Argentina: Workers' Control and the Crisis, Part I

— James Cockcroft

[This is the first of a two-part report on Argentina. James Cockcroft spent two weeks in Argentina in mid-November, invited to present a lecture on the challenge of imperialism to Latin America at the Popular University of Mothers of May Plaza's first International Congress on Mental Health and Human Rights. An online professor for the State University of New York and a Fellow at the International Institute for Research and Education in Amsterdam, he is the author of thirty-five books, including Mexico's Hope: An Encounter with Politics and History (NY: Monthly Review Press, 1999) and Latin America: History, Politics, and U.S. Policy (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/International Thomson Publishing, Second edition, 1998), both translated into Spanish and published in 2001 by Mexico City's siglo veintiuno editores.]

“WITHOUT WORKERS A factory does not function. But without bosses, yes, it functions -- and very well indeed! With all the other comrades we are going to demonstrate that the nation functions with the hands of working people and not with the thieving hands of the politicians.” -- Raul Godoy, worker at worker-controlled factory Ceramicas Zanon and secretary-general of ceramics workers union.(1)

ON NOVEMBER 21, 2002, I concluded my hour-long interview with three woman workers at Brukman Confecciones, an historic worker-controlled textile factory in Buenos Aires Neighborhood Eleven. Realizing the threat their example posed to the capitalist system, I asked: “Are you afraid?”

“No,” they responded with broad smiles.

“I was afraid at first,” one added, referring to the scary night of December 18, 2001, when she and nineteen others of the 115-person workforce, mostly women, stayed overnight in the owner-abandoned factory in order to preserve their jobs. “But after we consolidated our self-organization, I was no longer afraid.”

Prior to that night, the Brukman brothers had run off with the workers' last three months of salaries and contributions to pension, unemployment and health funds to stash them in foreign banks or in real estate. This is a common practice by Argentina's once affluent capitalists during the present depression.

The workers, whose numbers soon grew to fifty-four (of whom ten were men), did not trust the garment workers union SOIVA, which was backing the Brukmans' request for a declaration of bankruptcy liquidation.

Through internal democratic assemblies, they organized a worker-controlled factory -- from purchase of inputs to production, wages and sales -- and had it up and running in a month's time. They even created classes to convert unemployed workers into skilled operators and started hiring them at wages like their own.

Twelve hundred kilometers to the southwest, a similar approach had become standard practice among 300 workers at the worker-controlled Zanon ceramics factory in Neuquen's industrial park, a large modern factory that once had produced porcelain products for the national and international markets.

Backed by leftist parties and several other organizations, workers at Zanon, Brukman, and other seized factories now spearhead a national anti-capitalist movement, joined by workers seizing idle urban and rural lands.

These workers have placed production for social use above the “normal” markets and production goals of their former bosses. As one woman told me, “the capitalist system is what ruined us. We prefer to sell here at our own store. The neighborhood people and others come here to buy the clothes we make. We want to produce sheets for the hospitals too, for the people, you know?”

Some 150 of Argentina's 1,200 factories in bankrupt liquidation have been “recuperated” by 13,000 of their workers and are producing again, either as cooperatives or as 100-percent worker-controlled establishments like Zanon and Brukman.

According to the Wall Street Journal, some financially strapped provincial governments have decided to encourage the trend in order to reactivate businesses shut down by the economic crisis. In the cases of some of the occupied factories, the federal government pays the rent and promises not to evict workers for one or two years.

The Journal does not mention that the governments are trying to coopt the growing workers' movement, while simultaneously attacking its anti-capitalist wing led by workers at Zanon, Brukman, and other workplaces. These include: Pepsico Snacks (US); the industrial bakery co-op Aguante (ex-Bakery Five); the Chilavert Printing Press; Ghelco Foods; the Rio Turbio coal mines; Junin Clinic of Cordoba; Tiger Supermarket in Rosario; and Frigorifico Fricader (meatpacking plant in Rio Negro).

I visited the Grissinopoli bakery, occupied by sixteen workers since early June 2002, and interviewed a woman leader there as well as a Zann worker also present to build solidarity. A typical poster stated: “Jaque al patron, todo el poder al peon” – “Screw [literally checkmate] the boss, all power to the worker.” I also visited the metallurgical and plastics factory IMPA, where 300 workers have introduced workers' control and express the same attitude.

The Wall Street Journal does note that Argentina's “economic contraction” is “twice as severe as the one experienced during the great Depression” and that “Neither the government nor the Bush administration has offered significant ideas about how to revive Latin America's third-largest economy. Instead, Argentina has been saved, for now, by the resourcefulness of hundreds of grass-roots leaders in schools, factories and neighborhood associations.”(2)

I asked the women at Brukman: “What if you are attacked by the repressive forces?” They broke into a ripple of confident laughter. “Don't worry,” one replied, “we are self-organized.”

