New forms of resistance, new scenarios in Argentina

“Worker leave aside your tools, it’s time to struggle” Popular anarchist song from the Spanish Civil War

Context and scenario

Since December 2001 the forms of popular struggle have changed in a new scenario of resistance. After the political and economic crisis in 2001 and a popular uprising, many social movements began to take on a defensive position in the face of a new government grasping to recuperate legitimacy. The crisis among worker organizations deepened with President Néstor Kirchner’s government. Former caretaker president Eduardo Duhalde and current president Kirchner took on two major tactics to recuperate legitimacy: hitting workers and at the same time co-opting organizations.

Social movements, especially unemployed worker organizations ended up in a deep state of fragmentation. With unemployed worker organizations fragmented and some co-opted, even the most radical experiences closed their doors to the forms of resistance used during the late 90’s: direct action, popular assemblies and the road blockade.

However as living conditions in Argentina continued to deteriorate, many compañeros began to regroup to fight for campaigns unheard of in the 90’s, the decade of privatization and destabilization of the working class. What has resulted is regrouping of workers fighting to defraud the illusion that Argentina’s working class is benefiting from a recovered economy and that Kirchner’s government respects human rights.

New ways of organizing: New Victories

Capitalism has plastered the working-class for decades. Nationwide in Argentina, thousands of factories have closed and millions of jobs have been lost in recent years. Working conditions have been deteriorated. Many workers that still have jobs must work under the table with no restrictions over how long is the work day, no minimum wage and unsafe conditions. Many compañeros have stood up to resist against this destiny. Argentina is living a moment of a resurgence of struggle inside the workplace, using methods that the working class had lost access to: the strike, sabotage and the factory takeover. Most importantly, these struggles in the subway, public hospitals and recuperated enterprises have resulted new visions and victories for a working class.

Subway workers: wildcat strikes

Since the late 90’s workers in the Buenos Aires subway lines began a slow struggle to form an internal commission inside the bureaucratic/pro-business UTA-Transport Workers Union. In 1994,during the government of President Carlos Menem, they privatized the Buenos Aires subway, giving the concession to Metrovías a transnational corporation.

As soon as the subway was privatized the company restructured the staff. They made the 8 hour workday obligatory and lowered most of the salaries for the workers who weren’t fired. Before 1994 there were over 4,600 workers in the subway. As soon as the subway was privatized the company employed only 1,500, 800 of which were new workers. The new workers were mostly young, single men and women without any history of labor organizing.

“During the military dictatorship (1976-1983) subway employees worked 7 hours, before in the previous democratic governments they worked 6 hours. During the government of President Menem he hit hard all working sectors and our workday increased to 8 hours. Since 1943 workers in the subway haven’t worked an 8-hour work day,” said Roberto Pianelli, a current subway delegate. For almost a decade Metrovias fired workers indiscriminately.

Workers began to vote delegates in the UTA to prevent firings, until an internal commission was formed. The internal commission grew, filled with many young workers whose only activist organizing was working with traditional leftist political parties. Many came from political parties disillusioned with un-democratic practices. The subway workers have developed many practices valuing direct democracy and horizontal organizing: functioning as a general assembly with special commissions and delegates to coordinate what is voted in the assembly.

The subway workers’ victory was to hit back at private companies – which for more than a decade of destroying labor standards. The companies implemented the policy of super-exploitation, flexible labor standards, multi-tasking, deteriorating working conditions, salaries and workers’ dignity. Argentina’s big boy umbrella unions, Confederation of Labor or CGT (Peronist-leaning umbrella labor union), CTA Central of Argentine Workers or CTA (a more radical union for employed) and the ATE (State Employees Union) all acted as accomplices in the process of privatization and the destruction of labor standards that came afterward.

The subway delegates’ strategy was to organize independently inside the UTA (transport workers’ union). As an assembly the workers decided on their objectives and visions. In the beginning they took on a more defensive position, trying to prevent firings. As the commission grew their objectives took on an advanced vision: win back the 6 hour workday, destroy the automated ticket machines and demand an increased salary.

In 2004, the subway delegates won a 6-hour work-day with a series of surprise strikes. The subway workers helped to form the national movement for a 6-hour workday with. The movement vision is to reverse the logic of capitalism. “In this stage of capitalism workers are expulsed from the job market and those who can stay in it are exploited more and more. The logic that us from the Movement for a 6 hour work day are pushing for is exactly the reverse: work less so that more people work,” explains Eduardo Lucita, an economist from the left. In addition to wanting to create more jobs, the movement is demanding across the board wage hikes. This is part of the subway workers’ vision. This year with wild-cat strikes, subway workers won a 44% pay increase. Garrahan hospital workers: demanding salary with dignity

For over 14 years salaries have been frozen nation-wide. The average salary in Argentina is 600 pesos (200 dollars). However, the cost of family basic needs is 1,800 pesos and the poverty line stands at 750 pesos. Non-medical staff at the Garrahan children’s hospital have been on the strike path for the past months to demand that the minimum monthly salary be increased to 1,800 pesos (600 dollars).

The government says that there’s no money to invest in salaries or public health. However, President Nestor Kirchner has paid more to the International Monetary Fund than any other president in the history of Argentina. This year he’s paid 500 million dollars. For the upcoming presidential summit the government invested 200 million dollars to barricade the coastal city of Mar del Plata to make the city safe for US president George W. Bush’s visit.

