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 back."
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 owner.
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 neighborhood suffers."
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. Click here to read more of his articles.