Three days later, in a pre-dawn Sunday raid, hundreds of Federal Police, some not in uniform, others hooded, with no judicial order, used axes to break through the Brukman factory doors.

Armed with machine guns and cellular phones and backed up by assault vehicles, fire engines, moving vans, and civilian cars, they beat up the reduced night-shift staff and hauled six off to jail, including a nine-year-old daughter of a worker. From the street, Jacobo and Mario Brukman looked on approvingly, joined by several of their smiling former employees.

Children of the workers, including a three-year-old, rushed to establish an “encampment” in front of the factory. One asked his mother in a taxi rushing to the scene, “Why are you crying out to the neighbors?”

She replied, “Because it's our jobs, how I get the money to feed you when we go shopping these Sundays. Now they want to take away our work.” The child then began yelling out the car window: “Neighbors, neighbors, come help us!”

Actually, help was already underway. Hundreds of workers, students, unemployed and neighborhood residents rose up as one to defend the factory and remove the police, just as they had done once before -- on March 16, 2002, when they had turned back the police's first attempted eviction of the workers.

By 11:30, the workers were back in their factory, cleaning up smashed machines and lockers. The police had known exactly where to search, remove and destroy. Workers could not find a computer that contained the design for making molds or another computer's hard disc or the documents held in a safe of the factory's secretariat.

By early afternoon, movement lawyers had gained the release of all the prisoners. Said the nine-year old girl: “I wasn't afraid, only angry.”

A worker spokeswoman, Celia, told a press conference: “We demand expropriation of the company, with machinery and everything. Not with machinery simply in trusteeship. We must be guaranteed a minimum salary because the clothing we make is expensive and sales can go down [Brukman workers formerly had produced a dozen leading world labels, including Cristian Dior and Ralph Lauren]. That's why we also demand a subsidy of 150,000 pesos to produce things more accessible to the public. . .”

“Isn't that leftist?” someone asked.

“If to be leftist is to want a decent salary for genuine work, to keep one's source of work and maintain that source for many more who come after us, then more than half of Argentina is leftist.” When asked if this was how she always spoke, Celia replied no, that prior to the takeover of Brukman, her normal way of speaking had been things like “What am I going to cook?”(3)

Women like those at Brukman have played a central role in the struggle to create “a new Argentina,” both before and after the “Argentinazo” (the popular uprising of December 19 and 20, 2001 that quickly got rid of four successive presidents).

Since 1995, women have been in the front lines of the still expanding piquetero movement -- organizations representing newly laid-off workers and millions of unemployed people from urban villas de miseria (slums) -- known for their daring roadblocks. Without the piqueteros, there would have been no Argentinazo.

Women from the neighborhoods of Argentina's working and middle classes have been very active in the “popular assemblies” that continue implementing measures of material aid for the unemployed and worker-controlled enterprises, including hospitals and clinics experiencing staff cutbacks or facing shutdown.

With twenty-five percent of the workforce unemployed and more layoffs threatened, the popular assemblies play a major role in the daily life of entire neighborhoods, setting up community kitchens, daycare facilities, health clinics, cultural centers, community organic gardens, and barter markets.

They represent a notable continuation of human solidarity across class lines that first appeared during the Argentinazo, when enraged elements of the middle classes who had seen their bank accounts frozen and devalued joined the six-year-old series of marches of the piqueteros shouting “Piquete y cazerola, la lucha es una sola” (“Unemployed and pot-banger, the fight is one and the same”).

The widely respected Madres de Plaza de Mayo (and the abuelas, or grandmothers), who blocked the mounted police during the Argentinazo, also have played a major role. Their fearlessness is contagious. Ever since the torture and disappearance of an estimated 30,000 men, women, and children during the U.S.-backed “dirty war” of the 1976-1983 military dictatorship, they have kept human rights issues in the forefront of all social struggles.

In addition, women's caucuses and commissions have sprung up in diverse social sectors. The three-day 17th National Meeting of Women held in Salta in August, 2002 brought together women in struggle from all walks of life, including Brukman workers who declared:

“We women are the ones with a double workday… we receive lower wages for the same work that men do, we endure sexual harassment… we have less access to education. We are the ones who die from clandestine abortions or during pregnancy or child-birth because of inadequate health care, the ones most affected by malnutrition and AIDS. Since December [2001], however, something has changed in our country and in spite of our situation we have shown that we have the power and the courage to come out fighting decisively. With the same decisiveness we want to take on the task of coordinating the different sectors in struggle.(4)

Deeper Crisis, Stronger Revolt

Several other developments struck me during my two-week visit to Argentina, including:

* A continuation of the gradual economic genocide generated by twenty-seven years of neoliberalism's privatizations, IMF-sponsored austerity programs, dollarization and corruption.

