This October I spent a week in Buenos Aires, Argentina learning about Argentina’s workers movement to recuperate factories.
During the recent corporate globalization inspired economic downturns in Argentina, workers confronted disaster when their capitalist workplaces often went bankrupt. To preserve income and avoid possible starvation, workers in failing plants in certain cases decided to recuperate their workplaces back into viable businesses despite the capitalist owner being unable to make a go of it.
Ignoring state opposition, aggressive competition, old equipment, and failed demand, workers in these instances took over roughly a hundred and ninety plants over the past five years. In each occupied workplace, we were told during our visit, not only did the capitalist owner leave the operation, so too did prior professional and conceptual employees including managers and engineers. Where the privileged employees felt their prospects would be better served if they looked elsewhere rather than clinging to a failing operation, the unskilled and rote workers had to recuperate their failing workplace or suffer unemployment. Thus to date the Argentine occupations, we were told by a highly conscious organizer in the movement, "have not been acts of ideology or followed a revolutionary plan." They have been, instead, "acts of desperate self defense." Yet most interestingly, provocatively, and inspirationally, after taking over a company, which usually required a struggle of many months to overcome political resistance from the state, and after then running the plants for a time, the recuperation projects have become increasingly visionary.
In addition to hearing about the overall situation of the "workplace recuperation movement," I visited an occupied hotel, ice cream plant, glass factory, and slaughterhouse, all recuperated by their prior manual, obedient, unskilled, and in most cases barely educated and sometimes even illiterate work force.
In each of these plants, ranging in size from about 80 to about 500 employees, as in all other plants recuperated by worker actions, the workers quickly established a workers’ council as the decision making body. In such councils, each worker gets one vote and majority rule establishes overarching workplace policies. Workers call the process self management and each plant decides its own norms and relations.
Almost immediately, however, in most of the occupied plants, "workers leveled all salaries to the same hourly pay rate." Workplaces that varied from this egalitarianism tended to allow "slightly higher wages for those involved in the workplace longer and somewhat lower wages for those just coming aboard." Also, more recently, a discussion has begun about incentives. What type should they use, in what mix? Some workplaces have opted to pay more for conceptual and managerial labor. Others have paid more for more demanding and debilitating work. Most have stuck with equal pay rates for all, however. All have begun wondering, how can they best have equity "but also have incentives to induce hard work?" Even where more onerous work wasn’t paid more, which was most places, we were told there was much concern that people now stuck in rote positions should "have opportunities and be educated to do more interesting work" and that there was also a reduced tendency to refuse to share knowledge because everyone saw general advance as being in everyone’s interest, not just in an owner’s interest.
In all the recuperated plants, although we were told certain tasks having to do with specifically capitalist control have proved "no longer relevant," we were also told "many other organizational, managerial, and otherwise empowering tasks previously done by professionals have needed to be accomplished by the remaining workers." A subset of the workers have thus taken up doing new tasks, including sometimes having to become literate as a prerequisite.
When I asked organizers whether there was a division of labor in workplaces like that found in capitalist corporations, with about a fifth of employees doing mostly or even only empowering and more pleasant labor, and with four fifths doing mostly or even only rote, repetitive, and more onerous labor, including the former dominating the latter by setting agendas, dominating debate, and otherwise establishing its will, the answers I got tended to agree that this difference between more empowered and more rote workers existed and then to talk about the need to induce workers to participate more not only in wage discussions, but in other discussions too. The answers didn’t at first acknowledge that there was a structural impediment, not just old habits, interfering with participation. But then pressed further the organizers would agree that old divisions of labor countered egalitarian impulses though the only solution they offered was for more manual workers to learn to do managerial jobs. They failed to note or acknowledge that there wouldn’t be enough such jobs to go around unless there was a change in the component tasks of jobs so that everyone had a share of empowering tasks.
