Manufacturing militants.


The occupied factory movement in Argentina sprung out of the economic disaster that befell the country during the last decade – brought about by years of neoliberal policies and strict adherence to the dictates of the International financial institutions.

Zanón a ceramics factory in Neuquén, a southern Argentine province, is perhaps the best known example. It was taken over and very successfully run by its workers since 2001, under very difficult conditions – a constant threat of eviction, hired gangs terrorizing the workers, and the direct opposition of the local provincial governor, an ally of the old owner, and tacit opposition (by way of not supporting their struggle at all) by the supposedly “center-left” National government of Nestor Kirchner.

Despite the fair amount of publicity that the movement has received, certain details have not been clearly explained, particularly in regards to why the workers have a claim on the factories and the challenge that they pose towards the notion of private property. In order to better understand the history of Zanon, and what is going on today, I talked by phone with Alejandro López, one of the workers’ union representatives.

Many relevant details emerged out of this conversation helping fill large gaps in the story and establish connections with the country’s recent past, including the assassins of the military dictatorship that came to power in 1976 and who killed and disappeared over 30,000 people (with the open support of the Carter administration), most of them union organizers, workers, students, and their families. It is interesting to note that the neoliberal experiment got started in full swing in Argentina around that time, and that many of the economic policies of the “democratically” elected Ménem, that led to the complete economic collapse of 2001, actually mimicked almost exactly those of the military government.

The factory was inaugurated in the early 1980’s. The military government, in an effort to hide the stories that were starting to emerge about the dirty war and the brutal repression, was trying to win favorable public opinion by opening large public works and new enterprises, which they heavily subsidized. In the case of Zanón, it was built completely on public land, with capital lent, and never repaid, by the National and Provincial governments. When democracy arrived in 1984, production was already in full swing.

By 1992, with a more owner friendly labor law (in the late 40’s and early 50’s the country, under Perón, had enacted many laws protecting workers’ rights), people were being hired under six month contracts, which the owners renewed at their will. Turnover was extremely high and union activism was strongly discouraged. In fact, the union was taken over by the syndicate mafia. Far from protecting workers, this mafia acted in collusion with the owners and helped in singling out non-obedient workers for dismissal or worse.

In 2000 the workers were able to successfully recuperate the union leadership, and started pressing for better working conditions (for example in regards to industrial security, given that the factory had an extremely poor record with approximately 1 death for each year of operation and over 40 industrial accidents per month). The renewed workers’ activism, needless to say, did not sit well with Mr. Zanón.

The new union organization was based on assemblies and general consensus. This and continued successes in the different efforts they undertook helped forge very strong bonds between the workers, empowering their struggle.

At the same time, they started a political program to get the community informed and involved. This was fundamental in obtaining public opinion approval for their cause later on and it was instrumental when many thousands of people showed up to forcefully fight back eviction efforts by the local repressive forces.

Mr. Zanón, faced with an empowered labor force that would not bend to his will, bet on demoralizing the workers, starting by eliminating “privileges” (the transportation system to their homes, the dining rooms and finally the infirmaries) When none of these worked he started firing people, hoping they would just go away. Instead, the workers set up camp in front of the factory and stayed there for many months, with full support of the surrounding community. The owner then decided to shut the factory down completely, hoping that when the conditions were appropriate again he would be able to hire a more docile workforce.

At this point, the workers, with the justification that they were owed large amounts in back pay, and knowing that the factory had been heavily subsidized by the community at large, decided to take over production and prevent what they perceived as the possible fire sale of the factory’s assets and flight of the Zanón family without repaying their debt or the opportunity of ever recuperating their jobs again, with the subsequent loss to the surrounding community.

Since then, under their cooperative called FaSinPat (for “Fábrica sin Patrones”, or Factory without owners) they have created more than 250 new jobs, becoming one of the largest ceramics factories in the country, and have donated their tiles to many local hospitals and schools. Remarkably, they have reduced the number of industrial accidents to about 36 per year – a result, according to López, of people working in a more relaxed atmosphere, during normal hours, and without the constant pressure and harassment to produce profitably. Also, they have organized large scale cultural events with some of the most renowned musicians in the country, all of which helps them to foster bonds and good relations with their local community.

When asked about their internal organization and how they make sure that everybody involved stays empowered, López responded that their union is anti-bureaucratic, anti-government, where new people are constantly encouraged to participate. As their case becomes better known they get invitations from all over the world to give talks and explain their struggle, and normally the people that get sent come from the grassroots, helping develop both their understanding of the struggle and their speaking skills. They consider that Zanón is a factory that builds not just ceramics, but militants. He says that if they are able to run their own factory so successfully, why not the whole country?

This is, perhaps, why their case is so dangerous to the status quo, and, given their militant stance, they have not been able to advance their claim for legal status for their cooperative and full expropriation of the factory – unlike many other factories who have successfully gained legal status and have been co-opted into abandoning the larger struggle. Their case is making its tortuous path through the court system (which is totally stacked against them, as judges proclaim that their first duty is to protect “private property”). At the moment there is a process in place, “cram down”, whereby anybody can offer to buy the factory (for pennies on the dollar) provided they are willing to assume the massive debt accumulated by the original owner. This was supposed to take one week, but since nobody made any offers the judge decided through legal gerrymandering to extend the period of solicitation to a month. If this effort proves unsuccessful, then the factory will be declared in bankruptcy, finally opening up the possibility of the government taking it over, and perhaps giving it to the workers.

Yet the Governor of Neuquen and the government of Kirchner recognize publicly that the solution to this conflict is political. The provincial government is doing everything it can to see them fail, and the National government is washing its hands off of the problem almost entirely.

López mentioned that international support and pressure, given these circumstances, is terribly important. There is a petition of international support that will be sent to President Kirchner. This petition is available online at http://www.petitiononline.com/zanon/petition.html

You can also send a message to President Kirchner by logging in to

http://www.labourstart.org/cgi-bin/solidarityforever/show_campaign.cgi?c=49

Zanón is a clear example of what can happen when workers organize and function in solidarity. It cannot be allowed to fail.

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