Elaboration: The nation's average wage has fallen from first to last place in Latin America. Of 38 million Argentines, sixty percent live below the poverty line; 10 million are destitute. More than a third of all households are headed by women.

In a country where giant agribusinesses export tons of foodstuffs, one of every five children suffers malnutrition, from which a hundred die each month. To the feminization of poverty we must add the infantilization of poverty.

Meanwhile, during the first eleven months of 2002 Argentina used up $4.5 billion of the nation's scarce foreign reserves to pay off the illegitimate foreign debt. It recently had to default on an $805 million loan installment owed the World Bank, saying it could resume payment only when the IMF restored its credit line suspended in 2001.

* An extreme debilitation of the political system with its clientelist labor-union structures, in part because the IMF-imposed privatization of state enterprises, government corruption, non-payment of taxes, and payments on the foreign debt have left the government with little money for social programs.

Elaboration: There is a marked falling out among the thieves, that is, the bourgeoisie, the politicians, and the labor bureaucrats. Even within bourgeois sectors -- financial, industrial, commercial, agrarian -- there occurs fierce infighting.

A “nationalist bourgeoisie” does not exist. Major Argentine capitalists and their technocrats in government have long since rushed to embrace foreign capital, converting the nation into the IMF's “model student” -- until the economic collapse of 2001-2002. The resultant economic crisis and fractionalization of the parties and other political organizations has contributed to the acceleration of public discontent with all political parties except some leftist ones.(5)

Meanwhile, the major labor confederations have divided time and again. Their leaders regularly mouth pro-worker rhetoric and even organize protest strikes and rallies. At the same time, however, most of them collaborate with the bourgeoisie and IMF in the rejection of workers' demands and the extension of privatization and austerity measures, adding to rank-and-file worker resentment.

President Eduardo Duhalde's social relief program for the unemployed consists of a paltry 150 pesos a month (forty euros or dollars). It reaches less than half the unemployed -- and only after much of it has been siphoned off in the corrupt PJ [Justicialist Party] patronage chain involved in its delivery.

* An expansion in the piquetero movements and their uniting with neighborhood assemblies and other labor struggles (especially those among teachers, miners, health, food, and transport workers, and workers running seized factories).

Elaboration: With support from some of the left-wing parties, there have emerged regional alliances uniting piqueteros with segments of the working and middle classes into “coordinadoras,” such as the Coordinating Committee of Alto Valle (Neuquen and Rio Negro, sparked by the Zanon workers).

These coordinadoras help supersede the bureaucratized trade-union structures held in such disrepute. The coordinadora in Alto Valle is anti-IMF, anti-capitalist, opposed to bourgeois elections, and for non-payment of the foreign debt. It looks toward a general strike or national workers' assembly “to impose a way out that is favorable to workers and the people.”(6)

* A general agreement on the need to maintain the democratic and pluralistic character of the social movements and alliances, seen as necessary for building a powerful unified struggle.

Elaboration: To be sure, there often emerge two (or more) distinct approaches within any given sector or organization, but neither seems willing to break completely with the other. For example, the factory takeover movement has a reformist co-op wing that does not call for immediate rejection of capitalist ownership.

This co-op wing has strength inside the MNER (National Movement of Recuperated Enterprises) and is backed by the Catholic Church's Pastoral Social, various PJ members, and one of three major labor-union groups, the CTA (Federation of Argentine Workers).

On the other hand, a growing number of occupied workplaces advocate direct workers' control, with proposed state or municipal expropriation to guarantee it. This camp includes not only workers like those at Brukman, Zanon, and the renationalized coal mines at Rio Turbio, but also many of the self-organized factories presently using co-op forms.

The workers' control wing has the active support of leftist parties and organizations, including the EDI (Economists of the left active in helping workers plan production for social consumption), the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, and a recent substantial CTA split-off group called Sindicalist Current (CS).

The co-op wing, defined broadly, still has a majority influence among the hundreds of worker-organized enterprises, but it is seen by the workers' control wing as trapped in self-exploitation and destined to drown in a capitalist sea. Yet the two wings maintain a dynamic dialogue.

* A certain political and ideological fragmentation almost inevitable in the early phases of so many different popular movements.

