Thoughts on Argentina's Conjunctures :: Recuperating Work, Recovering Life (2005-2007)

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

First encounters with recovered enterprises: Gráfica Patricios and Cefomar

On July 12 we went to our first two recovered workspaces, Gráfica Patricios and Cefomar. This post is an edited version of some of my initial thoughts from this pivotal day.

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It’s 10:00 pm [on July 12]and I find myself in a restaurant eating dinner on the Avenida 9 de Julio close to the border between the barrios (neighbourhoods) of San Telmo, Montserrat, and Balvanera. Today was a full day for us on our second day of our cultural immersion week. The week intersperses trips to several recovered factories with cultural and historical tours of various barrios of Buenos Aires. The pace of the program is intense this week: Spanish classes in the morning and trips throughout la Capital Federal between 1:30 and 8ish pm every day. I’m currently exhausted and hungry. Yet I need to write. Too many thoughts, too many images, to many ideas running through my head not to.

Today, I feel, was a breakthrough day for us in the program, a mere three days into this journey that will give us just a taste of the new possibilities for life being pioneered by a few visionary social movements here in Argentina. Why was it a breakthrough day? Because we finally set foot in two recovered workspaces during working hours. Today the workers of Gráfica Patricios (a four-colour off-set printing press) and Cefomar (a publishing house) let us into their space and their work lives for a few brief hours. Today we finally got to see these workers labouring in the actual spaces they occupied and fought for so valiantly against many odds. (A side note: It’s unfortunate that I find myself alone tonight. We all dispersed quickly after visiting the last factory, Cefomar, two hours ago. Although we’re all tired, I feel that we must share these experiences and learn from each other as we begin to individually and collectively process the stories that we’re hearing from the protagonists of Argentina’s many unfolding political dramas. [Update: We now meet often as a group. These casual and organic meetings where we share thoughts and experiences are proving to be invaluable for processing our experiences of Argentina´s socio-political justice movements and for whay they mean to us collectively and individually. We´ve also started a reading group where we hope to touch on some of the theoretical issues that are coming to the surface from our experiences].

Today we learned that the recovered workspace movement has to be one of the most inspriational groups within Argentina’s newest social movements for dignity in daily life. Rather than being vanguards, its protagonists are inspirational leaders through their example because they are, within their particular circumstances and in the thick of their specific crises moments, redefining the entire concept of labour. And, in their everyday praxes of work and solidarity under self-management, their everyday lives as a whole are transforming too.

The recovered workspace protagonists are engaging in many battles on many fronts. One of the most intense battles usually comes after the occupation of the firm: the fight for legal recognition of their cooperatives and for the reform of several national, provincial, and municipal laws - in particular, Argentina´s national bankruptcy and expropriation laws. For those recovered enterprises that fall within the Movimento Nacional de Empresas Recuperadas (MNER) (a loose and autonomist organization of almost half of Argentina´s recovered workspaces; the other organization being the Movimiento Nacional de Fabricas Recuperadas por sus Trabajadores (MNFRT), which is more closely affiliated with unions and the state) the reform of current national and provincial laws sharply favouring private property at the expense of the right to work (both entrenched in Argentina´s constitution) is one of the most important early battles in the struggle for worker-controled workspaces.

In a nutshell, legal recognition of worker-controled cooperatives and, in particular, the legal recognition of the rights of these cooperatives to control and use a recovered firm's fixed and variable capital (machines, building, customer base, etc.) is crucial for the prevention of state repression, judicial corruption, and union thuggery. Symbolically and emotionally, legal status also acknowledges the value of the sweat and work of those workers that have laboured in factories, shops, and offices for years, giving both legal life and cultural recognition to the notion that workers invest something perhaps much, much more important than investors, speculators, owners, and decision makers do - what Marx (1983) labels "labour-power" or "labour-time" (pp. 35-41). At minimum, these grassroots worker protagonists fighting for more job security, a better community, and a better life want their labour and struggle to be valorized and their devotion to their work to be recognized by society as well as the state. What the workers seek more than anything, in other words, is to be in control of their subjectivity, their communities, and their future within spaces of labour that can be recovered as dignified sites for living life.

Do these workers have a critique of the nation state and of the global capitalist system of manufacturing, distribution, and consumption? Yes, some do, but the conjuncture in which they live in is extremely complex and steeped in the quotidian difficulties of paying bills and feeding their families within the highly precarized nature of life in Argentina, especially after the crisis of 2001/2002. While the struggle for and the potentiality of greater civilizational change for Argentina is palpable in the narratives that the workers shared with me, such lofty goals for societal change - i.e., the revolution - tend to be, at this early stage of the recovered workspace movement, immersed in the small daily struggles of work, family, and political life. Within the recovered workspace movement, social change since Dec. 19 and 20 2001 tends to be paced, patient, and emergent. The change being spearheaded by the recovered workspace movement is situationally bound, not linked to the inhuman pace and enigmatic wilo-the-wisp nature of the global financial marketplace. Perhaps this latter point is what the recovered workspace movement is teaching progressively minded social justice activists and intellectuals. At the same time, however, civilzational transformation is not in some distant future phase of the revolution for these workers but is, rather, ensconced in their daily struggles, in their daily acts of production and community, in their practices. Their small, quoditidian steps are slowly shaping the look and feel of a new, socially aware community-based cultural and political reality.

