I dropped out of my first year of college to work in a garment factory. I did this because I believed that workers were the agent of change in society, so the best way I could contribute to changing society was to become a worker. I am still dedicated to changing society, though I now believe that this generally should be done from where you are (the place the person is situated), especially if one has access to resources that people in movements or groups that one (is in) supports could use, (so, for example,) things like access to media, information or international networks, legal and medical skills, etc.
I have been reminded of this shift in perspective numerous times over the years, and again powerfully these past weeks in Latin America. While meeting with and learning about new workplace recuperations, defense of the land and water, and other struggles in communities, I continue to hear about both those directly affected – the workers in the workplace or community that is at risk from fracking, mining, water privatization etc, and those who are a part of the struggles, seeing them as their struggles, and becoming part of the movements by accompanying (the movements as a part of them) as well. This role of accompaniment is key for all struggles and one that is often overlooked, though it should not be, especially considering that so many of us are in exactly this position – one of not being at risk of our factory being closed or our water privatized (yet).
While I eventually went back to college and as much as possible have used my education for movements and as a movement participant, it was not until I lived in Argentina in the post 2002 rebellion years, those of massive self-organization and social creation, that I saw this most clearly. The phenomenon of the recuperation of workplaces began in 2001 in Argentina and has now spread throughout the Americas and to parts of Europe. In the first years in Argentina, if one were to ask any worker who was a part of taking over and then running their workplace in common how it was possible, one of the first answers you would receive was, “it is only possible because of the community”. Zanon, now FaSinPat, the well known ceramics factory in Patagonia with hundreds of workers, has the slogan “Zanon es del Pueblo”, meaning Zanon is both for the people and of the people. The massive solidarity shown the processes of recuperation are what has made them possible. Of course it is the workers that make the struggle, but without the support of thousands of neighbors and movement participants at the times of potential eviction, or the food and material support in the early days before production has been restarted, or later, the use of the workplaces by community groups for cultural and social centers, the recuperation would not be possible. In many ways a recuperation of a workplace is also the recuperation of a community.
Similarly, Vio.Me, the recuperated workplace in Thessaloniki Greece, once the producers of industrial cleaners, and now the producers of organic cleaners and olive oil-based soap products, say that they would not have succeeded without the support of the community. Not only that, Vio.Me now has a formal organization of supporters that one can join so as to show solidarity and speak in assemblies with the workers about both the needs of the workers as well as that of the surrounding community. They have codified this role of solidarity into one that has a direct and democratic voice in the process.
Spending time in Cordoba, Argentina in January again made this crucial role of solidarity apparent with those communities defending themselves from the use of pesticides that have contaminated their water, and the forced stoppage of what would have been Monsanto’s largest seed-processing plant. One of the huge challenges the local community-based struggles were facing was that the corporations had teams of scientists “proving” the water was not contaminated, or that the effects of Monsanto in the region would be minimal. This was both a public and media propaganda campaign that had to be countered, as well as a legal one since it was one of the defenses the local government used against the movements. For both cases, a group of scientists, university professors and medical professionals came together, and at great risk due to the power of the corporations in the region, proved scientifically that the deaths of the children in the area where the water was contaminated was directly linked to the contamination. They sent samples of the water to laboratories in Argentina and abroad to support this claim. Similarly with what the impact of a Monsanto plant would be to the region. These results were used by the movement, and helped shift public opinion as well as the courts, which eventually changed their rulings in favor of the movements. When speaking with one such medical professional, a pediatrician, I could not help but wonder what the results would have been if he and others did not use their access to education for the movements, and instead had done what I did in my first year of college.
Now in Uruguay, I am again finding similar power in the form of solidarity. Here workers have also been taking over workplaces, 45 so far, from leather and ceramics factories to metal and glass works. This fact was little known until recently, and it was due to the support and solidarity from a group of university based students and faculty, forming a network that helped by working together with the workers to make their recuperations more public as well as helping connect them to the global network of recuperated workplaces.
The last example that struck me was meeting with a collective based in Montevideo that helps facilitate the voices of movement actors directly, as well as maintain an archive of testimonies going back a few decades. Their work has been useful in countless ways, most recently with the Asamblea Permanente Nacional en Defensa de la Tierra el Agua y los Bienes Naturales (ANP – The National Permanent Assembly in Defense of the Land, Water and Collective Nature). This is an assembly that originated in small towns in the countryside of Uruguay, some organized around the issue of a potential open pit mining project, and others in different struggles to defend their land and water: those against the building of a port or those against deforestation and the building of a gas pipeline. They decided to come together to share their various struggles and tactics and eventually to organize bi annual massive marches in Montevideo. The assembly organizes in a horizontal way and finds ways to maintain the autonomy of each locality while making collective decisions using a very loose form of consensus. The collective for popular testimony has worked in solidarity by providing each community with recording devices so they can share their collective struggles with others more easily, as well as participating in the gatherings of the ANP.
These few examples are just a selection of those I have come across in these past weeks in Argentina and Uruguay – such examples are everywhere. I share them both because in and of themselves there are inspiring struggles, but also because too often some people feel they do not have a place from which to engage in a struggle since they are not directly affected by that particular issue – I suggest here that one look at the skills and resources one has and will most likely be surprised at the ways these resources can be shared in solidarity to accompany a movement – writing, editing, translating legal, medical and research skills, not to mention the vast networks of people so many of us are now engaged with that can help people in movements meet one another and share experiences and stories across the globe – or find common targets for campaigns. The list is endless and limited only by our imaginations.