It is one of the biggest "recuperated factories" in Argentina with exemplary worker management. It has created jobs, conquered the market, and managed to involve a whole community in its defense against repeated threats of eviction. After long legal maneuvering, a bankruptcy judge decided to hand the factory over to the Fasinpat cooperative in exchange for payment of 30,000 pesos (about $10,000) a month in taxes. It was a big step toward final expropriation and a recognition of the solid work of its 470 workers. Here is the story of this struggle, as told in La Vaca‘s book, "Sin Patrón" ("Without a Boss").
Zanón is one of the strangest factories to make the news. To step inside is to enter a stormy din of incomprehensible machines and meticulous robots, run by smiling people who are achieving something which some Peronists consider a crime: work.
When the din dies down somewhat, music is heard underneath. Favorite song heard at the plant comes from the Argentine band Bersuit: "Un Pacto Para Vivir" ("An Agreement to Live").
It’s a strange factory. Zanón never stopped making money, but its owners touched off an enormous conflict in order to fire workers, convert the plant, and in the process further boost profits. (The case brought to mind a fable of Aesop’s, written 600 years before Christ, about a hen that laid golden eggs, a tale not customarily heard in Argentine business circles.)
Previous management was supported by trade unionists. Its decision to close the plant and forsake longtime employees collided with the nearly innocent stubbornness of a lot of those employees. They couldn’t believe that the company where they’d spent all of their working lives would subject them to such abuse. Luis Zanón, a man of false smiles, false intentions and false friendships (the most notorious, perhaps, with former president Carlos Menem), ended up abandoning the plant in what Judge Norma Rivero later considered an offensive lockout.
Then a judicial dance began.
(Clarification for beginners: Argentinian justice has more faces than a pair of dice. At times everything depends on chance, although it’s also known that those who run the thing can use loaded dice.)
The workers resisted eviction multiple times, in the process turned Zanón into one of the strangest factories in the news. They resisted by continuing to work and by increasing production. They added to the workforce by 80 percent and created a cooperative so the court would recognize them. They call themselves FaSinPat (for Fábica Sin Patrón, or Factory Without a Boss).
Through all this they have been systematically accosted on a variety of fronts — in the courts, by police, in politics, from organized crime. Again, the dice are the same, everything depends on whether the toss favors them. Or not.
How would they be criminalized?
"Every way, and from day one," says Raúl Godoy, a leader of the takeover. "From the beginning they accused us of being usurpers. In October 2001 we occupied the factory, in November we blocked the highway, and right away they file a suit against me. For proof they use photos on which they draw little circles to identify those they’re looking for. It’s funny: they use some television footage showing how there’s a big crowd in the street cursing at the roadblock, with people from the University of Comahue, teachers, the Neuquén MTD [Unemployed Workers Movement], Zenón people, neighbors . . . But they filed a suit only against me as the supposed instigator. They began a most selective persecution."
Godoy is a member of the Socialist Workers Party (PTS), a force that in Neuquén came in dead last in the 2003 elections, even behind other parties of the left, unable to capitalize on the prestige of the Zanón struggle and its chief protagonist: Godoy. Even though he has won the respect of people in other parties and apolitical people, Zanón’s own workers’ assembly voted against whoever the workers put up as a candidate.
This is a story of pressure and persecution: A police captain named Herrera threatened Godoy, a fact the court didn’t take into account. There were threats and a show of arms by the police against Godoy’s little children. His house was ransacked in a robbery described by neighbors as a "commando operation."
A typical case was the kidnapping and robbery perpetrated by two convicts escaped from Prison Unit 11, whom the Río Negro daily referred to as hardened criminals. Godoy describes the leader of the two, Nelson Gómez Tejada, as "a big cheese in Neuquén." His accomplice was Juan Antonio Gómez. Both are old hands at crime, not in age (37 and 25 years, respectively) but by the length of their criminal records. It is a thin line that divides them from the police.
The pair were at the house of a Zanón worker named Miguel Vázquez. Neighbors reported suspicious activity because Gómez was on the roof cutting the electric and telephone lines. Police arrived, conversed amiably with Gómez Tejada, and went away. At the time the two were escapees from Unit 11 with warrants out for their arrest, but the police, perhaps in a humanitarian gesture, didn’t want to cut short their liberty.
