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Workers’ Power in Argentina: Reinventing Working Culture

Marie Trigona is an independent writer and radio producer based in Argentina. She can be reached at mtrigona [at] msn.com.

Nearly six years since Argentina’s worst economic crisis in 2001, both the level of popular participation in struggles and the breadth of the political spectrum have been radically transformed. There has been a resurgence of struggle inside the workplace and Argentina’s working class has turned to its historical tools for liberation: direct democracy, the strike, sabotage, and the factory takeover. Labor struggles in public hospitals, public universities, the bank sector, recuperated enterprises, and the Buenos Aires subway have resulted in new visions and victories for the country’s working class.

However, in contrast to this resurgence of labor, social movements, especially unemployed workers’ organizations, have become deeply fragmented and some have even been co-opted. Even the most radical have renounced the forms of resistance used during the late 1990s: direct action, popular assemblies, and road blockades. Nevertheless, as living conditions in Argentina have continued to deteriorate, many compañeros have begun to regroup to initiate campaigns unheard of in the 1990s—the decade of privatization and the destabilization of the working class. During Argentina’s crisis in the 1990s, demands were limited to increased unemployment subsidies. Today, workers have organized in internal commissions functioning autonomously from traditional unions to demand livable salaries and improved social conditions.

Landmark Workers Struggles

In his essay, “Workers’ Liberation and Institutions of Self-Management,” Tom Wetzel suggests that “if we are to create a society in which the people can directly control their lives, where workers run the industries where they work, the process of self-management must emerge in self-management of mass organizations of working people” (http://nefac.net/node/2091).

Argentina’s new organizing initiatives have led to the creation of a broad mutual solidarity network, self-management of workers’ struggles, and a new working-class culture. With the nation’s recuperated enterprises at the forefront, a reinvigorated coalition of radical labor organizers is working to put into practice democratic alternatives and worker self-determination.

Subway Workers Fight with Wildcat Strikes

In the late 1990s, workers in the Buenos Aires subways began a slow struggle to form an internal commission within the bureaucratic, pro-boss Union of Transport Workers (UTA). The subway workers developed an organizational structure that emphasizes direct democracy and horizontal organizing—functioning as a general assembly with special commissions and delegates to coordinate the implementation of what is decided in the assembly. Subway workers won a six-hour workday with a series of surprise work stoppages in 2004, and in 2005 with wildcat strikes they won a 44 percent pay increase.

Former president Carlos Menem privatized the Buenos Aires subway in 1994, handing over the public concession to Metrovías, forming part of the Roggio transnational corporation. As soon as the subway was privatized the company restructured staff and work hours. They made the eight-hour workday obligatory, cut back salaries, and fired nearly 60 percent of workers. Previous to 1994 there were over 4,600 subway workers. As soon as the subway was privatized, the company employed only 1,500; 800 of which were newly hired. The new workers were mostly young, single men and women with little experience in labor organizing.

According to Roberto Pianelli, a current subway delegate, working conditions inside the subway deteriorated during and after Argentina’s brutal dictatorship. “During the military dictatorship (1976–83) subway employees worked seven hours, previous to the military coup subway employees worked six hours. During the government of President Menem he hit hard at workers and our workday increased to eight hours.”

The subway delegates’ strategy was to organize independently inside the UTA. Rank-and-file workers began actively to participate in the UTA trade union elections, voting for rank-and-file workers for representatives as a method to prevent firings. Slowly, the rank and file won enough union representative seats to form an internal commission autonomous from the UTA trade union body. As the commission grew, the workers took the offensive with wildcat strikes to win back the six-hour workday, destroy the automated ticket machines, and demand an increased salary.

The subway workers’ victory was to hit back at private companies—which for more than a decade had lobbied to undermine the labor legislation that protected workers. The organizing efforts and direct action of the subway workers’ body of delegates have been emblematic for the working class that up until 2003 had won few labor conflicts and continues to suffer from exploitive working conditions.

University of Buenos Aires economist Eduardo Lucita, a member of Economists from the Left (UDI), says that although the 1933 law for an eight-hour workday stands, the average workday in Argentina is ten to twelve hours. “Only half of workers have formal labor contracts; the rest are laboring as subcontracted workers in the unregulated, informal sector. For such workers there are no regulations for production rates and lengths of a workday—much less criteria for salaries.” The average salary for Argentines is only around $200 a month, in contrast to the minimum of $600 required to meet the basic needs of a family of four.

Beginning with the 1976–83 military dictatorship, and continuing through the neoliberal 1990s, many labor laws have been altered to allow flexible labor standards. Argentina’s three main unions failed to prevent the dismantling of labor protections during the 1990s. According to James Petras, the Confederation of Labor (CGT), the Peronist-leaning umbrella labor union, has allied itself with every government since the dictatorship—and even had arrangements with the dictatorship. Meanwhile, the alternative unions, such as the Central of Argentine Workers (CTA), Argentina’s main state-workers union, and the State Employees Union (ATE), failed to support workers’ demands and actions. As an alternative to these unresponsive unions, many public workers in hospitals, schools, banks, and transportation have led an initiative known the Class Struggle Coalition (MIC).

The Class Struggle Coalition (MIC)

Worker organizations throughout Latin America are proving that they can organize themselves effectively and democratically. Subway workers along with public health employees, public school teachers, telecommunications workers, train workers, and unemployed worker organizations have formed the MIC, a coalition of grassroots worker organizations that is working to coordinate struggling workers throughout Argentina. MIC’s fourteen principles state a commitment to democratic organizing and unity among workers struggling against exploitation. Workers participating in this coalition define themselves as class-based, antagonistic to and critical of union bureaucracy. This coalition has gone so far as to create a long-term syndicalist school in Buenos Aires. MIC’s first education workshop focused on “companies’ strategies for flexible labor standards and unions.”