Do the recovered workspace protagonists engage in mainstream economic activity within Argentina's national marketplace and, indeed, with the state itself? Yes, for clear practical reasons of survival until an alternative economic model is more clearly demarcated. While a descendant of all past struggles for worker control which also has a rich history in Argentina (recall the thousands of factory takes during the Frondizi presidency in the early 1960s or the Cordobazo in May/June 1969, Argentina's version of May '68), this current and possibly more obstinate iteration of autogestion (self-management) is slowly beginning to build an alternative way of doing business: i.e., salaried work intermingles with worksharing; the common practice of voluntarism within and between recovered enterprises building networks of solidarity between workers and other empresas recuperadas; the sharing of resouces and supplies between related worker cooperatives; and the solidarity between recovered workspaces in times of political lucha (struggle) viz moral support, financial support, and the support of other workers from other enterprises in the movement during the occupations.

It seems to me that, in Argentina - a country still entrenched in the fallout of economic crisis and social uncertainty since the failed neoliberal free-market frontier mentality of the 1990s - it is too early to try to completely redefine the nation-state and the capitalist market economy. This is especially the case within the recovered workspace movements, with only 160-200 or so known workspaces working as official, worker controled cooperatives in Argentina making up a total of 10-12,000 workers. It is clear, however, that many in the movement would eventually like to reconstruct the socio-political and economic architecture of not only Argentina but the world.

Legal recognition. In these early days of the struggle, one of the first small steps for the recovered workspace movement is to get the courts and the state to valourize and recognize the right to work over the rights of private property and to reform Argentina’s bankruptcy and expropriation laws in order to faciliate the creation of worker-led cooperatives rather than the auctioning off of the assets of the factory at the expense of much needed jobs [INSERT STATS]. The moral imperative to privilege employment over private property, rather than the Argentinean establishment's predilection to privilege the rights of property owners over the rights of workers, is brought into releif when one considers that the cause of the workers' precarious conditions were more often than not a direct result of nefarious shenanigans, bad decisions, and shady deals cut between the previous owner and currupt lawyers, bankruptcy trustees, mafiosi union operatives, and even judges. In addition, the workers are often one of the main creditors because in almost all of the cases of declared bankruptcies which then led to worker occupations the workers were owned thousands of dollars in back pay that they had not received in months if not years in some cases.

In these struggles for workers' dignity and the guarantee of work, the logic of MNER, the more autonomist-minded political lobby collective of the recovered enterprises movement, when trying to convince indifferent, unconvinced, and sometimes recalcitrant judges, politicians, and the general public of the worthiness of their struggle is simple: Letting the worker keep on working ultimately benefits the community and the country much more than appeasing speculative creditors and certainly infinitely more than allowing illegal bankruptcies to take their course. And, in Buenos Aires so far, 12 recovered enterprises have won the first round of the legal battle using this logic. The Bauen Hotel and the balloon factory La Nueava Esperanza currently find themselves in this stage of the fight [I'll report on these two situtations and the legal battles in the city of Buenos Aires legislature in the following days. The cases for applying expropriation laws to the Bauen, Cefomar, and La Nueva Esperanza will be heard in the Buenos Aires city legislature either on Aug. 4 or 11 of this year].

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The first recovered workspace we visited today was Gráfica Patricios, where Luis and Pedro showed us around their extremely efficient print shop. The second recovered enterprise we visited was Cefomar, where Edith described to us in articulate language how four workers took the editorial house in 2002. And we've also had the privilege of talking to Chilavert´s Candido on several occasions already. All three workers’ stories were infused with a deep sense of experientially learned praxical knowledge. All three told us how the valiant occupations by the trabajadores (workers), often lasting months, prevented the vaciamiento (emptying) of their empresas by corrupt owners and court trustees after bankruptcy was declared. Their testimonies were rich with the dignity and determination of their struggle.

At Gráfica Patricios, a print house that takes up an entire block in the southern Buenos Aires barrio of Barracas a block away from the Riachuelo River, Luis took us on a tour of the plant. Ranging between 30 fulltime workers and up to 70 workers when deadlines are close, Patricios is a true hive of work. Between explanations of the complicated off-set process during the tour, Luis described to us their struggle to reclaim the factory that began on March 30, 2003 after their owner abandoned the factory and declared quiebra (bankruptcy). The workers of Patricios, Luis elaborated, took (tomaron), or occupied, the plant for nine months. During those arduous months the workers lived in the factory 24/7, receiving food and supplies from family members and neighbours [LINK TO STRUGGLE OF THE NEIGHBOURHOOD]. A court order followed shortly after the take and the workers were ordered to evacuate the plant. They resisted and remained locked in, sleeping on the floor of the vast establishment and relying on family and neighbours for sustenance. Part of the reason for staying locked in the factory is so their printing machines - the embodiment and extension of their craft and skills - wouldn't be taken away under the stealth of night, before the official bankruptcy inventory was to officially take place. This latter point is a common theme that permeates and initially fuels almost all of the early struggles of occupation in Argentina, aptly narrated by Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein in their documentary The Take (2004) and epitomized in the well-known experienced of Zanon, Brukman, and Chilavert. The occupation by the workers of Patricios was eventually "successful," meaning that the court order was revoked and no machines were illegally taken by the former owner. By the end of the occupation, however, most of their former clients which included the Buenos Aires daily, El Clarín and other high end publishing houses, were lost and their marketshare eroded to almost nothing. They are now, two years later, a fledgling print house, producing at 30% of their original capacity as they slowly reclaim their customer base.

