Worker Self-Management in Argentina

{Part of this paper was adapted from a recently published article, Recuperated Enterprises in Argentina: Reversing the Logic of Capitalism. This revised version was prepared for the June 1-7 2006 first Z Sessions on Vision and Strategy, held in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.}


Thus the working class is confronted with the necessity of itself taking the production in hand. The mastery over the machines, over the means of production, must be taken out of the unworthy hands that abuse them. But it is the workers, chief and permanent sufferers from the capitalist system, and, moreover, majority of the population, on whom it impends to free themselves and the world from this scourge. They must [manage] the means of production. They must be masters of the factories, masters of their own labor, to conduct it at their own will. Then the machines will be put to their true use, the production of abundance of goods to provide for the life necessities of all.

Anton Pannekoek, Workers’ Councils, 1948  


This paper aims to present critical analysis and some hypotheses on strategies for worker-self management (autogestión). Argentina’s worker-run factories are setting an example for workers around the world that employees can run a business even better without a boss or owner. Raising critical questions about the practices and strategies these experiences have developed may point us to a practical road towards workers’ emancipation from exploitation and oppression. Why should workers occupy their workplaces? What type of alternatives to capitalism have the worker-take overs developed? How can these experiences of worker self-management lead us to destroy systems of exploitation and oppression?             


Some 180 recuperated enterprises are up and running, providing jobs for more than 10,000 Argentine workers. This new phenomenon of employees taking over their workplace began in 2000 and heightened as Argentina faced its worst economic crisis ever in 2001. Nationwide, thousands of factories have closed and millions of jobs have been lost in recent years. Despite challenges, Argentina’s recuperated factory movement have created jobs, formed a broad network of mutual support among the worker-run workplaces and generated community projects.


Argentina’s employee-run businesses are very diverse, each with specific legal standing and forms of organizing production. In almost all cases workers took over businesses that had been abandoned or closed by their owners in the midst of Argentina’s financial meltdown in 2001. The owners usually ceased production, stopped paying wages, and went bankrupt. The workers’ decision to take over their plant was a decision made out of necessity–not necessarily out of ideology. The clear worry of how to safeguard workers’ jobs motivated the act of taking over a factory and making it produce without a boss or owner.


The phrase “self-management,” derived from the Spanish concept of “autogestión,” means that a community or group makes its own decisions, especially those kinds of decisions that fit into processes of planning and management. Argentina’s recuperated enterprises are putting into action systems of organization in a business in which the workers participate in all of the decisions. 



Challenges and Strategy


Challenge no. 1 THE STATE: Many worker-controlled factories today face hostility and frequently violence from the state. Workers have had to organize themselves against violent eviction attempts and other acts of state violence. This impacts the workers and the enterprises as employees have to leave the workplace, invest energy in a legal battle and fight for laws in favor of worker-recuperated businesses. Almost all of the recuperated enterprises have battled with a double edged sword (having to fight against state repression while at the same time using the legal system to defend their workplace).


Repressive state regimes ultimately destroyed most of the experiences in worker self-management throughout history. Franco’s regime waged a Fascist war against anarchists and socialists who collectivized much of Spain’s industry. Capitalists in Chile failed to sabotage the worker self-managed industrial belts that coordinated production under the Allende Government. In 1973, Chilean capitalists along with the U.S. government aided Pinochet’s coup de tat to install state terrorism to murder thousands of workers and usher in the neoliberal economic model. The state worked along side capitalist interests to divide and conquer or out right attack worker-run workplaces. 


Today, in Argentina the “progressive-repressive” government of Nestor Kirchner and local lackeys have used similar techniques. The government threatens to give the enterprise back to the owner and leave the workers out in the streets, while at the same time making symbolic gestures to support the experience. For example the Labor Ministry sponsoring the first fair of recuperated enterprises at the worker-run BAUEN hotel and the next month ordering the closure of the hotel. 


How can workers maintain their autonomous vision while having to rely on the state for legalization and also working within the capitalist model? Even with contradictions workers are questioning capitalist exploitation by creating autonomous alternatives under worker self-management.               