Armed, Gómez Tejada entered the house, held up the family and robbed the money with which the next day Zanón workers would have been paid — more than 20,000 pesos (about $7,000). Another worker, Miguel Papatryphonos, arrived in his Fiat Uno to pick up Vázquez. Gómez took them both and also stole the Fiat Uno. A series of calls to the police led to Gómez Tejada’s arrest, but a few weeks later he again escaped from Unit 11, like a kid skipping school.
"Afterwards," Godoy said, "they went to trial, but the case was dismissed because they said there was no evidence, and when they committed the robbery they were in prison!"
The stolen 20,000 pesos never surfaced. In its court briefs Río Negro’s daily newspaper commented that the prosecutor "interrogated the victims thoroughly, as if they were the accused." The workers ended up hurling rotten eggs, tomatoes and gourds at the courthouse to express their opinion of the justice dispensed there.
There were tapped cell phones, telephoned threats, surveillance from mysterious automobiles, and more: the usual Argentinian thing. An attempted kidnapping of Carlos Acuña, Zanón’s public relations person, failed when he screamed at the top of his voice as they tried to take him from a car. Nothing came of any complaint the workers made to the police. The courts criminalize protest, but not always crime.
Another commando operation took place in December 2003, when armed men arrived at Zanón, went to the salesroom, tied up the employees there, left a generous reminder in the form of kicks, took the day’s earnings, and escaped with ease and without fear — toward the police station.
Some of the persecution showed technological innovations, as when cell phone calls were tapped (or "punctured," in the lingering term from the days of the dictatorship). "For us it is folklore," one FaSinPat worker says. "We’re in a meeting talking, they call a buddy who’s outside, and let him record our voices, everything we’re saying. They use your own cellular as a radio. I get a message; according to my caller ID it’s a buddy of mine, but in fact they’re passing along a recording of the meeting. That makes us laugh. The other day I said to a friend, throw out that cell phone, jerk, you’re transmitting the whole meeting. These days this is normal as can be."
The workers have cases in the provincial high court, courts of first petition, examining magistrates, labor courts, in chamber. "You never know where the next shot’s coming from," says Godoy.
In 2004 the surprise was in a Buenos Aires court considering Zanón’s bankruptcy. The workers’ delegation found itself face to face with Luis Zanón, who in addition to his smile had with him officials from the World Bank and the Banco Interfinanzas and administrators of the ceramics union that had been removed by the members. The banks are Zanón creditors, and the dismissed unionists are the kind who enrich themselves through good relations with management.
Godoy ponders: "This shows what we’re up against. The danger is great because many planets have aligned themselves against us and, in general, against recuperated factories. They want to see you on your knees, to show that workers are good for nothing, much less to run companies."
Where is the money? Maybe it’s true. Workers are no good for running businesses in ways that serve the World Bank and the Soviet-like business council. For example: the workers threw out the union bureaucracy (rather than enriching it, as Luis Zanón had), they got a factory running that the bosses had abandoned, and they didn’t fire workers but instead provided work for them.
The plant has 80,000 square meters of space, occupying 9 hectares (or 22 acres) in all. On a tour of those buildings, which stretch to the horizon, one sees computerized machines with screens showing myriad bright green points, Matrix-style. Men and women focus on their own screens but have time to chat. There are giant claws, and mechanical caterpillars with pincers that grip the ceramic goods and stack them. Mechanical hoses spit pigment on the sides of the cardboard cartons. Like hands of steel, moving metal sheets pack everything. Farther on, still inside the shed, enormous funnels, four or five stories high, stir a mud-like substance. A remote-controlled cargo vehicle glides by on rails, sounding an alarm. Then is heard the sweet melody of the song "Un pacto para vivir" ("An Agreement to Live").
The sides of the cartons say FaSinPat, the ceramics’ brand.
On the Web page www.fasinpat.com.ar are shown models and designs of the ceramics produced in the plant, 13 different kinds including Mapuche (the name of an indigenous people) and Obrero (worker), natural flooring tile and polished flooring tile (another 12 collections). Potentially, these products place FaSinPat at a level able to compete internationally, since Zanón, before killing the hen that laid the golden eggs, was exporting to Australia and ten European countries.
