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

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Independence Day, protest, and Hotel Bauen: Reflections on my first full day in Argentina

This is my first full day in Argentina. It also happens to be Argentina's Dia de Independencia, Independence Day. The flight to Buenos Aires was long and uneventful, except for the unexpected extra passengers we picked up at Santiago de Chile on their way to Baires. The reason for the extra passengers? Aerolineas Argentinas' pilots went on a one-day strike (paro) yesterday. This was my first encounter with the daily socio-political realities of Argentina post Dec. 19/20, 2001. And I wasn't even in Argentina yet!

On my first outing into the "Paris of the South," "La reina de la Plata," I decide to head to my favourite street, Av. Corrientes, Baires’s theatre district and home to some of the best used bookstores and bohemian culture anywhere. On my way back to where I'm currently staying (close to Congreso - Argentina's Congress - on Calle Rincon between Av. Belgrano and Calle Moreno) I stumble onto my first protest march. And so my five week adventure begins…

Thousands of protesters march peacefully and soberly. Chant leaders conduct the marchers' resistance slogans by singing protest songs into a mike connected to an amplifier and speaker on trucks that slowly move to the determined but staid pace of the parade. The protestors are made up of a vast swath of Buenos Aires’s working classes and Argentina’s ever-growing underemployed and unemployed classes. Illustrating the splintered state of the Argentinean left, some of the groups in the march include numerous groups from the Movimiento de Trabajadores Desocupados (MTD, or the Unemployed Workers Movement), the Federación Universidad de Buenos Aires (FUBA, or the University of Buenos Aires´ student union), and other social justice movements, such as Convergencia Socialista, Movimiento Territorial de Liberacion, Partido Obrero, Polo Obrero, Comision de Derechos Humanos, and even Urugayos Presos en Argentina (Uruguayans Imprisoned in Argentina).

Political protest marches are a daily occurence in post Dec. 19/20, 2001 Argentina, but this is a particularly large one. Also, that this massive, well organized march is taking place today is no coincidence; the protestors are capitalizing on the heightened significance of this day where, in 1816, a group of caudillos from the ragtag affiliation of southern provinces lead by the Unitarist movement declared independence from Spain in the northwestern province of Tucumán.

I first cought site of the march at the buzzing intersection of Av. Callao and Av. Corrientes (see above picture) as the march turned the corner southward towards Baires's famed Obelisco at Av. 9 de Julio. Callao and Corrientes is the merging of various tributaries for all such marches; all marches that follow this route eventually end up either at the Obelisco, the national Congress a few blocks south, or at Argentina's square of power, Plaza de Mayo, further southeast.

After watching the eclectic social justice march on the street, I decide to duck into the Bauen Hotel's coffee shop a few meters away from the corner where I first encountered the protest. I watch the rest of the march from this vantage point while sipping an exquisite café at the only window seat looking onto Callao and the march. While my actions might seem suspicious to the veteran protester, this shouldn't be confused as bourgeois flight on my part; this is not an escape from the sweaty and enraged horde. First, I need a space to write down these thoughts that you´re reading right now. Second, the Bauen is a symbolic locale from which to view the march. Indeed, and not meaning to trivialize the protestors on the street, my decision to enter the Bauen and order a coffee could be considered a humble political act. The Bauen, you see, is Buenos Aires’s only worker recovered hotel and its workers’ struggle to have it recognized as a legal cooperative continues on a daily basis.

The Bauen is part of the National Movement of Recovered Enterprises (MNER) and shares the story of owner-declared bankruptcy, worker resistance, and worker takeover experienced in various unique ways by roughly 170 other workplaces in Argentina. Emerging out of the drastic and inhuman neoliberal policy’s of the Menem government of the 1990s, the subsequent implosion of the socio-economic and socio-political realities of Argentina that came to a head on Dec. 19 and 20, 2001, and in the ashes of a prolonged and smoldering deterioration of the middle and working classes’ economic wellbeing and the increased immiseration of the poor (now plaguing between 45 - 60% of Argentina’s population, depending on who you talk to), new possibilities for social and political life - such as the Bauen´s cooperative work space - are being experimented with everywhere in Argentina. Alternative and horizontal social realities are being explored and lived daily by the homeless, the unemployed, the socially marginal people of the myriad villas miserias (shanty towns)that dot the country, and among a plethora of nascent neighbourhood movements and recovered work spaces. Participants in these movements are struggling to not only change their own socio-political reality, but, as many would later tell me, to also return dignity into daily life via a reawakening of more humane, more local ways of existence that emerge out of social, political, and economic crisis.

