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Synthesis/Regeneration 51   (Winter 2010)

Thinking Economically

Strategic Lessons from Latin America:
Workplace Resistance and Self-management

by Marie Trigona

Capitalism has taken a turn for the worse, spinning itself out of control into a ruinous downward spiral which many are characterizing as the first depression of this century. Under capitalism there are always winners and losers, even without a recession. Who are the winners? Corporations and banks showered with public bailout packages, seeking to further consolidate their power and capital. Who are the losers? The millions of workers faced with unemployment, dropping wages and inflation.

As unemployment figures creep up to 10 % in the United States and Europe, workers are scrambling to find solutions to joblessness. Around the world, the phenomenon of worker occupations and boss-napping has spread as desperate workers resort to direct action at the workplace to prevent companies from firing workers and liquidating assets. Workers have taken more radical measures in the fight against injustices brought on by bosses unleashing attacks against employees through voluntary pay reductions, downsizing and firings. In the past two years Serbia, Turkey, France, Spain, South Africa, England and Canada have seen worker occupations. The most well known case in the US has been the sit-down-strike at the Chicago windows and doors plant where workers occupied their factory to demand severance pay and benefits after being abruptly fired. Factory occupations have been used since the onset of the industrial revolution as a strategy for workers to defend themselves against deplorable work conditions, unsafe workplaces and retaliation.

...the phenomenon of worker occupations and boss-napping has spread.

The phenomenon of worker occupations continues to grow as the world falls deeper into the current recession. Nearly 20 new factories in Argentina were occupied since 2008. This may be a sign that workers are confronting the current global financial crisis with lessons and tools from previous worker-occupied factories post-2001 economic collapse and popular rebellion. Today, some 250 worker-occupied enterprises are up and running, employing more than 13,000. Many of these sites have been producing under worker self-management since 2002, providing nearly a decade of lessons, experiments, strategies and mistakes to learn from.

Arrufat, a chocolate factory in Buenos Aires, is one example of the new occupations. On January 5, 2009, the workers got the news that they were fired. Diana Arrufat, owner and heiress to the factory, left a poster on the gate of the factory to inform the workers they no longer had jobs. The 50 workers still employed hadn't been paid their salaries for much of 2008. "They fired us without having to look at our faces. They abandoned us," says Alberto Cavrico a worker who has worked at the plant for more than 20 years. That same day the workers opened the factory gate and remained inside the factory. And now the workers are producing deliciously sweet delicacies without the supervision and exploitative practices of a boss.

One part of a full societal vision is workers' control, which means that production is collectively and democratically managed by workers. As historians and writers have long noted, the aspiration for direct worker management of production has culminated in many worker takeovers through the greater part of the 20th century - Russia (1917), Italy (1920), Spain (1936), Chile (1972) and Argentina (2001). Argentina offers one of the longest- lived experiences of direct worker management of this century. As such, the experiences of self-manage-ment in Latin America provide an example of new working class subjectivities, self-determination and working culture while they fight against dominant institutions, including the state and capitalist bosses.

Today, some 250 worker-occupied enterprises are up and running, employing more than 13,000.

I would like to critically analyze the experiences of worker self-management to conceive how workers can overcome internal, state and market challenges and further promote democratic workplaces.

Self-management and new social relations

"The most important factor, and most subversive, is that the recuperated enterprises confirm that businesses don't need bosses to produce," says Fabio Resino from the BAUEN Hotel. The 19-story, 180-room hotel has been operational since workers took it over in 2003. It operates despite a court-ordered eviction notice and void of legal recognition. The hotel has been a launch pad for the new occupied factories; many of the workers from the new takeovers have come to the BAUEN Hotel seeking advice and support. The BAUEN collective forms part of a network of enterprises that are building democratic workplaces, community projects and solidarity networks.

Workers from Hotel BAUEN, a 19-story hotel run by workers protest to demand an expropriation law. Marie Trigona

Most of the worker takeovers were actions to guarantee that the owners wouldn't be able to liquidate assets before filing bankruptcy to avoid paying workers indemnities and back salaries. Workers' demands steadily grew from a measure to safeguard their jobs to the idea of implementing a system of self-management. With little hope that bosses would ever return to pay workers what they owed, workers devised plans to start up production with no boss or owner whatsoever.

In many of the worker-occupied factories, as soon as the workers began producing without a boss or owner, relationships at the workplace were re-invented. The workers broke with the capitalist model of hierarchical organization, alienation and exploitation. For some, this transition occurred smoothly and for others the change was a difficult challenge. The questions of what do we do next and how do we do it led to workers organizing themselves in various versions of alternatives to the capitalist business structure.