Christian Moya says one project was to concentrate on a plant exclusively to make flooring tile: "It’s the biggest thing in flooring at an international level — a polished, glossy floor. We’re the one Latin American plant with three polishers, and the only one that does everything, from raw material to finished product. It’s inexplicable and absurd that with that possibility they carried things to the extreme of killing it."
Some hypothesize that Luis Zanón was sending his profits abroad, others that he dumped them in the speculative financial game of the 1990s; all agree that whatever happened these were routine practices in the days of President Raúl Menem and his successor, President Fernando de la Rua.
The factory tour continues. In the administration offices there is a meeting (cell phones stay outside) and one sees posters: "We demand genuine work, they give us bullets and repression" and "Clarín [a Buenos Aires daily newspaper], journalism of the army." There are pictures of primary school children, images of people at work — something that in broad stretches of Argentina has been turned into magic realism.
Miguel Ramírez and Reinaldo Giménez are two of the young "old hands" at the plant. Together they tell the story. Until 1998 everything was going reasonably well. "Zanón was making $44 million a year and in ’94 up to $67 million," says Giménez. "But they began cutting materials and supplies, they took away half of the work, all with the union’s complicity."
The Ceramic Workers and Employees Union (SOECN, for Sindicato de Obreros y Empleados Ceramistas) and the union local at Zanón were controlled by the Montes brothers, who had a sweetheart deal with management.
"Zanón was very false," Ramírez says. "He would come in a couple of times a year, tour the factory, pat someone on the back. To this guy they say: we have ways to identify those who don’t like you." A typical tactic: "If they wanted to lay off five guys, they’d announce 20 layoffs. Then the union would intervene, fight, negotiate, and would end up saying, OK, we managed to have 15 brought back. And so they’d get rid of the five that management wanted to fire."
In 1998 the Lista Marrón (leftist, combative unionists) succeeded in throwing out the leadership of the union local.
Conditions at the factory continued to worsen, and layoffs began to play a policing role with respect to the workers.
How to organize in this atmosphere? "It occurred to us to organize a soccer league outside the factory," Carlos Acuña says. "There are 14 sections, each with a team, and each elected a delegate to go to the league meetings. We took advantage of these to talk." The clandestine mechanism served as a way to organize and communicate internally (and so did the league games).
For example, the company was talking about a crisis, but in the league meetings workers accumulated data and did the math. "What crisis, if 20 trucks are going out a day, they have 25 percent of the domestic market and export to I don’t know how many countries? What crisis, if they get tax incentives in the province and loans and every kind of advantage imaginable because Zanón, in addition to everything else, was Sobisch’s shadow?" Jorge Sobisch is the governor of Neuquén who sees himself as a lobbyist for the businesses.
Living the boss’s way. In 2000 the situation inside Zanón was getting so bad that the company was behind in paying employees. Then, in June, 20-year-old Daniel Ferrás died in the factory of a cardiorespiratory arrest. "Now we see that the first aid was a façade, even the oxygen tube was empty," Moya says.
"They weren’t providing work clothes," Ramírez says, "they weren’t paying us, people were beginning to see that everything was rotten, and on top of this the thing with Daniel." That unleashed a conflict that abated only when Zanón began to regularize pay. In December of 2000 factory workers would deal a different blow, quite a feat in Argentina: they defeated the union local’s leadership and made Raúl Godoy secretary general of the union. In 2001 things got worse. Ramírez recounts the sequence of events: "They laid people off, strikes began, and everything came apart."
In a few words which amount to a treatise on management and worker psychology, Giménez describes what he considers Zanón’s biggest mistake: "There are people who have worked here for 20 or 25 years. People who never failed. They lived for Zanón. He would have provoked great division if he had said: I’m not paying the union people because they’re lazy slackers, or for whatever reason, but he put all the other workers in the same bag. So the people with most seniority said: this swine should have paid me. I gave him my life, but he has no feeling, no compassion, it makes no difference to him."