In the ice cream plant we visited, for example, there were only two women workers. One was the treasurer. Asked what her class was, she at first didn’t understand the query wondering what we could possibly have in mind, but then realized what we meant and said "of course, I am a worker like all others." To her this was obvious. My question was as ridiculous as if I had asked what gender she was. Beyond feeling like all the rest of the workers, being paid like all the rest of the workers, and having one vote like all the rest of the workers, it turned out, supporting her incredulity, that this treasurer also spent only half of each day dealing with finances and records. The other half of each day she worked on the assembly line. However, her situation was not typical. Questions repeatedly revealed that retaining some old work while doing some new more empowering tasks wasn’t the only or even always the most typical job pattern for getting managerial assignments done. Rather, there were often people who did more conceptual tasks as their whole job without spending any time in assembly or other rote work. More, most people in the recuperated factories continued to do only their old jobs without taking up any new empowering aspects. Most people, in other words, still spent hour upon hour doing deadening repetitive labor, though now in a very new context.
Asked if she earned different pay than other workers, the treasurer/assembler said "no, I have the same pay rate, why would my pay be any different?" In further discussion this woman and others in the ice cream plant – and in other plants we visited later too – told us that "while workers aren’t docked for laziness or rewarded greater pay for greater effort, anyone who slacks off comes before the whole council and is set right." Likewise, we were also told that under the auspices of the whole council there had been firings for "alcoholism, violence, etc." In short, pretty much universally in the occupied plants workers had to measure up to their workmates’ satisfaction, which in practice seemed to mean that people had to do their jobs competently and contributing effort commensurate to their capacities as these were understood by the whole council. In short, with workers in charge, you either carried your weight, in accord with your capacities, or you heard about it.
When asked whether she was somehow different than other workers or whether other workers could also do the financial work she was proud of handling, the treasurer said "sure others could do it." Everyone else we asked also said "yes, of course everyone could do financial tasks, or in any case everyone could do some tasks of a conceptual sort." But when asked why only she and two other people in her workplace did treasury work while most workers in her ice cream factory still did only rote and repetitive tasks, neither the treasurer nor any other worker we queried thought this overall division was a failing, at least before being asked about it. "We are all workers," they said. "We are all friends. "We all share the joys and benefits of our shared effort." As long as they worked hard, gave their all, and had equal income, they didn’t seem to feel it made a major difference who did what work. But it is important to remember, while we talked to workers, it was without exception workers who were doing the more empowering jobs.
In longer interviews, activists involved in the movement who were carefully watching its evolution all agreed that a persistent division between more and less empowered workers was problematic and something to overcome lest it undo other gains they believed in, but they offered no specific plan for how to accomplish such a change and generally indicated that a prior concern was being successful and keeping jobs.
In the slaughter house we visited, beyond the subset of workers who did empowered labor we were told that the full council of just under 500 workers elected an eight person board serving for daily administration. We met with these eight employees who were all former rote/repetitive workers but were now doing conceptual tasks and also, beyond that, were voted to the board by the whole assembly. Their salary was unchanged by becoming board members, they reported to us. It had also been unchanged by their earlier graduating to doing more conceptual and empowering work.
We watched, squeamishly, the slaughter house assembly line dismantling cows, with each worker on the line doing a single cutting motion over and over, the sum total being the cutting of the cow into parts for later treatment. The workers council had changed workplace conditions to the point where such assembly workers got much time off, spread through the day, to alleviate the stress and strain of their constant repetitive motions. The council hadn’t, however, redesigned the slaughter house technology to change the actual tasks to be less repetitive and debilitating, nor had it even thought about doing so, as best we could determine from our discussions.
