Without a Boss: A Worker-Run Textile Factory in Montevideo, Uruguay

The story is very similar to that of Brukman.* A factory of suits and coats owes large amounts of back pay to its workers. After several attempts at negotiation the seamstresses decide to take the factory. They occupy it once, and are thrown out. They return to enter, this time with tactics straight out of a movie, and they are tossed into the street again. The third time is victory. Now they produce 2,500 garments a month.

A ferocious storm swooped down on Montevideo, demolished the roofing, and left this warehouse of 2,800 square meters a place of misery. Without end, dozens of women wash it down and clean it to put it back into good condition. The workers have already spent a month repairing the facilities of Dymac, the most modern textile factory in Uruguay, which since August 2002 they manage without bosses. Since that time, Alicia Paiva sleeps in the place with her family, taking care of the machines and other goods. "It will be like this until a definitive solution is found," explains this woman who has an image of Che Guevara stamped on her chest and displays a Singer sewing manual from 1948 above her desk.

Dymac was born in 1963, although for some time before another textile factory had been functioning on the same site. Dymac specialized in garments for men and women, and 90% of its products were historically destined for exportation. "First, our products were sold in the US, Mexico, and Europe. Then came the time of Mercosur, but with the Brazilian and Argentine crises the business started to go into debt," explains Paiva, president of the worker-created cooperative.

In September 2001 the workers of Dymac were sent in droves to receive Unemployment Insurance. In Uruguay, one receives this benefit for six months without loosing the status of employee. Once six months have past, the business has to decide whether to employ the staff once more. The workers were owed bonuses and vacations since 1999 and salaries from May 2001 onward. "On top of it all, there never existed a union in the company, which was totally repressive. At the slightest complaint, the person who acted as spokesperson was fired. Each time the owner came to the plant we had to lower our eyes. If we looked him in the eyes, he’d fire us. He was like a Doberman," said Paiva, surrounded by a rack of newly-made men’s suits.

Facing the uncertainty generated by the new situation, a group of workers began to discuss what to do to save their source of employment. "At first, we were small, a group of 4 colleagues that came and went. We agreed that we didn’t have any other alternative besides occupation. Where were we going to work? We went to ask for help from the PIT-CNT (the National Center for Workers of Uruguay) and they told us that they were going to support us. From there, we called all the colleagues and arranged a meeting in the door of the factory. Two hundred came and we told them that there was a group prepared to enter. Finally, we all entered," said the president proudly.

Entering the plant presented some difficulties: There were security guards and watchmen. But Paiva, who had recently had an operation, received health insurance, instead of unemployment insurance and so rang the doorbell with the excuse that she needed to pick up some documents to complete her paperwork. When they opened the door, her colleagues- who were hidden at her sides- raced after her. By force, they threw out the head of personnel, and for 17 days they occupied the plant. While the workers were inside, neighbors came by with food and milk so that they could maintain the occupation.

While the workers resisted inside the factory, tri-lateral negotiations were organized by the Ministry of Work. "It was in vain," assured Paiva, "They ended up throwing us out by force. We were ready to resist, and we had the support of some deputies and senators in the unions. But, we could tolerate it as long there was no risk of injury, because they weren’t politically prepared to support them."

When the workers were fired, the neighborhood came out and held a raucous street protest in their defense, the neighbors encircled the plant. The church opened its doors so that the Union of Aguja, which didn’t have a headquarters, could meet somewhere, until finally the metallurgy union offered them a location more appropriate for their needs. "The eviction was aimed at dissolving the organization, but we had already achieved unity. Before we worked together but didn’t even know each others’ names, much less, needs. Ninety per cent of the workers of this factory are women and 70% are heads of household. We maintained many months of negotiation in the Ministry of Work. But they were jerking us around. The bosses said that there wasn’t enough work, but we know that in reality they were preparing a contest of creditors."

