On the Road to Somewhere

The story of recovered factories in Argentina

By Esteban Magnani

February 2005

December 2001. The hatred, the poverty, the sadness and despair that had accumulated in Argentina for years exploded onto the TV sets of the whole world for a couple of days. People running around on the streets, fires, police, tear gas, five presidents who passed the presidency to each other like a hot potato.

Surely, in many parts of the worlds, viewers understood that their TV screens were also a mirror reflecting their future: Argentina had been the model country, the ideal student of an International Monetary Fund which had dictated instructions to the world for decades.

Among the many feelings that emerged during those months, there were at least two that would produce a qualitative change in our society. The first was the general certainty that if people themselves did not set things right, nobody would, and the second was that whichever way out was chosen, it would have to be taken democratically and as a group.

Out of this conviction there emerged new ideas such as the neighbourhood assemblies. But above all, these convictions served to generate the consensus that those who fought for a better world had the right to overlook the laws of a system which had lost legitimacy and only offered poverty and humiliation. This ingredient of social legitimacy, added to many workers’ firm belief that they would never find work again (facing a 25 percent unemployment rate) if their factory went bankrupt, gave momentum to a phenomenon which had until then been rare: the recovery of factories.

The Theory of Evolution

“Recovered factory” is a name which encompasses a diversity of factories of different types which in their own search for survival, open paths for those who follow behind. What the great majority of them have in common is the fact that they were put into production under some form of worker control (usually a cooperative), that they did so after the original owner declared themselves bankrupt, and that they had to confront the law in some way until they obtained a legal status that allowed them to produce for and by themselves. Most of them got a temporary expropriation from a State which had nothing better to offer, and a few of them were able to buy the factory thanks to their own work.

The oldest factories, those with more than 3 years under worker control, usually have average salaries which are above those of the employees of other factories of the same sector. Also, they have demonstrated, against all the preconceptions of capitalism, that neither owners nor super-specialized administrative staff are indispensable to manage a factory (the higher ranks in the staff usually leave along with the owners). This observation has spread and many workers have formed new cooperatives to recover a factory about to go bankrupt, or simply as a way to put pressure on a management which does not respect agreements made with the workers. Therefore, already more than 200 recovered factories are carrying out their productive projects under horizontal forms of organization.

Different investigations show that the degree of commitment and cohesion of each worker in the factories is usually related to the intensity of the struggle that they went through. Workers from recovered factories frequently tell stories of confrontation with a police force usually encouraged by shady political and economical powers. This same struggle tested and tempered the workers’ spirits to make them more united in confronting those who try to convert these factories to obtain cheap labour, a source of political capital or something else. Initially, for a good percentage of the workers, the responsibility of deciding for themselves is a traumatic one, and they are tempted to give themselves over to whoever poses as a savior. If to this we add the fact that most factories come from a process of being emptied out and lack start-up capital, the possibilities that they will end up selling their labour cheaply are high.

From Nowhere to Somewhere

Nowadays, recovered factories which have been able to get through the first and hardest months of production and generate their own resources are being able to think about the future for the first time. They begin to discover that there are many more who did similar things in Argentina and other parts of the world. There are factories which start to understand that being a cooperative, something which at first was only a legal form, means that they have thousands of sisters and brothers willing to help them out all over the world. Those just starting or struggling to accumulate the capital which in time allows them to become independent, are surprised that someone might consider what they are doing not crazy, but trustworthy.

In many cases, the workers of recovered factories also suffer internal crisis because of the shifting environment of a working class which was first targeted with all the strength of the military dictatorship and then stimulated towards a competitive and consumerist selfishness in the last 20 years.

Among the many questions left to answer, one of the main ones is whether recovered factories will be able to overcome the internal enemy, the selfishness learned for decades, to continue building another form of relationship. We will also have to observe what happens with the social legitimacy that these struggles had now that there is a more normalized political climate in which a good part of the middle class has gone back to demands for order and the protection of private property above the right to work and self-expression.

Beyond the questions facing the future, recovered factories already represent a victory: decades of repression and lack of social struggle evolved into a concrete answer for the generation of jobs and production under a new form; they are a factor of counter-power able to defy the establishment; they are already feeding thousands of families which would otherwise have no livelihood.

Can we ask more of these workers who in a few years of struggle have been able to begin producing, almost without any help? They come from a land in which hope and struggle were bad words; they are coming from nowhere and with their everyday exercise of horizontality they are building new paths to somewhere—nobody knows exactly where they are going to, but they are moving; they are building the many paths which may turn into the roads to a better future.

Esteban Magnani is’ an Argentinean journalist who wrote the book El Cambio Silencioso on recovered factories, published by Prometeo in Argentina. He was one of the local producers for the film The Take by Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein.

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