Conflict became strike. Workers put up a tent outside the plant, started picketing, walking, taking action. In return, Luis Zanón, who was getting loans from the province to continue paying his workers, wasn’t paying them. Meanwhile, the local media ran news stories about him at charity dinners in Buenos Aires with former Finance Minister Domingo Cavallo, businesswoman Amalita Fortabat, industrial magnate Franco Macri and heads of other private companies, paying $10,000 a plate to alleviate the suffering of the poor.
On December 1, 2001, in the face of what constituted abandonment on the part of management, the workers occupied the plant for good. "This triggered everything and we had to go to the hierarchical plan," Giménez said. "They made us leave. We told the managers we couldn’t let things go on this way. We didn’t pressure anyone. And many of us decided to stay inside. Some company guards also stayed, but they didn’t pay them either so they ended up leaving."
"We had potluck suppers, events, anything to survive," Moya said. "But the factory was a cemetery, completely shut down."
The workers received community support — from schools, clubs, neighbors. Inmates in the local prison sent some of their food.
They picketed but regretted it when they noticed the original protest idea was isolating them. "Those on the other side were workers, like us," one of them remembered. Typical of discussions at Zanón, some workers showed formal solidarity with the pickets but insisted on pointing out their differences. Recalls Carlos Quiñimir: "The people see that we aren’t just pickets but parents with families." The bias, perhaps involuntary, isn’t found only in the middle class.
Whose factory is it? The workers’ weapons included megaphones, leaflets, words.
They went out and made their case to everyone who passed by. They got on buses and told their story to passengers. They set up shop in barrios to explain their situation and actions. Rather than setting up roadblocks, they leafleted people driving by. "Many stopped and took food out of their trunks for us," said Giménez.
"The solidarity was tremendous," remembers Ramírez. "They sent so much food we didn’t have a place to put it all. We put together bags of it to sell for the strike fund. The community and small businesses stayed with us."
Why so much support? "We always said the factory isn’t ours," Giménez said. "We’re using it, but it’s the community’s. They’d ask us what we were doing, and we’d say we weren’t intransigent pickets, with clubs and all that. We used sling-shots, at worst, and if someone [affected by the strike] had a problem or an accident we’d help him. We decided it in assembly. The guys said: We don’t want to have any more roadblocks. We decided to go out and explain and explain. If no one understood what we were doing they’d think we didn’t have our act together."
In December 2001 one of the marches from Zanón to the Ministry of the Interior was repressed by the police, whose officers shouted, "Get the brownshirts" (a reference to the leftist Lista Marrón unionists), so there wouldn’t be any confusion about who they were after. There the workers burned the telegrams they had received from the company telling them they were fired.
En March 2002 they got the machines going again, with the idea of taking the plant public under worker control. "We know the factory is totally profitable," says Carlos Acuña, FaSinPat press officer. "We continue taking on more people, paying the utility bills, and we think that if there’s an economic surplus it doesn’t have to go to us, nor for the politicians, nor for the business people, but to the community."
Although they weren’t crazy about the idea (because they wanted to take the company public), they formed the cooperative FaSinPat as a transitional thing, in order to take over Zanón.
The factory became a case study. "They made movies of us," Ramírez said. "Delegations came from Italy, France, Bulgaria, Germany, the United States, Spain, from everywhere."
In assembly the workers established norms of cohabitation: arrive 15 minutes before and leave 15 minutes after the established schedule, for example, so the workers can catch up on the news of the day. Moya says a worker who was stealing in the factory was fired, but another "with an addiction problem had his treatment paid for, and he kept his job."
Lunch time in the Zanón cafeteria is decided by each worker. "Everyone knows what he’s responsible for," Moya says. "Some rules can be the same as the ones the company used to have, but this isn’t an army camp." During lunch Godoy himself can be seen serving meat to other workers, or to surprised journalists.
And the pace of production? Quiñimir shares some maté, a popular Argentinian beverage, without which sustenance the machines in his section, carrying ceramic tiles to the baking ovens, would grind to a halt. "When we used to have a boss there could be no talking like we’re doing right now," he says. "You couldn’t stop even for a couple of minutes. Now you don’t worry, you work conscientiously, and without a foreman who’s shouting that they have to make this or that objective. There used to be very fast cycles in the ovens. Pieces arrived at the kilns every 28 minutes, when it should be every 35 minutes, as it is now."