At that time, the workers decided to try to enter again. This time it appeared still more difficult. The factory had put up heavy doors and bars, so the workers developed a plan straight out of the movies. The women climbed into a truck that was stopped at the entrance of the factory. The driver, a member of another union got out and opened the hood, feigning a mechanical problem. The man rang the doorbell of Dymac, and asked permission to call for help. When they opened the doors the workers climbed down en masse and once moor entered the plant. "The few that hadn’t been fired and were inside, screamed. Everyone except the head of Personnel left. He clung to the machines and was thrown on the floor. After an hour and a half, I was fed up and I put her under my arm and threw her onto the sidewalk. I was denounced, the police came, but the truth is that there wasn’t aggression."

While the workers stayed inside, the first experience of self-management arose. A customer who had an order pending, pleaded with them to complete it. "He proposed to pay us ourselves and we told him, that yes, as long as Dymac would give its approval in the Ministry of Work. The business signed and we shared the money in equal parts," emphasized Paiva.

This time, the occupation lasted 54 days. Until there was a negotiation and the bosses agreed to pay the salaries owed and grant recognition to the union. "For us," admitted the president, "it was a very good agreement, we didn’t want to stay in the plant. Our greatest fear was reprisals afterwards."

But the old owners of Dymac didn’t comply with the pact. They paid the first installment, and also the second, but not the third. They offered some garments as part payment, but the workers rejected them, "they were old rags, they weren’t going to be sold to anyone," complained Paiva and added, "When we saw the formula presented in the meeting of creditors, we realized that they were for closing the factory. They wanted to pay over five years, with three of grace and a release from 70% of the debt. One day we asked to enter the plant with the excuse of counting garments and we discovered that machines were missing. We made a complaint. It was clear that it was a liquidation with a fraudulent bankruptcy."

The workers then judged that it was the moment to enter for the third time. Not in order to demand what they were owed, but to guarantee for themselves a source of employment. Yet to occupy the factory seemed more complicated each time. Now the guards were armed and the hierarchy of personnel that still worked in the factory came and went escorted by body guards. "This time, the union had decided to keep the operation confidential in order to avoid risking the physical integrity of the workers. We had decided that we, the seven of the base committee and others such of the Workers’ Center, were going to enter. We spent two days doing intelligence work, observing the movements of the guards and when they were relieved, which was the only opportunity for us to enter," related Paiva.

The selected day, a dozen disguised persons, walked around the block. Another group pretended to be taking surveys. Just when there was a security shift change, someone rang the bell in the house at one side of the factory. "When they left for the relief, I entered the factory. One of the guards took out a gun and one of those who was taking the survey fired above him. Once inside, we called upon all the others."

So began the third occupation in March 2002. Six months later, when the bankruptcy had been decreed, the workers formed a cooperative and got the trustee to give them the use of machines until the auction for the liquidation of goods, which still doesn’t have a date. "Before the auction, we want to see if we can achieve an injection of private capital to convert ourselves into owners. Here we don’t have laws of expropriation like in Argentina, we want to change the law but everything is very slow," fumed the president, the only worker of Dymac who had previous experience with political activism.

Throughout, the workers made Dymac function. They produce 2,500 garments a month, a seventh of what the plant could make when operating at full capacity. Nevertheless, they are reentering the list of large contributors to the DGI [federal tax office]. "We have many clients who show interest, but when they find out that we are temporary they don’t want to risk working with us. For this reason, we think that someone who would form a partnership with the project, even though we would never handover the management. At the most, it would be shared. We need investment to buy raw materials. Moreover, this facility is very large and has high fixed costs. Sometimes we stop paying ourselves in order to pay the lights," maintains Paiva. This isn’t the only problem. Of the 127 workers who began the process of self-management, today 52 remain. When the textile industry of Uruguay began to be rejuvenated, many workers abandoned the cooperative, enticed by better income. "We couldn’t sustain the productivity without having the personnel," she adds, "Another problem arose: a contractor earns more than an associate, because what for us were hours of work in solidarity, for them were overtime."

The workers broke with all the norms of business. Now they don’t have day laborers but monthly workers. All of the associates earn the same amount and the major decisions are made in an assembly. Moreover, they converted the Personnel office into a childcare center. "We are transforming the worst place of the business into the sweetest. Everything is a symbol," says Paiva, who puts her gloves on to weather the storm.

*Brukman, is a worker-run textile factory in Argentina.

This article was previously published in Spanish at LaVaca.org, and was translated to English by UpsideDownWorld.org translator, Renate Lunn.