Occupy, Resist, Produce: Worker Cooperatives
by Benjamin Dangl
During the economic crisis of 2001, when politicians
and banks failed, many Argentines took matters into their own hands. Poverty,
homelessness and unemployment were countered with barter systems and grassroots,
micro-credit lending programs. Community groups were created to provide solidarity,
food and support in neighborhoods across the country.
Perhaps the most well known of these initiatives was
the recuperation of bankrupt factories and businesses which were occupied
by workers and run cooperatively. There are roughly two hundred worker-run
factories and businesses in Argentina, most of which started in the midst
of the 2001 crisis. 15,000 people work in these cooperatives and the businesses
range from car part producers to rubber balloon factories. Two recuperated
businesses with stories that are representative of this movement are Hotel
Bauen and the Chilavert book publishing factory.
Hotel Bauen first opened during the military dictatorship
in 1978 when Buenos Aires hosted the World Cup. From that time onward, the
hotel was a meeting place for big businesses owners, people connected to the
dictatorship, and politicians such as former Argentine President Carlos Menem.
Ironically, since the worker takeover in 2003, Hotel Bauen has been a meeting
place for left-leaning activists groups and union members. Recently, the city’s
subway workers went on strike and much of their decision making and organizing
was coordinated from the hotel.
Marcelo Iurcovich ran the hotel for years until 1997
when he sold it to Solari, a Chilean company. In 2001 the hotel went bankrupt
and on December 21st, Solaris fired all of its workers. The majority of the
ninety employees went without work for twelve to fourteen months. “Our
decision to take over the hotel wasn’t capricious,” explained
Horacio Lalli, a member of the hotel’s cooperative. “A lot of
the people here were fathers and mothers of families. There was no work. We
had to do something, so after a lot of meetings we decided to take the hotel
On March 21, 2003 after a meeting in Chilavert, one
of the first worker-run factories in the city, Hotel Bauen’s workers
gathered at night at the intersection of the streets Corrientes and Calloa
in downtown Buenos Aires. They walked the short distance to the hotel and
entered the building. Cheers filled the air. The lights were switched on.
Workers hugged each other and wept. They had succeeded in the first step of
the recuperation process: occupation.
Yet the hotel was far from being in working condition.
A lot of the material and equipment had been sold by the previous owners or
stolen. The workers still faced months of cleaning and repairing in order
to get the hotel back on its feet. “Throughout this time businesses
and students in Buenos Aires helped us out by gathering money for us so we
could eat,” Lalli explained. “Yet we were afraid the hotel bosses
would come back and kick us out. This period of time was full of fear.”
It took the workers until August of 2004 to reopen the
hotel. To this day, a verdict has not been reached and the fate of the hotel
remains in the hands of the judge. According to Lalli, the judge will probably
decide that the workers need to pay rent or buy the business from the previous
In the meantime, the hotel is back in business. Though
it is still not entirely in working order, it is a bustling center for political
and cultural events and generates enough profit to keep the operation going.
The workers are running their business as a cooperative. Not everyone receives
the same salary, but all major decisions are made in assemblies attended by
all the hotel’s workers.
Fabio Resino has been working at the hotel since it
was taken over by the workers in 2003. “If the hotel had been run as
a cooperative for all these years it would not have closed,” he explained.
“There was a lot of corruption and bad management with the previous
owner. You could ask all ninety people that work here today and they’d
all respond that they prefer this system to working for one boss. It takes
more time this way, you have to work for more hours with fewer resources,
but it’s worth it.”
“Before, we worked for a boss,” he continued.
“Now we work for ourselves. And when it is a cooperative you want to
work better because it is your business, your own process. Before workers
were numbers. Now we are people.”
The Chilavert book publishing factory is located outside
the center of Buenos Aires in a quiet neighborhood. On the front of the building
is a colorful mural which contains the slogan of the recuperated business
movement: “Occupy, Resist, Produce.”
The factory itself is divided into offices, a kitchen,
a cultural center and a large area full of printing and book binding machines.
The machines vary in age; some of them are from the 1950’s, and the
newer ones are from the 1970’s. When I visited, people of all ages were
in the factory, either working or helping to organize community events. One
woman was working in the cultural center on the second floor; another was
sorting articles for a journal Chilavert produces. A musician stopped by to
use the computer to print a flier for one of his concerts. Teenagers who worked
in the factory as interns listened as another worker explained the intricacies
of book layout and design. Towards the end of the day, dozens of people showed
up for salsa classes in the cultural center. The factory had a festive, communal
feel to it, but work was still going on and the machines were printing away.
