In 1812, bands of British weavers and knitters raided textile mills and smashed industrial machines with their hammers. According to the Luddites, the new mechanised looms had eliminated thousands of jobs and broken communities and deserved to be destroyed. The British government disagreed and called in a force of 14,000 soldiers to brutally repress the worker revolt and protect the machines.
Fast-forward two centuries to another textile factory, this one in
Last Monday, the Brukman factory was the site of the worst repression
They had only taken a few steps when the police began shooting: tear gas, water cannons, rubber bullets, then lead. The police even charged the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, in their white headscarves embroidered with the names of their “disappeared” children. Dozens of demonstrators were injured and police fired tear gas into a hospital where some had taken refuge.
This is a snapshot of
Why this state Luddism, this rage at machines? Well, Brukman isn’t just any factory, it’s a fabrica ocupada , one of almost 200 factories across the country that have been taken over and run by their workers over the past year and a half. For many, the factories, employing more than 10,000 nationwide and producing everything from tractors to ice cream, are seen not just as an economic alternative, but as a political one as well. “They are afraid of us because we have shown that if we can manage a factory we can also manage a country,” Celia Martinez, a Brukman worker, said on Monday night. “That’s why this government decided to repress us.”
At first glance, Brukman looks like every other garment factory in the world. As in Mexico’s hyper modern maquiladoras and Toronto’s crumbling coat factories, Brukman is filled with women hunched over sewing machines, their eyes straining and fingers flying over fabric and thread.
What makes Brukman different are the sounds. There is the familiar roar of machines and the hiss of steam, but there is also Bolivian folk music, coming from a small tape deck in the back of the room, and softly spoken voices, as older workers lean over younger ones, showing them new stitches. “They wouldn’t let us do that before,”
I n Brukman, for instance, the means of production weren’t seized, they were simply picked up after they had been abandoned by their legal owners. The factory had been in decline for several years, debts to utility companies were piling up, and, over a period of five months, the seamstresses had seen their salaries slashed from 100 pesos a week to a mere two pesos – not enough for the bus fare.
O n December 18, the workers decided it was time to demand a travel allowance. The owners, pleading poverty, told the workers to wait at the factory while they looked for the money. “We waited for them until evening. We waited until night,”
After getting the keys from the doorman,
Brukman has come to represent a new kind of labour movement here, one that is not based on the power to stop working (the traditional union tactic), but on the dogged determination to keep working no matter what. It’s a demand that is not driven by dogmatism, but by realism: in a country where 58% of the population is living in poverty, workers know that they are a pay cheque away from having to beg and scavenge to survive. The spectre that is haunting
But isn’t it simple theft? After all, these workers didn’t buy the machines, the owners did – if they want to sell them or move them to another country, surely that’s their right. As the federal judge wrote in Brukman’s eviction order: “Life and physical integrity have no supremacy over economic interests.”
Perhaps unintentionally, he has summed up the naked logic of deregulated globalisation: capital must be free to seek out the lowest wages and most generous incentives, regardless of the toll that process takes on people and communities. The workers in
Dozens of workers’ cooperatives have already been awarded legal expropriation. Brukman is still fighting. Come to think of it, the Luddites made a similar argument in 1812. The new textile mills put profits for a few before an entire way of life. Those textile workers tried to fight that destructive logic by smashing the machines. The Brukman workers have a much better plan: they want to protect the machines and smash the logic.
Naomi Klein ‘s latest book is Fences and Windows