Last December, overwhelmed by debt and the countrys economic chaos, the Brukman brothers left their high-end suit factory in Buenos Aires and never returned. They also left more than 100 employees awaiting back pay.
In the streets, Argentines were protesting economic measures imposed by then-President Fernando de la Ra (1998-2001), who declared a state of emergency, then resigned amid a political and economic crisis. Jacobo, Enrique and Carlos Brukman had suspended their workers regular wages, which ranged from US$300 to $500 a month, and were paying just a few dollars a week.
When payday came on Dec. 18, the owners “told us we were crazy if we thought they were going to bring back the money theyd moved out of the country just to pay us,” said, 48, a 10-year employee who was a representative of the workers at the six-story plant. Then the owners walked out. “We didnt know what was going to happen, but when the state of emergency was lifted, we hung out a banner that said, Factory taken over,” Martnez said.
More than 50 factories whose owners have declared bankruptcy or shutdowns have been taken over by employees anxious to keep their jobs. When employees take over a plant, they usually form a cooperative and ask the government to expropriate the building and equipment. The government then rents them the infrastructure. More than 5,000 workers are estimated to be working at such plants.
The National Movement of Recovered Companies (MNER), which represents about half the countrys worker-controlled factories, encourages the creation of cooperatives and is calling for laws that would give such businesses a legal framework. Worker-managed plants include bakeries, printing companies, chicken producers, meat packers and manufacturers of tractors, ceramics, plastics, metalwork and textiles. About 30 are located in the Buenos Aires metropolitan area.
Only 56 of the Brukmans 115 employees remained at the plant. The majority 46 are women. Limited by the small staff and a court order that prevents them from selling wholesale, they can no longer produce the 150 suits a week that the plant used to manufacture. They also lack official legal standing, so they cannot issue receipts, another obstacle to large-scale sales.
“But despite the legal prohibition, the judicial system cant change reality, and the reality is that these people are producing and selling retail in order to survive and earn a minimum wage,” lawyer Rubn Tripi said. “Their production doesnt put the factorys capital at risk. Besides, its been proven that the owners abandoned the company.”
Retail sales enable the workers to earn about $110 a month. In a country where 5.6 million people 41 percent of the workforce are officially unemployed or underemployed, thats an achievement. They have also paid off the $550 the Brukmans owed their gas supplier and an overdue electric bill of $2,063.
While they’ve hung onto their jobs, it hasnt been easy.
“At first, we didnt know how to set prices or calculate costs, because all the administrative and sales personnel had left with the owners,” Martnez said, recalling that the workers put a $14 price tag on suits that cost $110 to make.
Suppliers didnt want to sell to them because of the large debts left by the owners. The workers had to explain that they would pay cash for all purchases. Little by little, they acquired the cloth they needed and learned the parts of the business they didnt know, from management to production.
The workers formed six committees a financial committee, which manages cash flow; a work committee, which ensures that schedules and production goals are met; a street sales committee; a group responsible for purchasing supplies; an internal affairs committee; and a press commission, which publishes a newspaper called “Our Struggle.”
“Things are different now, because there arent as many of us and we no longer have a nine-hour work day,” said Martnez, who is on the internal affairs committee. “We work 12-hour shifts and have to take turns sleeping at the plant. We cant leave it empty, because the police or owners could come at any moment.”
After 11 months of running their own factory, the workers asked the Buenos Aires government to take over the plant. City legislators, however, rejected the idea and suggested that the workers form a cooperative and request expropriation of the plant.
The city government could temporarily expropriate the building and machinery and rent them to the workers. After two years, the cooperative would be given a preferential option to purchase the factory. The Brukman workers, however, say theyre in no hurry and will ask lawmakers to reconsider their proposal.
“Everyone chooses the way they want to do things,” Martnez said. “We dont feel that we are the owners. We dont want to form a cooperative. We want the company to be taken over by the government, so we will become government employees at the service of the community.”
– Dan Clore