While I was there, a book of poetry and a science text book were being published.
When the factory was started in 1923 it was called Gaglianone,
after the family who ran the business for decades before the worker takeover.
After the takeover, the workers renamed their factory Chilavert, after the
street it is on. Gaglianone was well known in Buenos Aires as a producer of
high quality art books and materials for the major theaters in the city. However,
in the 1990’s the business had less work and a lot of the equipment
was sold off, salaries were lowered and people were fired. In April of 2002,
the factory closed its doors.
Out of necessity and a desire to keep their place of
work functioning, the workers decided to occupy the factory. At the beginning
of the occupation, they clandestinely produced books, (as illegal occupants
of the building, it was against the law to do so). After producing them, they
snuck the books through a hole in the factory’s wall and into the neighbor’s
house. Though the hole has since been repaired, Chilavert workers have proudly
placed a frame around this exposed brick section of the wall.
A climactic moment came on May 24th 2002 when eight
police patrol cars, dozens of policemen, eight assault vehicles, two ambulances
and one fire truck showed up at Chilavert to kick the workers out. Though
there were only eight workers occupying the building they were accompanied
by nearly three hundred other people, including neighbors, students and workers
from other cooperatives who were there to help defend the factory. The massive
group intimidated the police and when it became clear that blood was about
to flow from both sides, the police retreated. The workers had won.
Occupy, Resist, Produce
Candido Gonzalez worked at Chilavert for forty two years
before participating in the worker takeover. After a recent heart attack he
attributes to stress and overwork, he said he plans to take it easy. That
didn’t stop him from recently attending the fifth annual World Social
Forum in Brazil and participating in a recent city-wide subway strike. Throughout
my visit, he joked with many workers in the building and seemed perfectly
capable of talking forever. Our interview lasted a couple of hours and though
he focused on Chilavert, he touched upon everything from earthquakes to whiskey.
“Occupy, resist and produce. This is the synthesis
of what we are doing,” Candido said, as he passed me a glass of iced
tea. “And it is the community as a whole that makes this possible. When
we were defending this place there were eight assault vehicles and thirty
policemen that came here to kick us out. But we, along with other members
of the community, stayed here and defended the factory.”
He recalls this fight with tears in his eyes, “It
is normal for you to fight for yourself, but when others fight for your cause
it is very emotional.”
Part of the local economy in the neighborhood depends
on Chilavert for business. “We get our transportation, ink, food, coffee
and paper - there is a paper factory fifteen blocks from here - all in this
neighborhood. Chilavert helps the economy and if this factory closes, the
Twelve people work at the factory and unlike other cooperatives
in the city, everyone has the same salary. Major decisions are made in assemblies
and community based activities play an important role in the weekly agenda.
On the second level of the building there is a cultural center which is used
for dance classes, movie screenings, discussions, poetry readings, parties
and art exhibits.
Since the worker takeover, Chilavert has produced numerous
books on social and political themes, with titles such as “The Unemployed
Workers Movement,” “What are Popular Assemblies?” and “Piquetera
(Argentine activist group) Dignity.”
“Every decision, every assembly, every book published,
has something to do with politics,” Chilavert worker, Julieta Galera
explained. “The idea is to make books and works of art that have something
to do with our political vision. There is a lot of prejudice against recuperated
factories in Buenos Aires. People think we don’t work hard enough. But
Chilavert does some of the best work in the business.”
Though Chilavert is one of the most famous of the recuperated
businesses, its story is still unknown most Argentines. “We almost don’t
exist in the newspapers or the TV programs because we aren’t with the
government,” Candido explained. “There are some two hundred recuperated,
cooperative businesses in Argentina. That’s not a lot compared to all
the others that are not run this way.”
Candido didn’t think much of current president
Nestor Kirchner, and didn’t attribute Chilavert’s success to any
politician. “We didn’t put a political party banner in the factory
because we are the ones that took the factory. All kinds of politicians have
come here asking for our support. Yet when the unions failed, when the state
failed, the workers began a different kind of fight…If you want to take
power and you can’t take over the state, you have to at least take over
the means of production.”
Candido pointed across the room to a giant safe in the
corner. Across the top of the safe was the name, Gaglianone. He laughed and
shook his head. Perhaps that’s where the old boss horded all of his
money. “Now,” Candido explained, pulling out a bottle, “this
is where we keep the whiskey.”
Benjamin Dangl is the editor of UpsideDownWorld.org.
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