The glass factory we visited also had equal wages for all and a governing council of employees who saw themselves as workers even while doing entirely managerial and planning functions. We watched rote workers tending furnaces and carrying hot glass from station to station and learned that they got a half hour off for each hour spent scurrying in the heat to match the speed of assembly. This was a big change from the capitalist past, as was, of course, the equalization of all pay rates and presence of previously rote workers doing conceptual and empowered tasks. When I asked in this glass factory whether the men and women carrying the glass and tending the furnaces could do more conceptual and less onerous work for a part of their day, everyone said "of course they could, every effort was made to permit people to change jobs, to learn new skills, etc.," especially "since we now know everyone is capable of it." And it was clearly true that this was their intent, at leastup to the limits of the roles imposed by the existing division of labor.
Sitting with board members of the glass factory, I asked what would happen if they went to the whole council and said they wanted higher pay due to their carrying heavy responsibilities or having more knowledge. They laughed and said "we would be removed from our positions, and back on the line." I said, "okay, but what if you do more conceptual and skilled work for the next five years, might you not then get higher wages for being more critical to daily operations, more knowledgeable, providing more leadership at council meetings, etc.?" The council president laughed and said, "well, yes, that might happen and it would be nice wouldn’t it." In longer interviews we discovered that indeed at council meetings the workers who were doing the empowering tasks, those who were the treasurers, etc., did set the agendas, chair the sessions, and provide nearly all critical information – over and over.
Perhaps the most surprising and in some ways most troubling interchange was with the elected president of the glass factory and a couple of other workers who were present as well. I asked whether they thought workers in other more successful plants that were still under the auspices of owners would emulate the recuperation movement’s accomplishments and seek to take over and run their profitable plants too, seeking to self manage them and to thereby make them dignified as well as to share their rewards equitably. With no hesitation at all, the workers said no.
They explained that workers in successful plants would fear that to occupy and run their workplaces would diminish rather than improve their conditions, in addition to fearing being fired or repressed if their uprising failed. They said that prior to actually fighting for and winning control over their work lives they didn’t realize what a difference it would make to their fulfillment to not have profit-seeking bosses. They were quite adamant that their current commitment to the new way of operating depended for its origin and its power on their having had to fight for the plant and then to run it in order to survive, but that their commitment didn’t exist before that.
I asked, "if I tomorrow opened a plant down the road and offered to hire you to work there at twice the pay you are getting here, but also told you that you would have to work for me and my managers, would you do it?" They laughed and told me "you would need to shoot us, literally, to get us to leave our self managed glass plant to work at a capitalist plant of any kind, at any pay rate." So "why couldn’t they convey that lesson to their friends working elsewhere and thereby motivate them to seek change too," I asked. They shrugged. They didn’t see it as likely. Worse, it wasn’t on their agenda.
Overall, the most striking and inspiring thing about these factories was the workers’ spirit. These harsh workplaces, having collapsed under capitalist tutelage and often utilizing outdated or failed technologies were recuperated into success, and the workers were proud of that achievement. The new success that the former owner couldn’t attain clearly rested in part on diminishing costs by eliminating inflated managerial and professional salaries, but no doubt also on increased worker effort due to workers no longer resisting control from above but, instead, feeling the workplace was theirs. Workers were clearly enjoying not only good wages but improved conditions and status, and, above all, they were operating with a degree of dignity and pride as well as with a level of mutual concern and solidarity that to my experience is simply unknown in capitalist workplaces. This spiritual gain was palpable everywhere we visited. But so, regrettably, was the disinclination to try for more.
Among the plants, we heard that there were even collective funds established to aid newly recuperated firm’s initial efforts by transferring start up aid from more established firms to initially struggling ones. We were told there was also the beginning of attention to trying to transact with one another beyond market competition, guided instead by social values and solidarity. But when queried further, workers in the occupied plants also reported that whether they liked it or not they had to compete for market share. At first this was horribly difficult, they said, as other firms buying their intermediate goods shied away. But in time they were able to "keep costs down, provide quality output, and go out and get customers." It was clear in discussing all this, however, that market competition had powerful influence over the scope of decisions the self managing could undertake. Workers councils couldn’t initiate too much improvement in conditions lest other firms, with managers to inflict speed-up and to cut costs, out compete them. This deadening effect of markets hadn’t yet reversed the workers’ humane inclinations, but it was clearly a brake on their enlargement and was already slowing down humane innovations.