For formerly bankrupt and now recovered work spaces like the Bauen, their workers´ stories, while all unique, have a similar plotline: The recovered enterprises movement is, in part, a bottom-up response to the IMF´s failed attempts to control the country´s economic policies in order for Argentina to be able to meet its interest payments on its massive foreign debt (economic policies which Argentina´s politicians and public managers zealously carried out throughout the 1990s). In addition, thousands of workers have been forced to carry out risky factory takeovers because of inept or greedy owners that, capitalizing on the speculative and corrupt auction market made possible by the economic collapse, threaten to or declare bankruptcy in the wake of the failure of Argentina's macro- and micro-structural adjustments. Especially after the Dec. 2001 economic meltdown, thousands of once-healthy businesses began to close their doors and evict their workers throughout the country. On top of this, workers are usually let go after weeks and months of not getting paid. Unemployed and with hungry families to feed, the inevitable vaciamiento (emptying) of a bankrupted enterprise's machinery and assets by the owner and sketchy court trusties has motivated thousands of workers to mobilize by first seizing their workspace and occupying it, thus using their own physical presence - their own bodies - to ride out the six to eight and sometimes 12 months it takes for the courts to declare the ley de exproriación (expropriation law) preventing the auctioning off of the company´s assets. Although sometimes the workers are allowed to legally use the machines while the backruptcy claim is still in the courts, the ultimate, and always precarious and to date short term goal, is for the workers to be able to control the machines free from the threat of eviction by the state, although even at this stage the workers still only have temporary control of the machines and the property under various burdensome conditons (e.g., in most cases the workers, directly or indirectly, take on the debt of the previous owner).

During the long struggle between the declaration of quiebra (bankruptcy) and the declaration of the expropriation law, desperate yet determined and, in many cases, well-organized worker takeovers of the closing enterprise ensues, leading to lengthy periods of courageous workspace occupation by the workers and many supporters from the neighbouring communities. Often, as with the balloon factory La Esperanza, the print house Chilavert, and the now famous Zanon and Brukman cases, the workers face the constant threat of persecution and attacks by repressive police forces, mafiosi union leaders, and bought-off government cronies. If all goes well, the occupation culminates in long battles with the federal and provincial courts for legal recognition of the work space as an official, worker run cooperative. Eventually, and sometimes during the tenuous weeks and months of occupation, the workers slowly begin to produce again or, as in the case of the Bauen, to provide hotel services.

For thousands of workers in this country, this direct action is the only solution left; out of the ashes of 19/20 thousands of Argentine workers are deciding to experiment with manager-free and horizontal work places run by themselves via assemblies and workers' councils. Initially there is no deep revolutionary rationale guiding the takeovers; what inspires the workers to action is the desperation and frustration of each worker and the need to feed and provide for his or her family. The workers rage and desperation at the possibility of being without work usually always foments their action. But slowly, throughout their struggle, the workers begin to change their own circumstances for the first time in their lives in spite of and, indeed, because of a political system that remains unresponsive to their quotidian needs. Here in Argentina, politicians and union leaders continue to cater more to the whims of global markets than to the dire circumstances of a psychically and emotionally pummeled and evermore precarious citizenry.

