owners decided to close their doors and fire the workers without paying months of back pay or indemnity. Leading up to the massive layoffs and the 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, 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 camped outside the factory for four months, pamphleting and partially blocking a highway leading to the capital city 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. For more than eight years, FASINPAT has created jobs, supported community projects and shown the world that we don’t need bosses.
Luis Zanon´s debts of over $70 million are still outstanding, while many of the creditors want their money back, pushing for the eviction and foreclosure of the ceramics plant. The current bill presented in the legislature would mean that 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.
Omar Villablanca, a worker at Zanon said that the workers are most concerned about providing job continuity – safeguarding the 470 jobs that the factory without a boss have created and maintained since 2001. He stressed that FASINPAT needs a formal long-term legal solution in order to survive as a competitive business in a faltering economy.
"The state needs to make laws so that workers can work. In eight years we haven’t asked the state for anything other than an expropriation law," said Jose Luis Paris, another worker from FASINPAT.
Economic Crisis Grips Argentina
Argentina is in a better position than other Latin American nations in the face of the deepening global crisis. From 2003 to 2007, Argentina enjoyed a high economic growth rate, between 8 and 9 percent. However, with the global economy in recession the nation’s growth has come to a halt, and it is expected that Argentina will see a drastic drop Gross Domestic Product in 2010.
Many independent analysts expect that the global recession will affect Argentina’s real economy, that’s to say industry and employment rates will suffer from the crisis, rather than the financial sector which 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.
The current government of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner has bolstered that unemployment has gone done from the staggering numbers post-2001 crisis. Many of those jobs are subcontracted and underpaid. Official unemployment statistics, which have been under fire for being conveniently inaccurate, report unemployment at 8 percent. However, many independent analysts say that the actual rate is much higher. Eduardo Lucita, economist from Economists of the Left said that analysts don’t have exact numbers because many of the firings are of workers without formal contracts and can’t be tracked. "Argentina has already had a crisis in the financial sector in 2001. The current crisis is directly affecting Argentina’s real economy. Since October, there are more than 50,000 people who are now unemployed. There have been mass firings, lay-offs and pay cuts."
Workers Paying for the Crisis
In the failing economy, the jobs at FASINPAT are more important than ever. But the government seems to have all but forgotten that the recuperated enterprises and worker cooperatives provide nearly 20,000 jobs for Argentina, while the government has failed to provide a long-term legal solution to the workers without bosses or subsidies that standard businesses regularly have access to.
Another factor in the struggle at FASINPAT is the lack of subsidies for the cooperative. Sales have dropped by 40-50 percent since 2008 due to a radical slow-down in the construction industry nationally.
"Because of the drop in construction, we aren’t producing as much," says Paris. In 2006, the plant produced 400,000 square meters of ceramics per month, today that number has gone down to 150,000 square meters per month. The cooperative has had to shut off some of the ovens and shorten production shifts. On top of this drop; the workers controlling the factory have had to face sky-rocketing energy prices. The workers pay over 300,000 dollars a month for electricity and gas. And for Paris, the workers should not have to pay more than other businesses do: "Many industry leaders get government energy subsidies up to 70 percent. We want to buy directly from the gas companies to lower our costs or receive subsidies that we are entitled to."
Many of the 200 worker controlled businesses and factories in Argentina are being affected by the crisis. But unlike their capitalist counterparts, the worker cooperatives are taking any measure possible to avoid laying off workers, something which they are opposed to doing.
"We aren’t like the capitalists. You can’t throw workers out like they are lice," said Candido Gonzalez, a veteran worker from Chilavert worker occupied print factory in Buenos Aires, one of the first occupied plants after the 2001 crisis.
During the Argentina’s financial crisis in 2001, he occupied his workplace and fought until he and his fellow workers won legal recognition. Now that business is slowing down, many assemblies at the worker occupied factories would rather accept collective pay cuts, than their fellow workers lose their jobs.
When Capitalism Fails – Occupy, Resist and Produce
Capitalism has taken a turn for the worse, spinning itself out of control into a downward spiral which many are characterizing as the second depression of the century. And during this crisis, there are going to be winners and losers. The winners? Most likely big business and banks receiving bailout plans. The losers? The millions who are facing unemployment, dropping wages and inflation.
"During a capitalist crisis, when the businessmen and governments are trying to unload all their responsibilities onto the workers of the world, Zanon under worker self-management, is a clear example of how workers can come out of this crisis," say the workers at FASINPAT.
Since late 2008 there have been several new factory takeovers in Argentina. Many workers from the newly occupied factories say that their bosses saw the crisis as the perfect opportunity to clear their debts by closing up shop, fraudulently liquidating assets, firing workers and later re-start production under a new firm.
"[However] Many companies are still open because they are afraid of the recovered factory phenomenon; we have to keep them scared," said Paris from Zanon. In almost all of the newly recuperated factories, the workers suggest that the owners had no real reason to close up shop – meaning that the businesses had production demand. I have heard workers on numerous occasions say that during the crisis, the bosses are taking advantage of the situation of a recession.
The worker controlled factories and businesses occupied after 2001 may not be by themselves a social revolution, but the example of worker self-management has helped many workers today facing the possibility of losing their jobs with the idea that they can occupy their workplace in order to defend their rights as laborers. Nearly 10 factories have been occupied since 2008. This may be a sign that workers are confronting the global financial crisis with lessons and tools from previous worker occupied factories. Strategically, the previous worker occupied factories have been fundamental in providing advice of all kinds, including legal, political, production and moral.
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.
"The recuperated enterprises are working to change society. We are changing the way of working, working without exploitation and show workers that we can function without bosses," says Jorge Suarez from Hotel BAUEN, an operating worker occupied hotel in down town Buenos Aires.
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 – and one measure may be for workers to occupy, resist and produce.
Marie Trigona is a writer, radio producer and filmmaker based in Argentina. She can be reached at [email protected]