Within self-management the very nature of work and decision-making should be transformed into a participatory, democratic and empowering process void of exploitation, inequality and authority. The recuperated enterprises have managed to devise systems to democratize decision-making in a participatory manner, while at the same time competing in the market. For example, at the Zanon ceramics factory, the largest recuperated enterprise with more than 470 workers, the factory has been transformed into a workplace model based on values like equity, liberation, mutual cooperation, participatory management and direct democracy. Workers at Zanon have developed a coordinator system to organize production and basic functioning. Each production line forms a commission. Each commission votes on a coordinator who rotates regularly. The coordinator of the sector informs on issues, news, and conflicts within his or her sector to an assembly of coordinators. The coordinator then reports back to his or her commission news from other sectors. The workers hold weekly assemblies per shift. The factory also holds a general assembly, during which production is halted, each month, where the collective resolves actions and decisions.

Self-management implies that a community, workplace or group makes its own decisions; worker self-management is specific in the process of planning and management of production. As many of the worker-recuperated enterprises move toward self-management, they develop organization that resists hierarchies and delegation of decision-making power. Centralization is a challenge for workplaces in which the assembly doesn't meet regularly or wasn't developed as an efficient decision-making tool. When delegates or representatives make decisions for a worker-controlled enterprise that aren't explicitly delegated by the collective, there is more chance for corruption and decision-making based on personal interests rather than collective interests.

...as soon as the workers began producing without a boss or owner, relationships at the workplace were re-invented.

Where a capitalist business has a vertical pyramid structure, many of the recuperated enterprise structures resemble a circle, with working teams communicating with each other in networks, rather than a top-down system where capitalists and a coordinator class give instructions while workers passively take orders. The cooperative model results in a more dynamic and horizontal organizational model, while being socially viable rather than exploitive. In many of these cooperatives, the worker assembly is the only "authority" in the workplace. But not all decisions can or should be made within an assembly, or with consensus, although, all decision-making mechanisms should be participatory and representative of the worker collective as a whole. The coordinator class or "administrative representatives" at most of the takeovers did not work as operators or non-managerial workers did. This meant that the workers had to learn administration and marketing, leading to challenges and mistakes but ultimately a greater opportunity for participatory planning within the workplace.

...recuperated enterprises have managed to devise systems to democratize decision-making in a participatory manner.

The assembly can backfire. A factor in how well workers are able to adopt new social relations at the workplace depends highly on the level of organization, class consciousness and commitment to cooperation. If there is a charismatic personality who monopolizes the assembly, while the rest passively participate, the assembly can be manipulated, even if a decision is taken "collectively." If that decision is manipulated, it can't really be considered a democratic decision.

Social property

Conceptually, in a recuperated enterprise there is no capitalist, boss or owner; the enterprise is collectively owned. For some workers, the enterprise doesn't belong to the worker collective but to society. Sometimes, when workers have the notion that the cooperative belongs to them only, personal interests develop, diminishing the liberatory spirit of working without a boss. This can lead to isolation and lack of long-term investing, as well as preventing community groups or allies from lending advice.

...the worker cooperatives are taking any measure possible to avoid laying off workers.

At Zanon, workers constantly use the slogan: "Zanon es del pueblo" or Zanon belongs to the people. The workers have adopted the objective of producing not only to provide jobs and salaries for more than 470 people, but also to create new jobs, make donations in the community and to support other social movements. Work is seen as a social asset, not as an imposition.


Thousands of jobs have been created by the occupied factories. The workers at Zanon have had the most political approach to hiring workers. When Zanon began to produce under worker control they hired former Zanon workers who had been fired. Later they began to divide the job openings for grassroots activists working with the unemployed (piquetero) worker organizations. Some other takeovers have decided that family members of "original workers" should be hired. This has set up a system where the families of the original workers occupying their workplace were rewarded while constituents and supporters can be seen as "outsiders" that you call when you need them, but keep at a distance when it comes to internal affairs at the cooperative. Hiring workers on this basis promotes favoritism, favoring personal interests of a particular group of people or family rather than the community, whether a geographical community or a community of people fighting for social justice.

Social economy

Many of the 200 worker-occupied businesses and factories in Argentina are being affected by the crisis. But unlike their capitalist counterparts, the worker cooperatives are taking any measure possible to avoid laying off workers, something which they are opposed to doing. "We aren't like the capitalists. You can't throw workers out like they are lice," said Candido Gonzalez, a veteran worker from Chilavert print factory in Buenos Aires, one of the first plants occupied after the 2001 crisis.

As Argentina's economy slows down, the recuperated enterprises now have to devise how to compete in a shrinking market. The social economy may be one solution to the deepening crisis. Within a social economy, cooperatives can function with greater autonomy than they can while competing in the purely capitalist market. For example, with tourism slowing down BAUEN Hotel has reached an agreement with FEDETUR, a tourist federation grouping more than 1.5 million associates from cooperatives and mutuals in the region. Associates from other cooperatives can enjoy the services of the hotel at a fair price, while BAUEN can rely on a non-capitalist clientele that understands the complexity and importance of working in a cooperative. BAUEN can create income and a solidarity network outside of the purely capitalist international tourism market.

