"What we are asking for is not undignified or illegal, we are asking for something dignified–work, health, education and housing," expresses Elisa one of the 55 workers at Brukman, a suit factory in Buenos Aires occupied and self-managed by workers. On April 18, 2003, 16 months after workers reoccupied Brukman, the government sent hundreds of police to evict workers and an example of struggle. Brukman workers now fight to get the factory back in a continued campaign to defend their jobs and a movement for dignified work.
Brukman is just one of the 200 reoccupied factories and businesses providing jobs to some 15,000 workers. While each of these factories deal with different legal conditions, Brukman’s workers fight for state expropriation of the factory to maintain production under worker self-organization/management. Thousands of neighbors, students and activists from popular assemblies, the unemployed workers movement, and occupied factories and businesses continue to mobilize to defend Brukman.
Argentina’s failed neoliberal economic recipe led to the closure of thousands of factories and businesses, leaving 44% of the active population either unemployed or underemployed. This model for development (privatization, dependence on foreign capital, a dollar pegged peso, and drastic cuts in social spending) facilitated an incredible scale of corruption and unprecedented damaging affects on society. In today’s Argentina, 58% of the population is living below the poverty line, salaries have fallen 30% while inflation stands at 100%.
Despite this failure, the government claims to change visions while continuing to follow the International Monetary Fund’s guidance.
Beyond continuing the same neoliberal politics, the government has launched a repressive campaign against occupied factories in an attempt to show a hard hand. Many suggest that the government’s objective is to debilitate the movements and create an atmosphere seemingly void of dissent to restore the IMF’s confidence in Argentina. With owners abandoning factories and no new jobs in Argentina , Brukman workers made the choice to reject this model and defend rights to dignified work.
Workers occupied Brukman December 18, 2001. Brukman’s owners abandoned the factory without giving any notice or paying wages. Since 1995 the company had decreased workers salaries and refused to pay workers for months before the occupation. "That morning we met with management to see if they could give us a portion of our back salaries because they had only been giving us 5 and 10 pesos, then the last Friday 2 pesos," explains Alba, worker at Brukman for12 years. She continues, "The owner told us that he had no money. Later after waiting we went downstairs to find the big surprise that they left the place empty, only empty offices." Most of the workers didn’t have enough money to return home, so they stayed and waited for the foremen and owner to return. They never did.
"We have proven that workers are capable of running a factory without an owner, without any bosses. The only thing they do is keep the workers working with the lowest wages possible," urged Elisa, Brukman worker.
After a month of occupation, workers sold the factory’s inventory with the goal of generating enough money to reinitiate production. The workers began to organize in an open assembly and commissions to deal with tasks such as accounting, media relations and security. Shortly before the eviction the workers decided in an assembly to hire five workers showing that production was viable.
Production was stopped April 18 after hundreds of police showed up for a surprise eviction. "They sent 600 police to evict the 4 workers guarding the factory, this was illegal and irrational," says Maria Zalamon, lawyer defending the factory. There was an immediate response from supporters and neighbors, providing 24 hour guard next to the police fences surrounding the factory.
Police operatives climaxed Monday, April 21 when police violently repressed thousands of unarmed protesters after four women from Brukman pushed over police fences and attempted to enter the factory. "I was the one who pushed the police fences along with three women. We were unarmed, we had nothing more than our bodies," declared Celia Martinez, worker from Brukman. Clouds of tear gas and unrelenting sounds of shots ensued in immediate response from hundreds of police in the front lines.
7,000 protesters immediately dispersed and retreated while they were continually attacked with water hoses, tear gas, rubber and lethal lead bullets, and attack dogs. Police pursued supporters as far as 30 blocks away, beating and detaining people indiscriminately. There was an atmosphere of absolute terror and fear as protesters attempted to defend themselves against repression.
"This looked like an operative during the military dictatorship. Without the workers in the factory there will be no negotiations," exclaimed Raul Godoy, worker from Zanon, a reoccupied ceramics factory, denouncing the police actions. The night’s events left 60 injured and 120 detained.