STRATEGY No. 1: Legality vs. Legitimacy


Many of the recuperated enterprises were forced to start up production without any legal backing whatsoever. Whenever the bosses proved unable to administer the industry and to keep it producing, the workers organized and demonstrated that they run a business even better without a boss or owner. By taking over abandoned businesses and running them without any legality the workers are questioning the very logic of private property. What is legitimate, the workers’ right to defend their jobs or an owner’s legal right to get back a business that he or she built with government subsidies?  Worker take overs have moved us toward battling the private property system.


STRATEGY No. 2: Direct political action against the state


In almost all cases of the factory takeovers the workers used the strategy of direct political action.  The first step was to physically take over the workplaces through occupations. These workers from BAUEN cut the lock off a side entrance to occupy their hotel. Obviously, these actions directly questioned the notion of private property. The workers then had to rally within their communities to defend their occupied workplaces from violent eviction. In many cases, workers have physically confronted government officials and police. When you break the law as a collective it creates a sense of unity and legitimacy, empowering working class roots.  A fundamental vision has been the realization that workers have the right and means to defend themselves and their factories.


Despite political and market challenges, Argentina’s recuperated enterprises represent the development of one of the most advanced strategies in defense of the working class and resistance against capitalism and neoliberalism. Worker-run businesses have battled for laws to protect workers’ jobs and opened legal doors for other recuperated enterprises. Many of the recuperated factories have built an extensive international solidarity network among Latin America’s some 300 recuperated enterprises in Argentina, Venezuela, Brazil and Uruguay. In addition, many occupied businesses like Zanon, Chilavert and BAUEN have supported community projects and other initiatives for social change.



Creating New Social Relations


Instead of the passive utensils and victims of capital, the workers are now the self-reliant masters and organizers of production, exalted by the proud feeling of being active co-operators in the rise of a new humanity. With their fatigued bodies and weary minds the workers had to leave the conceiving to others; it was only in part or in appearance that they managed their own affairs. In the common management of the shop, however, they have to do everything themselves, the conceiving, the devising, as well as the deciding.

Anton Pannekoek, Workers’ Councils, 1948

Recuperated enterprises are creating a movement of democratic alternatives and worker self-determination. Worker self-management in Argentina is helping plant the seeds so that future generations can reverse the logic of capitalism by producing for communities, not for profits and empowering workers, not exploiting them.


Worker self-management provides the workers with the decision-making power to 1) decide what is to be produced and for whom; 2) safe-guard employment and/or increase employment; 3) set priorities for what is produced; 4) define the nature of who gets what, where and how; 5) combines social production and social appropriation of profit; 6) creates solidarity of class at the factory, sectoral or national/international level; and 7) democratizes the social relations of production.[1]


Why occupy or what can be accomplished with worker self-management?     


1) Democratizing the workplace. In the most successful recuperated businesses, a general assembly and coordinators have replaced a hierarchical system of foremen and bosses. In the case of Zanon, the ceramics factory under worker control in the southern province of Neuquen, the hiring of workers and organization of production is based on the ideals of horizontal relations, direct democracy, and autonomy. Everything is decided in an assembly, there is no hierarchy of personnel or administration. Each area, including the production lines, sales, production planning, press, etc., forms a commission. Each commission votes on a coordinator. The coordinator of the sector informs on issues, news, and conflicts within his or her sector to a general assembly of coordinators. The coordinator then reports back to his or her commission news from other sectors. The workers hold weekly assemblies per shift. The factory also holds a monthly general assembly, during which production is halted.


At Zanon every worker is paid the same wage, with an exception of a small pay difference based on seniority (but seniority based on who withstood the old boss, firings, stand off and occupation).  Equal salaries are an obvious way to value everyone’s work. There has been some dispute over how much workers should get paid. Should workers have to accept a lower pay to sustain their business (rather than taking home their pay some of it is re-invested into the cooperative)? Self-exploitation is an easy trap to fall into when workers run their own business with poor infrastructure and lack of credits and subsidies. Workers need to ensure they take home a livable salary.


