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‘Occupy, resist, produce’ - Argentina: the coops’ dividend

Le Monde Diplomatique, October 2005

Argentina’s economic crisis in 2001 sent many businesses to the wall. But many who lost their jobs have occupied their workplaces and successfully resumed production without their former bosses. Now these new cooperatives are calling upon the state for reforms and policies to support them.

By Cécile Raimbeau

ON 20 March 2003 30 workers who had lost their jobs at the Bauen Hotel broke into a car park, forced a door and made their way into their former workplace. The five-star hotel, blow against private property rights, of unbridled capitalism favoured by the dictatorship in power at the time the hotel went up.

After working on reception for 23 years, Marcelo, 56, spent 2002 searching desperately for work. Gladys, packaging.

The audacity of this small group was not unusual in a country where unemployment had reached 20% and 45% of the population were living below the poverty line. Such acts of "recovery" are regarded as re-appropriations, for the public good, a coherent movement:

Ex-workers began taking over collapsed businesses in the mid 1990s. President Carlos Menem’s enthusiastic application of neoliberal principles was then destroying thousands of jobs every year (2). Massive privatisations were throwing public employees on to the streets, and the removal of import restrictions and export subsidies were generating a flood of foreign goods with which Argentina’

What makes Bauen unusual is that it is in the service sector. Most of the salvaged businesses are small and medium-sized industries, mainly in metallurgy, engineering, printing and food. Whether bankrupt or in liquidation,

Workers attempting to salvage a business prefer to receive compensation in the form of machine tools than money. But although Argentine legislation on business failures gives them priority over other creditors, it does not clearly encourage reactivation rather than liquidation. And one particular article enables investors to buy up a business without redress for former employees who are owed money. The International Monetary Fund blackmailed the government into reintroducing this provision, building was sold in 1997 for $12m to a Chilean businessman who repaid only $4m before shutting up shop at the end of 2001.

Before they occupied "their” hotel, the sacked Bauen workers set up a cooperative, Landless Workers Movement to summarise their three-point strategy:

In 2002 Argentine law was reformed to make it possible for cooperatives to rescue failed businesses. But any magistrate trying to encourage a cooperative must either negotiate a lease with the owner or wait for the authorities to make an expropriation order. MNER representatives can’t help wondering why, since the state is always making expropriations to build roads, it can’t do the same for the public good and the right to work.

Many rescued businesses are operating without legal authorisation and 31% have negotiated a lease. That leaves 29% where there has been an expropriation which, as a rule, city of Buenos Aires expropriated 12 companies outright and granted the cooperatives concerned three years’ " most of whom have no experience of trades unionism" subjects" and also leads to the emergence of a process of democratic decision-making: A sense of freedom

Marcelo, the president of the Bauen cooperative, says: “The sense of freedom we feel is incredible. But we don’t all have the same attitude. Some see this as a chance to do what they want, others see it as a chance to do nothing. That’ mechanisms to guarantee transparent accounting.

After four months of free lessons in marketing from a teacher, Maria — a former cleaner — now handles sales. Osvaldo has swapped his old porter’s cap for a chef’s hat and is making a living from his passion for cooking. Every evening on the third floor, hesitant voices chorus: “May I help you, sir?” as language teachers give the staff lessons in exchange for the use of rooms for their paying classes.

Two and a half years into the occupation, the Bauen cooperative has restored the hotel’ and ingenuity of its members. It has gradually built up a clientele attracted by its moderate rates and easy terms. The recruitment of 60 new members has brought its numbers to 110, all of whom earn more than a primary teacher. When things are going well, a reliable customer base, upon their client-suppliers, still producing at less than half their previous capacity.

Cooperatives benefit mutually from becoming each other’s clients and suppliers and allowing credit. Most of what they produce goes to other industries, rather than direct to the consumer. This is a drawback: that supports worker management, manufacturers. But the multinationals don’ get involved in capitalist markets. A Trotskyist minority called for nationalisation under worker control. It took over four businesses, including Brukman, a garment factory in Buenos Aires, the indefinite continuation of conflict. This is certainly the lesson to be drawn from what happened at Brukman which, right. As Andres Ruggeri points out sadly: they have showed has made their revived business a national symbol of resistance. The strong links they had forged with various social movements have allowed them to withstand seven attempts to expel them. They have recruited 210 workers and illegally manufacture more than 300,000 square metres of tiles every month. Their members earn as much as the police and have enough left over to make regular donations to community causes.

The ability to create jobs in a business that has supposedly collapsed may be one in the eye for the bosses; but there is no guaranteed future for all these revived businesses. Each depends upon its own viability and global economic conditions, and also to a large extent upon the financial, technical and legal support of the Argentine state. The MNER argues that, with this support, the movement could restore 150,000 jobs and members of this small movement constantly put themselves forward as possible partners for the state in the struggle against unemployment. But they have never been able to secure either the hoped-for interest-free loans or legislative reforms. Big business has such a hold over the country’s political and legal authorities that MPs and judges would rather turn their back on rebel workers than help them — despite the popularity of these salvaged businesses.

Translated by Donald Hounam

(1) Empresas recuperadas, Secretaria de desarrollo economico, Buenos Aires, September 2003.

(2) The unemployment rate rose from 8% in 1992 to 18% in 1995. Between 1989 and 2000, the number of those in work fell by 35%.

(3) Fabricas y empresas recuperadas, Centro cultural de cooperacion, November 2003.

(4) Informe del relevamiento entre empresas recuperadas por los trabajadores, Programa Faculdad Abierta, October 2005

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