Miguel Bonasso, well known journalist was one of those detained. Before news cameras Bonasso showed an empty red cartridge signaling that the police had used live ammunition. The Center of Legal and Social Studies (CELS), human rights organization, charged that this use of force is illegal. This repression sends chilling reminders of Argentina’s dirty war in which 30,000 were disappeared.
"Right now the government is putting up a big fight with factories that have adopted self-organization/management under worker control. Brukman demonstrates that as the economic situation gets better for the business sector and owners now ask for factories back, the first thing the government that claims to be anti-neoliberal does is return the factory to the owners and kick out the workers," signals Claudio Katz, economist at the University of Buenos Aires. The textile industry which could not compete under the previous fixed exchange rate is starting to revive. The workers paid thousands of pesos for the factory’s past due utility bills and bought new machines to maintain production. The owners, once ready to abandon the factory, now see a profitable business–one that would have been liquidated under a devaluated peso had the workers not initiated production.
Brukman’s owners, three brothers, ran three textile factories. Despite collecting government subsidies they claim that two factories went bankrupt, leaving unpaid workers and huge debts. The owner’s public debts accumulates to 3.8 million pesos, ($1.4 million U.S. dollars)–1.8 million to Argentina Internal Revenue Service, $243,000 U.S.dollars to Argentina’s National Bank, and more than a million pesos to the Buenos Aires City Government. The bookkeeping for Brukman factory has been missing since 1997 the business hadn’t kept accounting books leaving traces of fishy claimed bankruptcies. Since October 2000 the court has demanded Brukman’s accounting books, but the owners have not brought them. The owners were not paying the workers’ social security taxes, so the workers working at the factory for more than a decade have no way to retire with social security funds.
In an economic context, the government’s unwillingness to listen to the workers’ demands in the Brukman conflict is contradictory to former policy. In the 90’s, Argentina’s largest state industries–oil, telephones, aeronotics, water, electricity, and trains were privatized.
Carlos Menem, ex-president 1989-1999 and neoliberal champion who recently withdrew from the second round of presidential elections directed this privatization process. Claudio Katz, describes Argentina’s privatization as a corrupt process, increasing national debt and causing thousands of worker lay-offs. Instead of these businesses being sold and paid for with cash, the government gave over titles of public debts. Industry was given over to private investors relying on government subsidies amounting to billions instead of investing capital.
Since Brukman’s occupation the workers have demanded that the state expropriate the factory to the workers–government to absorb the owners’ state debts to buy the building, machinery and brand name. The workers are also asking for a 150,000 peso government subsidy in order to increase and diversify production. Under state expropriation, workers propose that the government buy from the factory sheets, smocks, and uniforms for the needs of public hospitals, schools and institutions .
The national and city government has only made one offer to the workers, technical assistance from the National Industrial and Technical Institute if the workers form a microenterprise or cooperative. This offer does not guarantee any means for the workers to continue production. Essentially, it promises the workers what they already have-the know how to run a factory.
While the government is trying to appear generous and willing to negotiate, it uses brutal force in the continued eviction of the workers. Nestor Kirchner, Argentina’s new president promises to continue with the politics of creating security–more police force and zero tolerance for protesters. Increasingly, the government’s position is to use repression to debilitate the expressions of social resistance that emerged from December 19 and 20, 2001.
While police continue to stand outside the factory, workers and supporters continue fighting, setting up permanent camp outside the factory and organizing cultural events. Weekly, workers have brought sewing machines into the streets, producing sheets and clothes for donation. All hope is being put towards the city legislature deciding a law to expropriate of the factory’s machines and building. Sasetru, another worker operated factory, was evicted after machines were legally expropriated to the workers, bringing many doubts in the case of Brukman. Flor, another worker reflects the urgency to recuperate the factory, "We are not going to leave this struggle, because if we don’t enter the factory we are nothing."