Pedro’s thoughts. Pedro, a 25 year old printer who manages Patricio's dryer and is being trained in sales, takes over the tour guide duties from Luis for a while. He begins to tell us about the drying process in the printing cycle. We’re more interested in their struggle and their cooperative system of administration. Pedro’s discussion oscillates between giving us brief summaries of their history and form of administration and the intricacies of the printing process. We find out eventually that Patricios is run by a workers' council of a few elected representatives within a cooperative model that make most of the major daily decisions of the plant. This is complemented by monthly worker assemblies which involve all of the 30 permanent employees; in these assemblies major and minor issues are heard and dealt with.

We continue to persistently to ask questions about their struggle and their forms of organization. Pedro finally begins to talk about his feelings concerning the takeover and how the lives of all of the compañeros at the plant have been subsequently transformed. It is at this moment that we begin to hear from an actual protagonist of Argentina's recovered workspace movement, how their subjectivities as wage labourers are slowly transforming into subjectivities of self-managed workers:

“We worked here two years without pay,” Pedro tells us. “The previous owners wanted to tire us out, to force us to quit. But we didn’t. We couldn’t. Instead, we tired them out. Shortly after we occupied the plant the boss cut off our light, but we stayed. We lived and ate here for eight months after the boss abandoned the place.

“You see, it’s about private property vs. the rights of the worker, and we feel that the worker’s right to work should always be above that of private property.

“Now working here is like a dream. Coming to work is a pleasure. With the old boss, we were just workers running machines. We’re still not doing the best we could be doing, but now we have a steady income of $600 - $800 pesos and our income is slowly growing. And, on occasion, we even give ourselves bonuses whenever there’s a bit of money left over.

“La asamblea lo vas viviendo [You learn from and experience the assembly as you live it],” he adds passionately and with eyes that look like they might start to shed tears. “We live the moment and deal with things as they arise. Estamos siempre juntos y siempre unidos [We’re always together and always united]. We spend 14 to 15 hours a day here now, and we love coming to work. In fact, we often don’t want to leave! At other places once it’s the end of your shift you just want to take off and go home. Here, we want to stay, even though we’re only making just enough money to feed ourselves so far.”

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A growing customer base and cooperation amongst the movement. We learned from Luis and Edith that many of the recovered factories support each other. Cefomar, for example, gets their books printed at Patricios and Chilavert while both print houses trade off and share jobs as well as barter with each other for materials. While many of the books Cefomar publishes service Argentina’s various social justice movements, all three recovered enterprises are also trying to secure mainstream customers. Cefomar, for example, still publishes textbooks recognized by Argentina’s Ministry of Education while it plans on publishing various books about the struggle for social justice in Argentina. Patricios still publishes several popular soap opera and gossip magazines (what would Marcuse have to say about this contradiction between one dimensional and two dimensional society?). And Chilavert continues to work on projects commissioned by the federal government such as several print projects commissioned by the office of the presidency (again, what would Marcuse have to say?). Both Chilavert’s Cándido and Patricio’s Luis justify this work by reminding us that change happens in small steps. While revolution and civilizational change in Argentina is in the back many of the workers’ minds, they claim, the quotidian needs of feeding their families forces them to, for now, think pragmatically. And, while the owners used to regularly cut shady deals with customers – which is how many of these firms went into banckruptcy in the first place – Cándido is committed to doing things differently now that Chilavert runs as a cooperative; for Cándido, Chilavert is now grounded in other values: “We work with the state, but the state is just a customer like all of our customers,” claims Cándido. “They too must now pay 50% upfront for all jobs and then 50% when we complete the job” (Sin patrón, 2004, p. 63). Patricio’s Luis expressed similar sentiments to us. (Cándido also repeated the exact same phrase almost verbatim to me in an interview I had with him a few weeks after our initial visit to the recovered firms).

Perhaps Gramsci was right, the revolution can’t happen in times of crisis. But perhaps the recovered enterprises movement that is growing out of Argentina’s socio-economic crisis of 2001/2002 is showing us new routes for social transformation, new ways to treat one another in our work and non-work lives, as well as setting the stage for a new ethics of life that might, just might, persist after the crisis is over. Indeed, perhaps these cooperative ways of life are the only roads out of Argentina’s chronic socio-economic quagmire.