Turning to each other rather than relying on experts, politicians, bureaucrats, or the church, a rich yet simple model of direct democracy and communitarian work ethic emerges out of the struggles of everyday life in Argentina. In the recovered factories movement, the workers’ everyday reality of struggle (lucha) informs the understanding of their plight. Their understanding comes from within the crisis, through the hope they create, and always, especially during the first stages of their struggle, from below. Their existential experiences are constantly forging their philosophies of cooperativism and community. And their understanding of what's at stake is eloquent, reflected in their daily practices and in the poignant narratives they recount. Here, in Argentina, amongst the workers’ and unemployed workers’ movements, the cartoneros (cardboard people), the piqueteros (organized picketers of the unemployed), the asambleas barriales (neighbourhood assemblies), and las empresas recuperadas (recovered factories), theory emerges always and directly from immediate experience. Any other kind of a priori theory risks sharing the same myopic perspective affecting those sabios (wise ones) in the seats of power. Perhaps the asambleas (people's assemblies) that guide all of these movements are the first signs of the flames of the slowly emerging Phoenix that received its first drafts of generative wind from the impassioned chant of millions who took to the streets on Dec. 19/20, 2001 as they sang out “Que se vayan todos!” – “All of them (Argentina’s traditional institutional players) must leave now!”

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I sip the coffee, look onto the march, and soak in the radicalized air bookended by the protest outside and the casual pace of the self-managed hotel staff as they go about the business of tending to a hotel inside. As the parade outside stops for a few seconds I notice that several members of a workers’ rights group from Quilmes - the southern Baires suburb of my birth - turn to face the Bauen as they beat at the air with their arms chanting the following in the style of Argentinean futbol supporters: “El Bauen, el Bauen, es de los trabajadores, a el que no le gusta, que se joda, que se joda!” (“Teh Bauen, the Bauen belongs to the workers, and for those that don’t like it, they can go fuck themselves!”) (Soccer and politics forever overlap in this country; the habits of the soccer stadium also shape the style of protesting and one’s political allegiances.)

A few minutes later, at around 3:56 pm, when the march is over and traffic resumes on Callao, a busload of passengers begins to chant something else and this time the hotel staff chants back in reply — impromptu gestures of solidarity spontaneously materializing between commuters on a bus and the Bauen's workers inside. Meanwhile, people in their cars stuck in the chronic traffic jam that ensues after the march ends all look up at the Bauen Hotel sign above me and over my left shoulder and then glance down to me at the window seat. By the looks on their faces I can see that the drivers know what the Bauen is about. I sense a deep respect in their faces. At the same time, a group of five men at a table to my right further inside the Bauen’s resto-bar are discussing something regarding the politics of this place. In the midst of the smoke-filled air that surrounds them, the din of distant and near conversations, and the clanging of cutlery and dishes, I overhear them uttering words like “lucha” (struggle) and “19/20”. Someone with knowledge of the workers´ movements told me that the Bauen is currently experiencing some trying legal battles, placing their cooperative status in jeopardy. These men sipping coffee and talking feaverishly among themselves at the table near me are perhaps the hotel workers' lawyers and MNER (National Movement of Recovered Enterprises) representatives. All the while, the hotel workers are busily going about their jobs, continuing to efficiently and professionally run the former five star hotel where, paradoxically, Menem’s cronies often met in the heady days of the 1990s and the IMF experiment in Argentina.

Whatever the Bauen’s advocates and lawyers are discussing at that table near me, whatever the ultimate outcome of the workers’ precarious legal status, the Bauen workers’ experiment with direct democracy and self-management can be already viewed as victorious: My server, the bellhop, the staff at the front desk, the mucamas (chaimber maids), all of them in their daily tasks, in their weekly and monthly assembly meetings, and in the dignity they’ve reclaimed for themselves through their ongoing struggle, are inventing a new model for life that returns the empowering living labour possessed by each worker back to each worker and reformulates each workers’ subjectivity in every act of solidarity with their compañeros (comrades). And in every act of mutual aid and cooperative work, remnants of the old, coercive, hopeless, and sad ways of life ensconced in the decaying hierarchical power structures of capitalist work scenarios slowly perish. In its very existence as a worker-run enterprise and out of the personal crises of each of its workers, the Bauen puts into question the need for any human being to control another human being - for the need for wage slavery - and shows us social imperatives infinitely more important than the hegemonic ideologies of profit and greed.