The workers at Argentina’s largest worker-controlled factory are celebrating a definitive legal solution to a nine-year struggle for the right to work and workers’ self-determination. The provincial legislature of Neuquén voted in favor of expropriating the Zanon ceramics factory giving the workers’ cooperative FASINPAT the right to manage the plant definitively. Since the workers occupied Zanon in 2001, they have successfully set up a system of workers’ management, created jobs, duplicated production of ceramics, supported community projects, and spearheaded a network of over 200 recuperated enterprises. Zanon, renamed FASINPAT or Factory Without a Boss, can now continue production without threat of eviction from their factory.
Zanon, still Latin America’s largest ceramics manufacturer, is located in the Patagonian province of Neuquén, a region with rich working class traditions, history, and mystique surrounding the red desert, rich forests, and crystalline lakes. The workers officially declared the factory under worker control in October 2001 following a lockout of the factory bosses.
In Argentina, more than 13,000 people work in occupied factories and businesses, otherwise known as recuperated enterprises. The sites, which number more than 200, range from hotels, to ceramics factories, to balloon manufacturers, to suit factories, to printing shops, and transport companies, as well as many other trades. Most of the occupations occurred following the nation’s 2001 economic crisis when unemployment rates soared above 25% and poverty levels hovered over 50%. Zanon, as one of the largest and foremost factory occupations, became a symbol for millions of workers who lost their jobs during the worst economic crisis in Argentina’s history, in which thousands of factories shut down. The cooperative has proved that factories can produce without a boss.
At a little past midnight on August 13, the legislature, controlled by the right-wing party the Popular Movement of Neuquén (MPN), voted for the law to expropriate the Zanon ceramics factory. The expropriation law passed 26 votes in favor and nine votes against the bill. Thousands of supporters from other workers’ organizations, human rights groups, and social movements, along with entire families and students, joined the workers as they waited outside the provincial legislature in the capital city of Neuquén. Many activists from Buenos Aires travelled 619 miles to Neuquén to support FASINPAT’s fight for the expropriation law, including workers from the worker-run Brukman suit factory, occupied Hotel BAUEN, rank-and-file union representatives from the subway system, and public hospital employees.
"When we found out that they were going to vote, we called our supporters. About 3,500 people participated in the protest including social movements, human rights organizations, teachers, unionists," said Jorge Bermuda, a veteran worker at the factory in an interview with the CIP Americas Program in Buenos Aires. Despite strong Patagonian desert winds, hundreds waited for the final legislative decision, huddled around bonfires. As the legislation voted, supporters watched from a screen transmitting outside the government building. Onlookers gathered in awe and immediately joined in to celebrate with the workers without bosses. Burly ceramists in their beige work clothes and blue jackets with the embroidered FASINPAT logo embraced each other in tears and joy, releasing the grief and happiness of the long struggle for control of the factory.
"This is incredible, we are so happy. The expropriation is an act of justice," said Alejandro Lopez the general secretary of the Ceramists Union, overwhelmed by the emotion of the victory. "We don’t forget the people who supported us in our hardest moments, or the 100,000 people who signed the petition supporting our bill."
The workers credited the community’s support for making the objective of expropriation become a reality. "The vote wasn’t only the victory of the 470 workers at Zanon, or the original 150 who took over the plant, but the victory of an entire community that gave their support," said Bermuda. During the debate on the bill, deputy representatives took note of the fact that over half the population supports the factory expropriation in hands of the workers.
Aside from a political victory, the expropriation of the Zanon plant sets a legal precedent for terms of legislation in favor of other workers’ cooperatives that have taken control of businesses closed down by their owners. The bill voted in Neuquén is the first expropriation without reimbursement by workers; the state will pay privileged creditors Luis Zanon’s debt of 22 million pesos (around $7 million). The main creditors include the World Bank, which gave a loan of $20 million to Luis Zanon for the construction of the plant, and Italian company SACMY, which produces state-of-the-art ceramics manufacturing machinery and is owed $5 million. These interests were pressuring Argentina’s judicial system to auction off the plant to pay off the debts.
Although previous expropriation bills have passed locally, no expropriation law has made it to vote on the national level, meaning workers’ cooperatives must assume the debt left by the previous business firm. In return for this agreement, FASINPAT agreed to sell materials to the province at cost.
The Zanon workers argued that the government should not pay Luis Zanon’s debts, saying that courts have proven that the creditors participated in the fraudulent bankruptcy of the plant in 2001 because the credits went directly to the owner Luis Zanon and not to investments into the factory.
"If someone should pay, Luis Zanon should pay, who is being charged with tax evasion," said Omar Villablanca from FASINPAT. The FASINPAT collective presented a previous expropriation bill, from which the current law passed was adopted, that would have cancelled the debt to creditors. More than 100,000 people signed the petition to get this bill passed.
Roots of Zanon
The massive factory, spanning several city blocks, was built in an isolated industrial park along Route 7, a highway leading into the capital city of Neuquén. The Zanon ceramics plant was inaugurated in 1980, three years before the nation came out of the nightmare of the dictatorship that ruled the nation with terror from 1976-1983. Officers from the military dictatorship and Italian diplomats presided over the ceremony, which included blessings from a Monsignor of the Catholic Church. Luis Zanon, or Luigi, thanked the military government "for the atmosphere of security and tranquility that the Armed Forces have provided since they took charge on March 24, 1976." That fateful date in 1976 marked the beginning of one of the bloodiest eras for Argentina, in which the military terrorized the nation and forcefully disappeared 30,000 workers, activists, and students.