Elaboration: This has led people to ask how the massive unity behind the negative slogan of “Get rid of all of them [politicians], let not a single one remain!” can be transformed into a positive program for replacing bourgeois state power with a genuine working people's administration.

Throughout the land, people debate alternatives to capitalism, as well as what tactics to use, innovate, or discard. For example, I attended a sub-regional Buenos Aires assembly of delegates from assemblies and organizations planning direct actions for the first anniversary of the Argentinazo. An intense debate occurred on a resolution to declare publicly there would be no violence by demonstrators.

The overwhelming majority of delegates opted against the proposal on the grounds that it was not only a concession to the “violence-baiting” lies of the mass media but an insult to all those who had died at the hands of state-sponsored violence in the struggles of the past forty years.

* The multigenerational character of grassroots social movements and important role of young people, even children, in their maintenance, defense, and expansion.

Elaboration: Initially, the only consistent youth presence in the popular resistance movements was among the unemployed. In recent months, students and young teachers at all levels of schooling have become much more active. In various neighborhoods youths are participating in literacy campaigns and collective gardens (mainly organic) and eateries.

During my visit in November a group of sociology students were occupying the rector's office at the University of Buenos Aires. Their demands were: autonomy for the sociology career program; budget increases; more classroom space; an end to political persecution; and scholarships for the needy. Political and cultural meetings I attended normally involved three generations of Argentines, each listening and learning from the others, reflecting a genuine solidarity.

On November 8, 300 children from Misiones province on the border with Paraguay and Brazil, organized by the CTA-affiliated Movement of Children of the People, arrived in Buenos Aires after a lengthy “March for Life and Against Hunger.” Accompanying them were members of HIJOS (children of the disappeared) and other groups.

* A rise in anticapitalist sentiment behind the unifying slogan of “Get rid of all of them, let not a single one remain.”

Elaboration: The slogan increasingly means throw out not only the politicians but also the corrupt labor bureaucrats and capitalism as well. Most Argentines may still think of themselves as “Peronists” (a habit born of sixty years of political history glorifying Juan and Evita Peron) but they readily see through the kleptocracy of the PJ/UCR/Frepaso system of corporativist clientelism.

They distrust the endless false promises of “jobs” and “improvements in the economy.” As one Argentine quipped to me, “Guard your wallet, in case you meet a politician or a trade-union bureaucrat.”

[The second part of this report, discussing the growth of committed activists and the threat of imperialist intervention, will appear in our next issue.]

Notes

  • Nuestra Lucha, Nov. 8, 2002, 3. For background on Zanon and Argentina's other worker-controlled factories, see International Viewpoint, October 2002, 28-32; Against the Current, November/December 2002, 27-29; and Eduardo Lucita, “Fabricas ocupadas y gestion obrera en Argentina: ocupar, resistir, producir,” Revista Cuadernos del Sur http://www.geocities.com/economistas_de_izquierda/producir1.
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  • “Self-reliance helps Argentines endure nation's economic pain,” by Matt Moffett, Wall Street Journal, Dec. 20, 2002.
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  • CORREO DE PRENSA DE LA IV INTERNACIONAL Boletin Electronico No. 485 - Amrica Latina y el Caribe, Dec. 10, 2002, [germain@chasque.net], reprint of article by Maria Moreno in Pagina 12 supplement.
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  • Nuestra Lucha, Aug. 27, 2002, 12.
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  • The main parties: PJ -- Partido Justicialista (or Peronists); UCR -- Union Civica Radical (or Radicals); Frepaso -- a center-left coalition which put Fernando de la Rua in office in 1999. Leftist parties and groups include: PC (Communist Party); MST (Socialist Workers Movement); IU (United Left, basically PC and MST); CCC (Combative Classist Current, rooted in Maoists who earlier broke with PC and now seek an alliance with select capitalist sectors); PO (Worker Party, Trotskyist); MAS (Movement to Socialism, Trotskyist); Por Masas (Trotskyist); UMS (Union de Militantes Socialistas, Trotskyist); PTS (Workers for Socialism Party); LSR (Revolutionary Socialist League); MTD (Movement of Unemployed Workers); Socialismo Libertario (a non-party of the international current Utopia Socialista, feminist, anarchist, and neo-Trotskyist); various locals of the ATE (Association of State Workers) and other union federations, e.g. railroad, transport, shipyard, telephone, electrical, construction, education, and other workers.
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  • Nuestra Lucha, Nov. 8, 2002, supplement on First Regional Plenary of Coordinadora del Alto Valle.
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  • ATC 103, March-April 2003