Who should be hired to work at worker-run businesses? As far as strategy, this is a key point for successful and democratic worker self-management. The workers at Zanon have had the most political approach to hiring workers. Today, the plant employs 473 workers, more than 200 of whom were hired after the plant came under worker control. When Zanon began to produce under worker control they hired former Zanon workers who had been fired. Later they began to divide the open job posts for grass roots activists working with the Unemployed (piquetero) worker organizations. This has created a broad sense of solidarity and accountability for the new workers. They were making a political commitment to create more jobs without a boss or owner, not just simply taking a new job.


In the hiring of workers, hiring family is a risky business. This is one of the main faults I see in many of the recuperated enterprises. Since the workers took over the BAUEN Hotel, the cooperative has hired over 85 workers, almost all former BAUEN workers. Most of the newly hired BAUEN workers were hired because they were the son, daughter, mother, father, brother or sister of a BAUEN worker. There has been a lot of internal discussion regarding accountability and efficiency. It’s very easy to forget the origins of the cooperative because you were hired because of a family relation rather than a political commitment to working in solidarity and defending a workplace. As far as strategy, hiring family under worker-self management should be re-examined. Family relations reproduces many hierarchical authority relationships that worker self-management is trying to work beyond.


2) Taking back workers’ knowledge. Basis of production: without workers, bosses are unable to run businesses; without bosses, workers can do it better.


One of the biggest worries that the workers at Argentina’s recuperated enterprises have is how to self-manage their business. As the largest recuperated factory in Argentina, Zanon is also Latin America’s largest ceramics producer currently manufacturing some 200,000 square meters of ceramics per month. Under worker control, no management professional stayed at the factory. Only the workers stayed. The workers had to learn everything about sales, marketing, production planning and other highly technical aspects. The workers at Zanon regularly work with lawyers, accountants, and other professionals whom they trust, but the professionals don’t make the decisions. The worker assembly votes on technical decisions. Professionals have provided specific skills training for the workers at Zanon. However, for many of the recuperated enterprises there is a deficit of trustworthy professionals.


Planning systematic skills training has been another challenge. While many of the recuperated enterprises have formed informal knowledge-sharing networks, there is a need for specific skills training. In the midst of running a business and fighting legal battles, long-term production planning and training often becomes a last priority.


Worker self-management would abolish the separation of labor, between professional and manual tasks. Part of this strategy means that every worker should learn and relearn the entire process of production. Ideally, every worker would understand every aspect of production. Within the recuperated enterprises there is a need for training and professional input. It is a political decision to making training and education accessible for all workers. Orientation is especially important so that new workers learn where they are working, the history of worker self-management and the importance of workers controlling their own destinies. Many of the recuperated enterprises have faced serious problems because new workers don’t understand where they are working and what they are a part of. No one wants to work with a boss. But education and orientation would facilitate accountability and solidarity.


3) Less exploitive conditions in the workplace: “We work with our conscience, we don’t have anyone looking over our shoulders or telling us what to do. We are working so that the hotel is clean and beautiful,” says Isabel Sequeira, a maid who has worked at the BAUEN hotel for over 11 years.                             


This is probably the most obvious strategy and practice in worker self-management. Many of the workers at the recuperated enterprises say that their work rhythm has changed. Prior to the workers’ occupation, production inside Zanon was set to maximize the company’s profits, reducing salaries to the minimum possible levels, cutting corners on worker safety measures, and pressing workers to produce at high levels with the least amount of workers necessary. These conditions led to an average of 25-30 accidents per month and one fatality per year. A total of 14 workers died inside the factory. Since Zanon’s occupation by its workers not one accident has occurred inside the factory.


By its nature worker self-management will reverse the logic of capitalism and put factories to produce for the community and not for profits. Under worker self-management new technologies will be used for the benefit of society as a whole and for the workers. Ideally, worker self-management will lead us to the utopia like in Rene Clair’s 1931 film, “A Nous la liberte”when the factory runs by itself and while the workers fish, nap, picnic and play.


