Seizing the Means of Productionby Michael Busch
The Lavaca Collective, Sin Patron (The New Press, April 2008)
While much of the world’s attention in late 2001 was focused on the nascent War on Terror unfolding in Afghanistan, the Southern Cone of South America witnessed the financial disintegration of a regional juggernaut. If September 11 inaugurated a cycle of corporate opportunism and unmitigated greed in the name of fighting terror, it also marked the close of a similar cycle carried out in the name of “development” in Argentina.
In the decade and a half since the country had emerged from authoritarian military rule, its markets had been opened by the International Monetary Fund, and picked clean by foreign investment. Institutional safeguards against privatized avarice and global recession disappeared. As a result, when Argentina succumbed to financial crisis at the start of the 21st century, the country was an emaciated version of its previously robust self. The situation was dire: street protests exploded into violence, while at the same moment, the currency imploded, leaving supermarket shelves empty, businesses bankrupt, and working people without jobs.
Yet as Sin Patron—a recent book by the Lavaca workers collective—highlights, many unemployed Argentines refused to sit still while their country collapsed around them in ruins. Instead, they simply returned to work. Throughout the country, abandoned factories and bankrupted businesses were seized by their former employees, and reopened under democratic worker management. How did they do it? Told almost exclusively through first-person testimonials, Sin Patron (which means “Without a Boss”) outlines the movement’s two-pronged collective action program. The workers at once navigated the proper institutional channels of the country’s courts, while simultaneously challenging state authority with brave acts of civil disobedience.
From the start, the cooperative movement in Argentina has focused on providing equitable work conditions for its laborers within the confines of national legal restraints. While their initial seizure of “private property” was technically against the law, the workers did so in the name of another national law that protected a fundamental human right: the right to work. This truth shines light on an appropriately unique twist to the tale told in Sin Patron. Unlike other countries, where workers protect their right to work by leaving workstations in protest, the cooperative workers struck by returning to theirs. Once inside, they took legal action by quickly organizing themselves into cooperatives.
The reasons they organized into legally recognized cooperatives were both moral and immediately pragmatic. A striking feature of the cooperative movement is its insistence on equal access to democratic participation. As one member explains it, “we formed the cooperative with the condition of equal wages, making decisions by assembly. We are against the division of manual and intellectual work, we want a rotation of positions, and, above all, the ability to recall our elected leaders.” At the same time, however, the workers shrewdly leveraged their identities as cooperatives to great economic advantage.
Under Argentine law, cooperative arrangements provide a shield for the workers against incursion of the previous owner’s debts. Nor are they exposed to legal action connected to the previous ownership’s illegal activities. In other words, the cooperative allows workers a fresh start. In addition, “registering a corporation in Argentina costs a minimum of 300 dollars. A worker cooperative, on the other hand, costs only 45 dollars.” But the legal instruments privileging cooperatives don’t end there. As the Lavaca authors point out, “Over time…workers also managed to transform their cooperatives into tax shelters, since they are exempt from capital gains taxes and, in many districts, municipal taxes as well.”
Nevertheless, the cooperatives’ willingness to work within the walls of national law did not prevent the courts from attempting to suffocate the movement’s building momentum. In most cases, the workers had their rights to expropriation repeatedly revoked. Workers were physically escorted out of their workplaces, sometimes by ski mask-wearing, shotgun-toting security officers. Says one member of her eviction, “I thought I was in a movie—I couldn’t believe this was happening. They came in by breaking down the doors with their rifle butts—it was pretty dramatic…Walking out of the factory, it was like a militarized zone—incredible. That’s when they charged us with trespassing and theft, and charged a fine of 50,000 pesos.”
These setbacks, however, did not shake the workers’ resolve to lay claim to what was rightfully theirs. Some hit the streets, setting up makeshift living quarters outside their companies, distributing literature to passersby on sidewalks, and lobbying local politicians for support. Others engaged in more confrontational resistance: intimidating private security guards with their power in numbers, busting open locks on factory doors and retaking their plants by force. Of course, action of this sort entails considerable risk, as one participant makes clear in a typically arresting testimonial describing the early days of expropriation:
I was holding onto the fence and Juanita, Estela, and Delia Figueroa were yelling at me, “Let’s go in, let’s go in!” I turned around…and pushed the fence. I latched on to 3 campeneras who had stepped forward and we moved ahead. It was a moment of anger—a lightning bolt. When the fence fell I saw the police lift their rifles and take aim. Then they started shooting. I thought, “They’re going to kill us, right here.”
That the threat of state violence against the workers maintains a constant presence in all the narratives recorded in Sin Patron testifies to the legacy of military rule still haunting Argentine society. The country’s failure to institute democratic policing in the wake of an era defined by state-sponsored human rights violations invests the workers’ struggle with an added dimension of danger and heroism. After being arrested for trespassing on her former workplace, another member recalls being escorted from the building by “normal cops in unmarked cars. While I was in the car, I was mentally saying goodbye to everything…The car kept going and going…I even got to the point of thinking ‘Am I going to be just one more missing person?’”
Yet in the face of potential violence at the hands of the state, legal obfuscation from the courts, and attempts at cooption by leftist political parties, the cooperatives nevertheless continued to fight for their basic right to work. Their efforts have not gone unrewarded. There are currently almost two hundred recovered businesses under worker management in Argentina, employing nearly 20,000 citizens who would otherwise be out of a job. And they make money. One man notes that the expropriated companies are able to attract their old clients “without help, without subsidies, pure sweat.” Lavaca echoes his claim. “Many of the businesses work with the cooperatives,” it writes, “because they find in them a seriousness and efficiency that doesn’t exist among the entrepreneurs bent on asset stripping.” The remarkable fact remains that, in Argentina, not a single reclaimed company has gone out of business since 2001.
And while the aggregate numbers of reclaimed businesses and the workers they employ may be small, their power is not to be underestimated. Candido, a worker in the Chilavert plant, notes that while the expropriated businesses “are a small speck within the universe of the Argentine economic universe,” he understands that his movement is “a prestigious little speck. Not all who have a lot of power have prestige.” And as Naomi Klein, whose 2004 documentary film The Take chronicles the Argentine workers’ expropriation movement, points out in her forward to Sin Patron, it’s precisely this prestige that has produced ripples of change beyond the borders of Argentina. “These struggles have had a tremendous impact on the imaginations of activists around the world…there is [now] a renewed interest in democratic workplaces from Durban to Melbourne to New Orleans.”
Closer to home, Sin Patron demonstrates that the cooperative movement’s success also heralds the birth of an exciting new brand of politics emerging in Latin America. In contrast to the top-down models of social change advocated by the likes of Hugo Chavez to the north, self-determined workers in Argentina have rejected the state as a go-between in their struggle against the capitalist consensus. Instead, they pursue a cutting-edge blend of strategies at the grass-roots, smashing the altar of private property at which traditional capitalists worship. As they reclaim their identities, and put food on their household tables, the workers force ideology and party politics to the back seat.
While such anti-statism doesn’t sit well with some on the left, the workers themselves understand what’s at stake. As Alberto Esparza, a laborer at the FaSinPat plant (short for Fabrica Sin Patron, or “Factory Without a Boss”) says, “One can’t detach oneself from society and [still] have a message demanding social justice…You know, children, students come here and ask how we did this. The first thing we did was break the law. And I like to explain it in my own words. Being in a party is simple because you’re tied to a set of statements the party defines, and that’s it. What we do here is much richer, where we debate, reach agreements, and know whose interests we defend.”
Michael Busch is a Ph.D. student in International Relations at the CUNY Graduate Center.