The difference, he says, is this: "It was very easy to burn one’s hands and because of the speed of the machines you couldn’t stop them to make adjustments. You had to loosen them while they were going and that caused a lot of accidents. Typically, you’d lose two or three fingers."
This could mean that things didn’t go at the pace that tends to be propitious in the cocaine-addict capitalism of recent decades, but the workers have increased production and profits, and also the number of workers: from 240 when the plant was taken over to 400 in 2004.
The political left, the assembly, the alternative thing. What effect has the assembly had on partisan politics? Quiñimir says: "The assembly is the main thing. The parties have a big role, but one that is subordinated to the assembly. No party says: `This is what’s done, and not that.’ There were some collisions because we were reluctant to have them take the lead in the conflict, but responsibilities worked themselves out there and then. Parties of the left supported us in difficult times, but we didn’t make the mistake of letting them have any direct influence in exchange."
And what of Godoy, the PST (Socialist Workers Party) stalwart? "Raúl is a fellow worker, but the fact that he is also a party militant is something else," says Quiñimir. "We need each other. When there’s an argument, the assembly decides, since it’s the highest authority."
Alberto Esparza, who in the forgotten past was affiliated with justicialismo (a political movement founded by the late Juan Perón, a former Argentine president), favors another view. "The workers who are in politics have to get back to production," he says. "And those who are in production have to be ready to carry political placards. If no one makes the mistake, no offense intended, of asking where Raúl Godoy is. That is a reflection of the right that a caudillo [political boss] always looks for. There are at least a hundred people here who could be shop stewards in any factory."
Esparza concludes: "It can be said that the left takes the lead, that there is opposition to this capitalist system. But for me the worst thing that could happen is that it turns into a sectarian or partisan thing."
Carlos Acuña agrees: "Raúl is from a party, he can bring its proposal, and I, who am not from any party, bring my own proposals that I’ve discussed with my family at home. There’s a vote and it’s decided. That simplifies things for us, and it means that we don’t have the foot of a political party at the head." Acuña acknowledges that "we’ve learned a whole lot from the left, or from the PTS, as they’ve learned a lot from us."
As an example, he notes that "you can’t come in here with something far out, because it won’t fly." Far out? "To want to impose a policy. To want to run the struggle. Here the struggle is run from the bottom."
Esparza summarizes another political aspect: "You can’t detach yourself from society and have an aggressive, Peronist message that doesn’t get to anyone." They appear to be the words of a political professional. "I’m not, but I want to leave something that’s going to grow. I don’t know. Kids come — students — and ask how we did it. The first thing we did was not respect laws. And I like to explain it in my own words. It’s easy to be a party regular because you’re tied to a political line they dictate to you and you’re ready. Much better is what we have here, where we debate, reach consensus, and know what interests we want to defend."
Alejandro López, another worker, believes nothing will be easy. "The government has a clear policy of devotion to natural resources and repression of workers," he says, "so we have to think how to make each conflict be for society. Let’s say: the problem isn’t with the schools. It’s also my problem, ’cause I have a 9-year-old kid. The issue of health isn’t about the hospital, it’s about us. And unemployment is my problem."
Esparza believes that initiatives like the Coordinating Council of Alto Valle (uniting various movements and unions) can effect the creation of what they call teeth: "We don’t want to be the opposition all our lives," he says. "We have to make a move. I don’t exactly know what step that is, but we have to have our act together, to be able to have our program and make a fight all the way. We workers are what make the economy run. So it’s an insult that it’s not us workers who decide what we want to do with our future."
López is impatient with just defending, answering, reacting. "We have to take the offensive," he says. "I surely don’t know how, but it’s something we just love to discuss with the workers."
"If not," Esparza says, "we’re convinced that the one place where we can make decisions is in the family. And not on the social questions. That is horrible. We’re doing something else: taking charge of the means of production and making it go. That, for me, is the best alternative there is."
This article was first published in LaVaca.org, a publication which has closely monitored the worker-run factory movement in Argentina. This article is translated and republished here with permission from the La Vaca editor. Photo from Indymedia.org