4) Creating a new working class subjectivity and culture. Along with defending jobs, the recuperated enterprises are also creating a new culture. Worker self-management creates a sense of pride, self-worth and control over one’s destiny. Worker self-management has helped many workers around the world to realize that they have the ability to build the tools to take hold of their own destiny and fight against conditions of exploitation. Whenever the workers took over the plant, the factory or workplace became a physical space for liberation. A new working culture is being built in many of these spaces. Building cultural centers and holding concerts have been important strategies for the working class to recuperate our culture of dignity and freedom.                   


5) Building a broad solidarity network based on mutual aid and cooperation among recuperated enterprises and other worker organizations. “With worker self-management we are in a process of creating workers in solidarity, people who aren’t’ only worried about a wage,” says Marcelo Ruarte, the BAUEN cooperative’s assembly-voted president. One of the keys to the recuperated enterprises’ success has been the insertion of the workers’ struggle into the community. These recuperated enterprises belong to the people and everyone who defend them. Important aspect of working class resistance which worker organizations should support and vice-versa.


Giving back to the community and opening their doors to struggles. Worker self-management has a great deal of community support. When worker-run plant open their doors for organizations to learn from worker self-management and to use physical space for organizing activity is a way for the recuperated enterprises to build mutual solidarity.                                            


6) Autonomous solutions to community problems: Building a network of support among the recuperated enterprises, autonomous to the state and market, is the biggest challenge facing worker-run businesses.


Beyond legal attacks, Argentina’s recuperated enterprises have had to strategize to overcome market challenges, with no capital support form the state. Due to lack of infrastructure and outdated technology, many of the worker-run cooperatives have little chance of surviving competition in the capitalist market. The best way for the recuperated enterprises to survive is to create an alternative market for products produced inside the recuperated enterprises. Bartering products manufactured by worker-run enterprises among a network of recuperated workplaces would guarantee that a percentage of production becomes profitable.


Other autonomous solutions include funding autonomous from the state to help new recuperated enterprises get started. This an urgent need in the strategy to keep the recuperated enterprises up and running. A movement of recuperated enterprises could pull together a collective fund for the specific use of getting new recuperated enterprises started. This would be a solid motivation for workers to take over their workplace, knowing that they would have support.



Future and a new working class subjectivity

They (fighting workers) are a people gradually rising out of submissiveness and ignorance, gradually coming to consciousness of their exploitation, again and again driven to fight for better living conditions. New feelings spring up in their hearts, new thoughts arise in their heads, how the worlds might and should be. Their aims gradually take a more concise shape. From the simple strife for better working conditions, in the beginning, they grow into the idea of a fundamental reorganization of society. For several generations already the ideal of a world without exploitation and oppression has taken hold of the minds of the workers. Nowadays, the conception of the workers themselves maters of the means of production, themselves directing their labor, arises even more strongly in their minds.

Anton Pannekoek, Workers’ Councils, 1948

Jose Antonio Gutierrez wrote in his article published in Red and Black Revolution, “The idea of workers’ management of production and society implies that the only power in a revolutionary society is that of working class organizations. This workers’ management should be understood as the abolition of all power exercised by a minority, the abolition of bourgeois power. We, the workers, shouldn’t just assume the workers’ management in the fields, factories and workshops, but also, in the rest of society.”  A lot is still to be learned about worker self-management. The best way for us to learn is by putting these strategies and visions into practice. Even with their faults, Argentina’s recuperated enterprises deserve our support and recognition.


Ideally, these experiences will lead us to more than just the simple revolutionary dream that we all have of firing our own bosses and becoming the bosses of our lives. The occupied factories and enterprises are proving that they are organizing to develop strategies in defense of Latin American workers susceptible to factory closures and poor working conditions. While these experiences are forced to co-exist within the capitalist market they are forming new visions for a new working culture. The experiences of worker self-management and organization have directly challenged the capitalist structures by questioning private property, taking back workers’ knowledge, and reorganizing production for objectives other than profits.


Marie Trigona forms part of Grupo Alavío, direct action and video collective. She can be reached at [email protected] For further reading  http://americas.irc-online.org/am/3170


[1]. Petras, James and Veltmeyer, Henry, Worker Self-Management in Historical perspective, Rebelión, September 25, 2002

Leave a comment