...cooperatives could produce for the consumer and directly for their communities.

A social economy not only provides an alternative solution during an economic crisis, but also augments worker-managed workplaces' autonomy and possibility to mutually cooperate with other non-capitalist projects. Social economy as defined here is not to be confused with micro-credit lending and social programs supported by groups like the World Bank and Inter-Development Bank to suppress the poor. Here, social economy is defined as an approach to production and product exchange outside of the capitalist market for the liberation of oppressed communities from exploitation both as workers and as consumers. With a social economy, production chains can be complemented or even completed without having to rely on capitalist transactions in the market.

Many transactions could even be in the form of swaps; a bakery cooperative could trade bread for shoes from another cooperative that manufactures shoes, like Pupure cooperative that specializes in work shoes. Cooperatives could set up a system to trade their final product for other products from other cooperatives to cover basic needs; this system could be called "auto-consumo" or producing for personal consumption. Rather than producing for a market, cooperatives could produce for the consumer and directly for their communities. Another aspect of the social economy is selling products in alternative networks or autonomous spaces rather than a traditional market, where the buyer with more bargaining power over the seller wins. For example, Arrufat chocolate cooperative could set up a stand at a weekly street fair organized by a neighborhood assembly association. This could be a viable alternative to putting their product on corporate super-market shelves, something which may not be accessible given the volume and narrow profit margin needed to market products at a chain store.

...women in the recuperated enterprises are outnumbered by male co-workers.

FACTA or the Federation of Worker Self-managed Cooperatives has played an important role in supporting the cooperatives. FACTA, founded in 2006, is made up of more than 70 worker self-managed coops, many worker-occupied, others worker-owned, inspired by the recuperated enterprise phenomenon. FACTA's objective is to group cooperatives together so they can collectively negotiate institutional, political, legal and market challenges together; the idea being that 70 cooperatives united can better negotiate with state representatives, institutional offices and other businesses. FACTA also brings working class identity by bringing workers together to deliberate autonomous solutions and confront state and business interests.

Gender, liberation and self-management

Many of the women working at the self-managed workplaces have triple roles as working women, mothers, and activists, with particular challenges women must face. These problems require different solutions at the workplace and a social network outside the workplace. Infrastructural support such as childcare should be provided. Childcare is an important issue for both men and women. Day-care centers could also be part of a self-managed project, with child care professionals working in a self-managed workplace. Health care and psychological support is also an important service that self-managed workplaces should secure for the collective.

As activists, women and men face many pressures, ranging from threats of state violence to fighting for legality for the cooperative on which their jobs depend. At Zanon, psychologists and social workers have provided services for workers and their families dealing with a range of issues that comes with defending your job until the last consequence.

Cooperativa Quilmes, Ex-Febatex was occupied in the string of new actions during the crisis. Workers occupying the cotton thread plant to put into motion workers' self-management were violently evicted in August, 2009, despite having legal standing. The workers are currently camping outside the factory to demand their jobs. Marie Trigona

In most cases, women in the recuperated enterprises are outnumbered by male co-workers. Some enterprises have hired women for "non-traditional" positions in the workplace, but in my observation women fulfill mostly "traditional" roles at some of the cooperatives. There needs to be discussion and action to diversify the workplace and for women to be placed in "non-traditional" job posts. At the assembly, equal opportunity should be an agenda item for the collective to evaluate whether women have equal access to training, education and participation.

...women have formed commissions or meeting spaces to discuss the challenges women face in their workplaces.

At some sites, women have formed commissions or meeting spaces to discuss the challenges women face in their workplaces, even when there isn't a boss. Within these spaces, they also plan political actions with women from other organizations and social movements against gender oppression. Self-management implies that equality and liberation should be met on all fronts, for all collective members to attain non-hierarchical, egalitarian and classless workplaces where members can freely participate in decision-making. This means adopting an anti-sexist, anti-racist and anti-homophobic agenda to promote diversity and equality.

Occupy, Resist, Produce - tools for working class resistance

Latin America's occupied enterprises offer a glimpse into the complexities of self-management and the potential that these sites have for transforming society's vision of production and work.

Argentina's worker-occupied factories have successfully put into practice ideas that directly challenge the logic of capitalism: Occupy, Resist, Produce.

Marie Trigona is a writer, radio producer and filmmaker based in Argentina. She is currently writing a book on Worker Self-Management in Latin America, forthcoming from AK Press. She can be reached at mtrigona@msn.com

This article was originally printed as a contribution to the Z Reimagining Society Project.

[16 dec 09]

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