Friday, June 26, 2009

Workers taking charge: The fábricas recuperadas movement in Argentina

In my class "Challenges faced by the media in Argentina," we just turned in our first essay. We were given a variety of topics: Media outlets in Argentina, the national debt, etc. I chose to write mine on a pretty fascinating documentary we watched about worker-controlled factories in Argentina.

To watch the The Take (2004) in English, click here.

Not the most scintillating read, I know, but here’s the essay I wrote (with links!), if anyone’s interested:

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Desperation can make people take crazy, unpredictable forms of action. Losing your job in the middle of a national economic crisis and consequently not being able to provide food and financial security for your wife and young children is an undeniably desperate situation.

But it was in this situation that Freddy Espinoza, an Argentine factory worker, found himself. So, he and the other 29 former employees of Forja, an auto-parts factory in Buenos Aires, decided to do something drastic. They kept working anyway, filling orders and meeting the needs of the company’s existing clients while the owners of the factory were frantically scrambling to save their own personal assets.

And they actually found initial success. It was all part of a growing socioeconomic movement that was first implemented in Argentina in 2001 by workers for such companies as Zanon Ceramics (now called FaSinPat) and Brukman Textile Factory, who refused to continue working under the authority of the factory’s owners since they hadn’t been paid in over two weeks.

Work life and home life began to overlap for the workers at Forja. They started eating, sleeping, cooking and spending their free time in the factory. They just wanted to take care of themselves and their families with a steady income. Unfortunately for them, it wasn’t as simple as making a declaration of ownership. Espinoza and his companions quickly found that they needed to win the legal right to continue operating their factory and enjoying its profits. In order to do this, they had to convince a battalion of law enforcement, politicians and judges that they were the ones who deserved to control the factory. These public officials seemed to teeter-totter on the fulcrum of unpredictability, able to either make or break the workers’ movement depending on a whim.

As if the capriciousness of the courts and elected officials wasn’t enough of a hurdle, the fábricas recuperadas ("recovered factories") movement also had to weather the storm of the upcoming presidential elections. Only a few months earlier, Argentina’s presidents during the crisis—the country went through five of them in two weeks!—had been the targets of massive disapproval. Argentines shouted “¡Que se vayan todos!” (“They all must go!”) But suddenly the very people who were unceremoniously booted out of leadership were back, vying for the country’s highest executive position. Inconceivably, the candidate leading the polling predictions was Carlos Menem, the maestro of the economic collapse. He had been president already twice before, and he had been disgracefully forced into exile after the end of his second term. The ringleader was back, and it looked as though he might win. If that happened, the desperate effort of the Forja workers would be sunk, as Menem would have almost certainly restored control of the factories to the owners.

Sometimes, though, desperate actions pay off. In a terrifically lucky break for Espinoza, his coworkers and the rest of the fábricas recuperadas movement, Menem pulled out of the race, and legislation was approved allowing occupied factories to continue operating under worker control.

For an American viewer of The Take (2004), the documentary that tells Espinoza´s story, the concept of worker-controlled factories has the potential to be abrasive. The socialist fábricas recuperadas movement is definitely not new to Argentina or South America, and its most recent manifestation has ties to a similar movement in Venezuela. Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chavez, supports the movements, and he isn’t exactly the recipient of positive press coverage in the United States, so it may be understandable why an American viewer might be a little skeptical about the idea.

Regardless of any artificial connotations that may exist today, socialism at its heart is “a political and economic theory of social organization that advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange, should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole” (New Oxford American Dictionary). Right now in the U.S., “socialism” is a something of a dirty word, hurled around by conservatives who accuse the country from departing from its roots of privatization and capitalism by electing Barack Obama as president.

However, maybe it’s time for Americans to take a break from denunciation and spend more time observing the attempts of other countries to find a profitable path in today’s economic turbulence. It is undeniable that this movement of worker-occupied factories has played an extremely important role in revolutionizing Argentina’s political and economic thinking. The struggle of Argentina’s heretofore well-to-do middle class to hoist itself out of the mire of the country’s 2001 economic collapse has meant that people are willing to experiment with new economic ideas after the failure of their previous system, which closely mirrored the methods of the United States and the rest of the “Western” world.

Instead, the workers at Forja, Brukman and other employee-controlled enterprises are trying a different kind of approach. Though each factory comes up with its own set of rules for self-governance, many take the same tack that Forja settled upon: One worker, one vote and one standard salary for everyone. Whatever the majority decides is what the factory does, and an individual worker must become accustomed to winning, losing, and carrying on anyway. It’s a strange mix of socialistic democracy on the small scale, and it appears to be working beautifully, at least so far.

The workers’ slogan of “Occupy, Resist and Produce” is a clear example of how Argentina is reinventing itself to become more viable in a world economy. What will be interesting to see is how the most recent global crisis will affect the country’s still nascent fábricas recuperadas movement. If it can survive this second wave of worldwide economic deterioration, it may demand more serious, open-minded scrutiny from its detractors who were too quick to condemn its inception. At the very least, Argentina ought to be respected for its “try-anything” mentality. As we have seen consistently throughout history (for example: the signing of the Magna Carta, or the revolution in Cuba, or now the struggle for democracy in Iran) desperation causes countries and individuals to examine other options and launch new experiments, many of which are often met with success—though that’s a word that admittedly means different things for different people.

Based on what’s happened so far, the fábricas recuperadas movement can neither be condemned as socialistic evil nor hailed as a solution to the world’s economic problems. For now, it seems that the rest of the world must sit back and watch the experiment.

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