NYTimes.com Article: Workers in Argentina Take Charge of Abandoned Factories

From: Rakesh Bhandari (rakeshb@STANFORD.EDU)
Date: Sun Jul 06 2003 - 12:16:53 EDT

This article from NYTimes.com

Workers in Argentina Take Charge of Abandoned Factories

July 6, 2003

BUENOS AIRES, July 5 - The workers at the IMPA aluminum
plant here all can remember when their company was
privately owned, and a few veterans even recall when it was
the property of the state. But these days, as the result of
the worst economic crisis in the country's history, it is
the workers themselves who are the factory's stockholders
and managers.

When the economy collapsed here 18 months ago, the
situation was so bad that the owners of many factories
simply shut their doors and walked away, in most cases
owing their employees months and months of back pay. Rather
than accept that situation, workers - backed by
neighborhood associations and left-wing groups enamored
with the idea of "people's capitalism" - have sometimes
been able to persuade bankruptcy courts to let them take
over the company's assets.

"The only boss here now is the customer," said Pl·cido
PeŅarieta, one of nine employees at the Chilavert Artes
Gr·ficas cooperative, which prints art books and posters,
calendars and concert programs. "We've learned to depend on
ourselves and nobody else."

Across this nation of 37 million people, at least 160
factories employing an estimated 10,000 people are now
being run as cooperatives by their employees, ranging from
a tractor factory in CŪrdoba to a tile and ceramics plant
in Patagonia. But the largest concentration is here in the
capital and its suburbs, where the nucleus of the country's
industrial production is located.

With 172 workers making aluminum cans, foil and wrappers,
IMPA is the largest of the so-called retrieved factories
here. Production is still far from the peaks of the 1990's,
but since workers took over with an initial 50 employees
under contract, production has tripled, to 50 tons a month.

"We could easily be turning out 90 tons a month, because
we've got the orders but not the working capital," said
Guillermo Robledo, chosen by the workers to be the plant
manager. Instead, he added, "we're in the ironic position
of having to extend 60-day credit lines to our customers,
some of whom are large multinationals" with much easier
access to capital than a workers' cooperative.

Like most of the cooperatives, this factory is run by an
administrative council, whose members are elected by the
workers. Monthly assemblies are held to discuss issues like
salaries - which have nearly doubled since the low point as
the economy collapsed - how many new workers to hire and
who they should be.

The IMPA workers have even voted to turn space that was not
being used into a neighborhood cultural and arts center.

The positive response to the cultural activities, said
Eduardo Mur™a, a leader of the cooperative, provides "an
umbrella that prevents the banks from acting against us"
and has gained the factory favorable publicity and
financial support from the city government.

Faced with the loss of jobs and tax revenues, the
municipality has sought to help by taking legal title to
abandoned or derelict factories and the machinery inside.
Under new legislation, it rents the premises to the
workers' cooperatives and supports them in their efforts to
negotiate with creditors.

"Our responsibility as elected representatives is clear,"
said Delia Bisutti, president of the City Council's
economic development commission and the main sponsor of the
law. "Given a choice between bankruptcies, many of which
are fraudulent and intended simply to loot assets, and
maintaining some job postings, we have moved to reduce the
social costs of this awful crisis."

But with the Argentine economy - especially companies that
export goods - finally showing some signs of recovery, the
original owners of some plants have resurfaced. That has
led to legal struggles with workers and, in one recent
case, even violence.

In April, the police sought unsuccessfully to enforce a
court order and evict workers from the Brukman textile
factory, a producer of men's suits, jackets and pants. The
56 employees who have been running the plant since the end
of 2001, though owed wages, had not followed the procedures
established by the city ordinance to gain control. That
provided a legal basis for owners' complaints that they are
merely trespassers and thieves.

At factories where ownership is not in dispute, the
employee-managers confront other problems. Initially,
workers say, some longstanding suppliers and clients were
reluctant to do business with them, and even now, bank
loans and supplier credits are nearly impossible to obtain.

"It was difficult to get started because even though the
company had a reputation, people did not believe that we
workers were capable of managing things," said Jorge Luj·n
GutiČrrez, an employee of the Chilavert print shop. "We had
to show that the high level of quality was still intact and
that the only thing missing was a few executives in the
front office."

Workers acknowledge that they too have had to change their
attitudes. "We had no notion of all the things we were
going to have to learn," said JosČ Camilo Guglielmero, a
founder of the cooperative that now runs Ghelco, S.A., a
leading producer of sauces and toppings for ice cream and
pastries. "I've never liked to speak in front of people,
but now I'm talking to clients and helping to design
marketing and sales campaigns."

Now that they are shareholders and not just employees, the
workers are also more willing to make personal sacrifices
in the name of the corporation. At Ghelco, for example,
"everyone makes the same wages now, from directors to the
janitors," Mr. Guglielmero said: 600 pesos, or $200, a
month, compared with the 1,200 pesos a month he said he
earned under the previous owners.

When wages at the aluminum plant were initially cut
drastically, workers bought cattle to slaughter at the
plant, agreeing to take part of their pay in meat rather
than money. "Everybody is a partner here," Mr. Robledo
said. "That's our strength, the commitment we feel to
something that is our own."


Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.5 : Mon Jul 07 2003 - 00:00:00 EDT