The city of Neuquén is located in a dry and dusty valley in Northwestern Argentina.
In the city center one encounters a range of boutique clothing stores that would not be out of place in Paris or New York City. Traveling up the slopes of the monte one finds architect designed houses of generous proportions, and a space age shopping mall replete with a large cinema. All this wealth suggests that the presence of oil in the province has been kind to some in Neuquén; the neoliberal era produced a number of winners, while for the majority of Argentines it produced devastating consequences, increased poverty and unemployment.
On the outskirts of the town one is confronted by an entirely different scene. Neuquén is ringed by tomas, settlements where the poor and unemployed are forced to eke out an existence, living in huts made from scrap wood, sheets of cardboard and plastic, many without access to basic services such as water, electricity and gas. In addition, their roads are unpaved and many have no connection to the sewage system. Out of a population of 250,000, around one-fifth of the population lives in the tomas. Unemployment has forced many of those living in the settlements to be cartoneros who recycle the garbage as a means to augment the meager government subsidy of US$50 a month.
Perhaps owing to the presence of such strong signs of social inequity, Neuquén province was one of the epicenters of the protests that swept through Argentina in the 1990s. It was here that the piqueteros first emerged in the town of Cutral-Co, around one and a half hours from the capital, successfully holding off the police from the town for a whole week, while they demanded real work for a town that had been ravaged by the lay-offs induced by the privatization of the state-owned petrol company. When the provincial government failed to adhere to its promises, the town repeated its action one year later, the ensuing battle with the police resulting in the death of a young female bystander, Teresa Rodriguez.
Here too one finds some of Argentina’s most militant trade unionists, many of them affiliated to the Central de los Trabajadores de Argentina (CTA). Unlike in most of Argentina, many of the attempted privatizations of state owned enterprises were defeated by the efforts of these unions, with the public sector and the teachers unions being particularly prominent. Also, the teachers of Neuquén were the only group in Argentina to successfully defeat the implementation of Menem’s law of education, and, as recently as last month won a 40% pay rise following a month long strike.
Yet of all the important ways in which workers have engaged in acts of resistance in Neuquén, none stands out as much as the successful takeover of the Zanon tile factory and its subsequent worker-run management. While the workers of Zanon seemed to be particularly privileged by Argentine standards in the 1980s, by the early 90s layoffs began which particularly targeted older workers and women with families. Management demands over work rhythms resulted in numerous injuries (by 2000 the figure was 30 per month). More seriously there were 12 fatalities, an extremely high number for a business employing around 300 workers.
Following the death of a worker in 2000 the employees went on strike demanding increased standards of health and safety including the provision of a nurse to cover all shifts. The employer resisted and implemented a lock out. The workers responded by occupying the factory.
The process of developing the factory under worker control did not take place immediately. At first the main task was the consolidation of the occupation as a method of sustaining the strike. In addition, efforts were made to coordinate resistance to police attempts to dislodge the workers from the factory by expanding linkages with other groups and making regular appearances on the local radio.
In response to the increasing level of public support for the workers, the management engaged in a new strategy whereby they claimed that the company was financially bankrupt, and sought relief from the courts to allow them to sell the factory. However, analysis of the accounts by the workers showed that this was a mere construction aimed at breaking the strike, and that the factory remained a viable enterprise, which was subsequently borne out by later developments.
In October 2001, the workers officially declared the factory to be under worker control and began a process of restarting production, claiming control of the factory on the basis that management owed a significant amount in unpaid wages. In spite of divisions between those who felt that the dispute would be best pursued through legal avenues, and those who sought to move outright to self management by the workers, these issues were worked through by the use of worker assemblies, which gradually developed into far reaching debates about the future direction of the enterprise. By March 2002, the factory fully returned to production and was able to reestablish itself in the market place.
In April 2003, the courts ordered the police to forcibly take the factory out of the hands of the workers. In response the workers developed a broad based campaign, working in tandem with the workers of the ADOS cooperative which ran a local hospital and local piquetero groups. The CTA threatened a strike, and the students of the University of Comahue formed an association to give support to the workers of Zanon. As the police began to move in over 3000 citizens of Neuquén formed a picket in front of the factory to resist any attempt at forced entry.
During the period of worker control, the achievements have been remarkable. The number of employees has increased from 300 to 470, and wages have risen by 100 pesos a month, and the level of production has increased. Just as importantly accidents have fallen by 90%.
The workers of Zanon are currently demanding that the provincial and national governments officially recognize the factory as a workers cooperative under state ownership. This is being resisted by the MPN leadership of the provincial government, led by Jorge Sobisch, one of the potential right-wing candidates in the forthcoming Argentine presidential elections, and Kirchner´s government has shown little interest in the resolution of the issue. However, the proposal has widespread public support in Neuquén, with a petition achieving 9,000 signatures in support of the workers proposal, and the issue is due to be debated in the near future within the provincial congress.
Further information on the Zanon factory can be found at the web site http://www.obrerosdezanon.org.