Conditions inside Zanon previous to the workers’ occupation led to an average of 25-30 accidents per month and one fatality per year. In the years of Zanon’s production, 14 workers died inside the factory. Former management enforced rules to divide workers and prevent communication among ceramists as a way of controlling union organizing independent from company interests. Many workers recount how they had to organize clandestinely to win control of the union.
Carlos Villamonte participated in the efforts to win rank-and-file union seats, organizing secretly in the late 90s. "It was very difficult to win back the internal union at the factory because we had to do it clandestinely. The company had a very repressive system. They didn’t let you in another sector, talk with fellow workers, or even use the bathroom freely. Many times we had to communicate by passing notes under the tables in the cafeteria or walking through each sector making secret times and places to meet. We found ways to evade the bosses’ and bureaucratic union’s control." One such way was forming a ceramists’ soccer team. Between practices, games, and tournaments, workers were able to strategize how to win shop-floor union representation.
After the rank-and-file workers’ union movement at the factory won control of the ceramists union in 1998, the struggle culminated with a bosses’ lockout in 2001. The workers were fired and the factory closed down—still owed severance pay and millions in unpaid salaries. This led to a workers’ protest camp outside the plant. While the workers were camping outside the factory, a court ruled that the employees could sell off remaining stock. After the stock ran out, on March 2, 2002, the workers’ assembly voted to start up production without a boss. Many at the plant believe that the rank-and-file workers’ movement gaining control of the union catapulted the fired workers into occupying the factory and starting up production after the company closed the doors.
Future of Autogestión
Autogestión obrera—workers’ self-management—implies that a community or group makes its own decisions, especially those decisions that fit into the process of production and planning. One of the major feats of Zanon was putting into production a massive beast of a factory with an organization based on equality and democracy without trained professional managers, punitive systems, or hierarchical organization.
The FASINPAT collective grew from 250 workers to 470. They began by producing 5,000 sq. meters of ceramics a month when they first occupied the plant in 2001. They soon managed to increase their production to 14,000 sq. meters a month. By 2008, FASINPAT produced 400,000 sq. meters a month, a record for worker control at the factory.
Although they continue to have the capacity to produce at those levels, demand has dropped lately, leading to the decision to adjust production levels. "In 2009, because of the crisis, we’ve dropped production to 250,000 sq. meters a month," explains Bermuda, who participates in technical planning at the plant.
Due to the crisis and slumping construction industry in the region, sales of ceramics have dropped by 40%. Unlike, their capitalist counterparts, the FASINPAT worker enterprise has taken on the task of cutting costs, not personnel. "We now have the legal aspect resolved, now we have to resolve production and fight for energy subsidies," said Omar Villablanca, a young worker at Zanon who was recently voted general secretary of the provincial-wide ceramists union. He visited Buenos Aires shortly after the victory to provide support for workers on strike at the Terrabusi cookie corporation who are fighting against lay-offs and voluntary pay cuts. "Factories that shut down are generally the result of a management that doesn’t want to invest a peso of profits toward saving jobs."
A major challenge now to worker-run factories will be to devise production plans to respond to uncertain markets. Zanon’s legalized status will allow the workers to focus on production and implementing technology. But they don’t plan to eliminate their worker training programs. The factory assembly, which is the decision-making body at the plant, has voted to start up a primary school and high school for workers who weren’t able to finish schooling. More than half of the workers at Zanon do not have their high school degrees. "We are working to train our workers. Primary and secondary school are one aspect. The next step would be to prepare a few compañeros to go to university for engineering, or whatever they would like to study."
In a 2004 article on Zanon, researcher on Latin American social movements Raúl Zibechi wrote, "The ex-Zanon workers hope that the Argentine government will decide to recognize their status and let them continue to operate under their own control." Many experts researching the role of the government and its persistent refusal to recognize that Argentina’s 200 recuperated enterprises had created over 10,000 jobs, predicted that a definitive legal solution would take years, and it did. As a writer who has followed the development of workers’ self-management at Zanon, I also shared the disbelief, joy, and emotion at the good news.
In over nine years of legal battles and uncertainty, the workers running Zanon were able to create more than 200 jobs; build health clinics and homes for families in need; donate ceramics to hundreds of cultural centers, libraries, and community projects; support strike funds for workers fighting for better working conditions; build a network of social movements; devise a democratic assembly and coordinating system within the factory that replaced hierarchy; not to mention successfully run a factory that the previous owner wanted to close for good, imagine what they can do now.
At Zanon, workers constantly use the slogan: "Zanon es del pueblo" or Zanon belongs to the people. The workers have gone to great efforts to ensure that the community benefits from worker control at the factory.
"I feel as if the law is our contribution to the working class, it’s our grain of sand for workers to recuperate hopes that they can change things," said Raul Godoy, a worker and steadfast activist from the factory. While other recuperated enterprises are fighting eviction threats and other legal challenges, they can now look to the FASINPAT collective as a beacon of success. And other workers who are facing firings will be more inspired to follow the example of the Zanon workers of running their own factories and putting them at the service of the people.
Marie Trigona is a journalist based in Argentina and writes regularly for the Americas Program (www.americaspolicy.org). She can be reached at mtrigona(a)msn.com.