One day before Argentina’s economic crash on December 19, 2001, fifty-two workers from the Brukman Textile Factory, the majority of them women, refused to continue working until their bosses handed over their back-wages. Plagued by debt and gradual bankruptcy, the owners hadn’t paid the workers their weekly pay check for fifteen days. The bosses demanded that the workers returned to their stations, but the sewing machines remained silent.
Jacobo Brukman, the owner of factory, told the workers, "If you think you can run the factory better than we can, than here is the key." But instead of handing over the key, Brukman fled the building. The workers, many of whom didn’t even have the two pesos needed to take the bus home, remained in the factory, placing banners out the windows that said, "We Want Our Salaries!" Protesters in support of the workers showed up the following day. In a telephone conversation, the Brukman owners offered the workers two suits a piece instead of their salaries. The workers refused the offer and constructed a road blockade in front of the building in protest.
Soon after, a Brukman client contracted a large order of Bermuda shorts. The workers produced them, using much of the money from the deal to pay the gas and electric bill of the factory. It was at this time that they began running the business themselves, organizing contracts, salaries and general managerial activity.
What started out as a simple demand for back-wages had turned into a fierce struggle for worker-control of Brukman. Driven by a need to survive and support their families, the workers tried through legal means to gain ownership, fighting against politicians, judges and police in riot gear. Political differences among the workers themselves threatened to weaken and divide this struggle. Yet more than four years after they confronted their old bosses, the workers are still in charge of Brukman. Their fight has become a symbol of the recuperated factory movement in Argentina and an inspirational example to workers and activists around the world.
Celia Martinez, a worker at Brukman, has been part of this struggle from the beginning. In this interview she talks about the worker takeover, how the factory is currently organized, the difficulties of working closely with others in a cooperative, and how this experience has completely changed her political orientation.
Benjamin Dangl: The workers at Brukman have been through a very profound experience. First you were all simply demanding the back wages from the previous boss, and then you ended up taking over the factory and running it yourselves. Which do you prefer now, working for the old boss or operating as a cooperative? Why?
Celia Martinez: In the beginning we just wanted to see the bosses to talk about our wages. Later on, after the 19-20 of December (when the economy crashed, protests filled the streets and President De la Rua was forced from office) we saw what was happening in the country; three government came and went in just a few weeks. The leftists were all in the streets and they came together. I believe it was the leftists that sustained this uprising and made it what it was. The P.T.S. (Socialist Workers Party) worked the hardest so that this uprising would be well known throughout the world.
It was the left that supported us the most. The workers of Brukman were opportunists. Opportunists because we surrounded ourselves with people that gave us confidence, that told us we could fight and take over the factory. We made the most of the time we had to put the factory under work control without any legality and fought long and hard against the government
I hope that we can be able to unite all of the recuperated factories and create a strong movement and defend each other, so that the factories continue to be of the workers. But now we just saw an attack at Zanon, (a worker run ceramic factory outside Buenos Aires). The wife of a companero was beaten up. They cut all of her face and body up. So what can we hope for? We don’t know.
What we want now is to be able to work and earn our salaries. It is very difficult for these recuperated factories to enter into the market. Those that are entering the market well are the metallurgical factories. They are entering the market easily, but the textiles, for now, are not doing well at all. We barely have any work and our clients don’t respond.
We have some fear that Chinese products will enter the market. The same thing happened in the 1990s when Menem was president, when most large textile factories went to other countries for cheaper labor. We can’t do something like that. It is very dangerous that Chinese products could invade the industry and the textiles could be left with nothing again.
BD: How is Brukman organized now? Do you have assemblies every week? Does everyone have an equal vote and receive an equal salary?
CM: We all charge the same for our work and each person has one vote. The assemblies are held once every week and every fifteen days, depending on the necessity that there is. Sometime we have them twice or three times a week, it depends on what we discuss. Now we have a direct commission, with a president and secretary etc. Before it wasn’t like this. There was an internal commission and nothing more.
BD: When you get together each week, what are some of the issues that you discuss?
CM: It almost always has to do with the work, what we need, legal problems and problems with the machines. It’s always something like this.
BD: What is the secret of maintaining a successful cooperative?
CM: It still is not a successful cooperative so I cannot give you the recipe (she laughs). I believe that the recipe would be – I am not giving you it really because it is still not a successful cooperative – a lot of democracy and class consciousness.
BD: In an interview in the book Sin Patron, conducted by the writers at LaVaca.org, your co-worker Matilda Adorno talked about what the early assemblies were like, just after the factory was taken over: "For many of us it was difficult to understand how to live with each other, and treat each other equally. Now we know what it is like in the other person’s shoes and we have made peace. In the assemblies we would be able to pull each other’s eyes out in order to defend our respective points of views. But afterwards we’d drink mate (thick herbal tea) together." Could you expand on this experience?
CM: In the beginning we thought that all the companeros were equal and you’d try to see with these eyes, thinking that everyone has the same objective. But sometimes this just isn’t the case. Eventually you have to become accustomed to discussing in assemblies everything that you’re worried about, everything that you want and express your own position – the position of your work politics and your human position. It is important to discuss this in assemblies, but when the assembly is over, the discussion is over as well…
BD: What is the biggest challenge for the recuperated factories that function as cooperatives?
CM: The challenge is to be able to enter the market. It is very difficult. A capitalist could lose thousands of dollars, but we cannot because we don’t have the same economic strength that a capitalist has. We live on a day to day basis.
BD: In an interview with LaVaca.org, you said that your political orientation changed a lot throughout this experience. Could you explain this change?
CM: I used to be a Peronista, like my husband and children. But when we took over the factory I went to ask Peronistas in my community for help. I went a Peronista Senator that lives in my neighborhood for help and advice because I really didn’t know what to do. And he never responded, but the left gave me all the responses and helped me understand that I had to fight until the end. I think that of all the struggles that happened in these recent years, Brukman has come out on top. It has been an enormous experience that is famous all over the world. Journalists from all over the world have come to see this The Peronistas would have tried to make a deal so that our old boss would come back and we would end up like slaves again.
BD: I was studying here in 2002 and there was a stronger social and political consciousness then with all of the assemblies, protests and the taking over of factories. And now much has changed. The people of Buenos Aires in general don’t support the protesters, piqueteros and the recuperated factory movement nearly as much as before. Why has this changed so much?
CM: Because the political situation in the country has changed. Many people believe in President Kirchner, because he appears to be a President of the semi-left, a president that appears to be with the people, but this is not true. For example, I think he will continue to pay the IMF.
BD: Does this change in consciousness have to do with people earning higher wages?
CM: There is at least a little more work. The middle class is recuperating and they were the ones in the streets in the assemblies because they had all of their money in the corrolito (in 2002, when people couldn’t get their money out of the bank because the financial infrastructure of the country was bankrupt.) This is not the case anymore, their economic situation is improving.
Benjamin Dangl traveled and worked as a journalist in Argentina during and after the country’s 2001 crisis. He is the editor of www.UpsideDownWorld.org, an online magazine about activism and politics in Latin America and www.TowardFreedom.com, a progressive perspective on world events. For more of his articles, go here