Even with government attacks and threats, the workers haven’t backed down. Workers from the assembly have faced accusations of performing terrorist acts, criminal charges and telegrams threatening to fire the workers. With mutual solidarity from other public hospital workers, the Zanon recuperated ceramics factory, train workers, subway workers and public school teachers they are moving forward with their demands.

Some 700 nurses, technicians, and janitors are organized in a worker assembly that functions as an internal commission of the ATE state-employees union. The assembly values direct democracy and non-hierarchical organization – motions are made by the assembly’s body and then the workers vote on the motion.

The public health worker assembly has criticized ATE’s leadership for maintaining a passive position in labor struggles, many times speaking publicly against the workers’ demands and actions. If the workers at Garrahan win a 1,800 peso salary, all workers win. The government and bureaucratic unions fear that if the Garrahan public health workers win a wage increase, the demand for a living wage will spread like wild-fire along with the strategy of independent workers’ commissions organizing outside of traditional unions.

The struggle for a living wage has inspired a utopic vision for workers to control prices and production. In the subway workers’ most recent newspaper they defined a proposal to improve workers’ salaries and conditions. “While companies have the power to increase prices workers will never reach a livable wage. That is why control over prices have to be part of worker production. While this seems like an utopia, we have a small margin to apply this vision with recuperated enterprises functioning under worker control. If the 100 largest companies in Argentina were controlled by workers (like the case of Zanon) we could begin to control prices within the capitalist market. Or build another market outside of capitalism.”

Recuperated enterprises: taking back culture and reversing logic of capitalism

Argentina’s occupied factories and enterprises represents the development of an advanced strategy in defense of the working class and in resistance against capitalism. The experiences of worker self-management/organization have directly challenged capitalism’s structures by questioning private property, taking back workers’ knowledge, and organizing production for objectives other than profits.

In Argentina currently some 180 recuperated enterprises are up and running. Each enterprise is very diverse with specific characteristics, not all recuperated enterprises are the same. Not all have adopted new relations in the experience, much less adopting utopic visions of how to build new social relations outside of capitalism. There are exceptions as in the case of the Zanon ceramics factory and the BAUEN hotel. However, they all have something in common which is the questioning of private property. When the workers recuperate, take over and start up production under worker self-management, the principle of private property has become vulnerable.

While these experiences are forced to co-exist within the capitalist market they are forming new visions for a new working culture. The workers’ decision to take over the plants when the owner and bosses decided to abandon their business was a decision made out of necessity not necessarily out of ideology. The clear need and worry of how to safeguard workers’ jobs motivated the act of taking over a factory and putting it to produce without a boss or owner.

Obviously, neither the state nor the market benefits from worker self-management. Both the state and the market have limited the experiences of worker self-management. Worker self-management goes against the logic of capitalism. The workers found out that proving that workers can control production wasn’t enough, they had to also fight for legality. As many of the business became profitable once again after the devaluation many of the old bosses wanted the factories back. In many cases the workers had to organize themselves to defend against violent eviction attempts and other acts of state violent. Workers had to leave the work place, invest energy in a legal battle and fight for laws in favor of worker recuperated businesses.

How to organize production is another big worry. Not all recuperated enterprises are organized the same way. While some have developed advanced strategies for creating new social relations inside the work place, some have held on to the old structures left behind by the bosses. Some have organized according to the traditional worker cooperative model, a directive administration that manages the administrative aspects with very little participation of manual workers. However, some recuperated enterprises as in the case of Zanon, which functions “under worker control”, have adopted the assembly as the only authority in the plant. Zanon has coordinators and commissions according to sectors to coordinate specific issues in production, but decisions in production are made following what is voted in assembly.

Historically in Argentina, worker cooperatives have gotten a bad name. In many cases cooperatives were used as a way to cover up sourcing-out and increased flexible labor standards. The recuperated enterprises are bringing back a renovated tradition of the worker cooperatives. Some of the laws passed in favor of recuperated enterprises were based on dictums and bills set up for worker cooperatives.

Many of the most radical experiences are setting an example that workers can organize production and the workplace non-hierarchically without bosses or managers. Even with all of the limits the market places on experiences of worker self-management, these experiences have made solidarity a priority. Many of the factories hope that the products produced will be destined for the community, rather than the capitalist. Zanon for example sells their products in front of the factory’s gate. They are producing high-quality products while keeping prices to a minimum so that average people can access the ceramic tiles for their kitchens, bathrooms and homes. Zanon regularly donates ceramic tiles to hospitals, community centers and other community projects. The BAUEN hotel serves as a meeting space for workers in struggle. The subway delegates, hospital workers, 6 hour movement and activists campaigning for the release of political prisoners all meet there. Part of the vision is producing for the community, not for profits as well as creating a solidarity of class.

As mentioned by subway workers, with the recuperated enterprises they can create greater margin for autonomy from the capitalist market (controlling what is produced and for whom and controlling the price). The phenomenon of creating a network of mutual solidarity and an internal market for products produced inside the recuperated enterprises is a fundamental part of the vision for creating an alternative system to the market system. However, this is one of the greatest challenges, developing the organization and willpower to create a functional model of inter-commerce between the recuperated enterprises.

While these experiences aren’t necessarily a clear revolution in changing working culture they are planting the seeds for new social relations and a way of organizing society. Solidarity, non-obligatory cooperation, democracy, direct action, sustainability, self-management and questioning the old world-order are all strategies and actions that move us forward toward changing the future. Marie Trigona forms part of Grupo Alavío, www.alavio.org. She can be reached at mtrigona@msn.com

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