I don’t see how anyone, no matter what prior expectations and orderings they might bring with them, could look at these Argentine occupied plants and deny the chief lessons they teach. Capitalist society horribly under-utilizes most people by providing them only rote and repetitive labor and stifling their confidence, creativity, and initiative until they feel that repetitive obedient labor is all they should or could be doing. This is called education, but it is really degradation.
Argentina’s recuperated factory movement shows that in a matter of months even after being slogged and flailed their whole lives through, even when they are barely literate or are illiterate, working people can take up tasks supposedly beyond their ken and accomplish them honorably and effectively. Likewise, Argentina’s occupied factories display the powerful spontaneous desire of people who haven’t been socialized into elitist mindsets to earn equitably and to apportion power fairly rather than dominate or be dominated.
Beyond those key lessons, however, different people will likely see different things when viewing Argentina’s occupied factories. I saw, for example, that without changing the division of labor so that all workers equally share conceptual and empowering tasks, even the profoundly egalitarian and participatory impulses of these factories would tend to decline and be overcome. If a relatively few employees, even originating from the shop floor of each workplace, even if they were freely voted to their higher positions, rose to do all the empowering tasks while the rest of the workers stayed mired in only repetitive tasks as earlier, in time the few doing empowered labor would dominate council discussions, set meeting agendas, impose their will regarding policies, and finally reward themselves greater salaries and benefits as well.
In short, despite almost universal egalitarian intentions, employees set off from other workers by a division of labor that gives a few more status, knowledge, skill, and confidence than those left doing only rote labor would become what they had sincerely sought to eliminate, a new dominant class, this time, however, not of owners, but of empowered employees or what I call coordinators, in any event again ruling workers from above.
Argentina’s defensive workplace projects, growing in number each month, each start with no owners and no "coordinator class" of empowered workers. They also start with a tremendous desire not only to succeed as businesses but to share the benefits of success equitably via equitable pay rates, improved conditions, democratic decision making, and recallable officials. But, if the old corporate division of labor persists in these recuperated plants, it seemed clear that all the desirable innovations would in time depend on good will and humane aspirations that would continually buck up against and be relentlessly eroded by the structural difference between the few doing empowering work and the many doing only rote work. On the other hand, it also seemed evident that if the workers became as self conscious about everyone doing a fair share of the empowering labor as they were about equalizing pay rates, then their aspirations for classlessness would not only reside in their hearts, but would also be structurally propelled by a new division of labor which would facilitate and advance rather than erode their gains.
The problem of the market and broader economy would still remain, even in that more hopeful case, however. Understanding the market’s debilitating implications for each workplace and seeing what kinds of changes would reduce those ills and in time finally auger in new allocation relations in place of markets would also need to become a priority for a movement that would transcend present relations. Beginning to counter market pressures would also be key to reversing what seemed to us the least admirable feature of the Argentine movement, its insularity in each firm and the workers’ seeming lack of desire to address non recuperated firms by demanding changes in them too.
Finally, it was disturbing to hear workers describe how if they had been employed in successful plants they would not have sought to run them as they would in that case not have been pushed by necessity and would also not have understood the debits of their position and the possibilities of liberation. It sounded like evidence someone might offer on behalf of vanguard organizing by an enlightened few who would drag along the unenlightened many even against their lack of awareness and inclination. The only rebuttal, I think, would be not to deny the facts offered by the workers, but to argue that we should simply reject the elitist "solution" as being contrary to our broader goals and require, instead, that movements figure out how to inspire and support action in successful firms as well as in collapsed ones, and how to do this not via a top down process that would lead in ways preserving class division, but by a sideways growth in ways generating activism consistent with classlessness. We have to not only beat capitalists, we have to attain for whole economies true and full self management.