Fighting against slave-labor conditions

Argentina has a notable tradition of labor organizing among immigrants. Since the nineteenth century, working-class immigrants have fought for basic rights, including Sundays off, eight-hour workdays, and a minimum wage. Today, the extreme abuses in the new sweatshops have prompted a new generation of immigrant workers to organize.

The Union of Seamstress Workers (UTC), an assembly of undocumented textile workers, has reported more than 8,000 cases of labor abuses inside the city’s nearly 400 clandestine textile shops in the past year. Around 100,000 undocumented immigrants work in these unsafe plants with an average wage—if they are paid at all—of $100 per month.

Diseases like tuberculosis and lung complications are common due to the subhuman working conditions and constant exposure to dust and fibers. Many workers suffer from back injuries and tendonitis from sitting at a sewing machine twelve to sixteen hours a day. And there are other hazards. A blaze that killed six people in 2006 brought to light abusive working conditions inside a network of clandestine textile plants in Buenos Aires. The two women and four children who were killed had been locked inside the factory.

 “We have had to remain silent and accept abuse. I’m tired of taking the blows. We are starting to fight, compañeros; thank you for attending the assembly.” These are the words of Ana Salazar at an assembly of textile workers that met in Buenos Aires on a Sunday evening in April 2006. The UTC formed out of a neighborhood assembly in the working-class neighborhood of Parque Avalleneda. Initially, the assembly was a weekly social event for families on Sundays, the only day textile workers can leave the shop. Families began to gather at the assembly location, situated at the corner of a park. Later, because Argentina’s traditional unions refused to accept undocumented affiliates, the workers expanded their informal assembly into a full-fledged union.

Since the factory fire that killed six people on March 30, 2006, the UTC has stepped up actions against the brand-name clothing companies that subcontract with clandestine sweatshops. The group has held a number of escraches, or exposure protests, outside fashion makers’ offices in Buenos Aires to push the city government to hold inspections inside the companies’ textile workshops. Workers from the UTC also presented legal complaints against the top jean manufacturer Kosiuko.

To date, the union’s campaign has had some successes. In April of 2006, the Buenos Aires city government initiated inspections of sweatshops employing Bolivians and Paraguayans; inspectors shut down at least a hundred. (Perhaps not surprisingly, Bolivian consul Gonzalez Quint has protested the city government’s moves to regulate sweatshops, arguing that the measures discriminate against Bolivian employers who run some of the largest textile shops.) But since then, inspections have been suspended and many clothes manufacturers have simply moved their sweatshops to the suburban industrial belt or to new locations in the city. The UTC has reported that other manufacturers force workers to labor during the night to avoid daytime inspections.

Since 2003, thousands of reports of slave-labor conditions have piled up in the courts without any resolution. In many cases when workers have presented reports to police of poor treatment, including threats, physical abuse, and forced labor, the police say they cannot act because the victims do not have national identity cards.

Although the Buenos Aires city government has yet to make much headway in regulating the city’s sweatshops, the UTC continues to press for an end to sweatshop slavery, along with mass legalization of immigrants and housing for immigrants living in poverty. Organizing efforts have not been in vain. In an important victory, the city government has opened a number of offices to process immigration documents free of charge for Bolivian and Paraguayan citizens, circumventing the Bolivian Consulate.

The UTC has also proposed that clandestine textile shops be shut down and handed over to the workers to manage them as co-ops and, ultimately, build a cooperative network that can bypass the middlemen and the entire piecework system. Already, the Alameda assembly has joined with the UTC to form the Alameda Workers’ Cooperative as an alternative to sweatshops. Nearly thirty former sweatshop workers work at the cooperative in the same space where the weekly assemblies are held.

Olga Cruz now works with the cooperative sewing garments. She says that although it’s a struggle, she now has dignity that she did not have when she worked in one of the piecework shops. “We are working as a cooperative, we all make the same wage. In the clandestine shops you are paid per garment: they give you the fabric and you have to hand over the garment fully manufactured. Here we have a line system, which is more advanced and everyone works the same amount.”

Fired for reporting on abusive conditions at a sweatshop, Naomi Hernández has also found work at the cooperative. “We are freeing ourselves, that’s what I feel. Before I wasn’t a free person and didn’t have any rights,” said Hernández to a crowd of spectators in front of the city legislature. She sent a special message and invitation: “Now we are fighting together with the Alameda cooperative and the UTC. I invite all workers who know their rights are being violated to join the movement against slave labor.”

Recuperated enterprises—reinventing working culture

Argentina’s worker-run factories are setting an example for workers around the world that employees can run a business even better without a boss or owner. The new phenomenon of employees taking over their workplace began in 2000 and heightened as Argentina faced its worst economic crisis ever in 2001. Nationwide, thousands of factories have closed and millions of jobs have been lost in recent years.

As the largest recuperated factory in Argentina, and occupied since 2001, the Zanon ceramics plant in the Patagonian province of Neuquén now employs 470 workers. Along with some 180 recuperated enterprises up and running, providing jobs for more than 10,000 Argentine workers, the Zanon experience has redefined the basis of production: without workers, bosses are unable to run a businesses; without bosses, workers can do it better. While these worker-run factories are forced to exist within the larger capitalist market, they are forming new visions for a new working culture.

In October 2005, the Factory Without a Boss (FaSinPat) cooperative, which now runs the former Zanon factory, won a legal dispute, pressuring federal courts to recognize it as a legal entity that has the right to run the cooperative for one year. As the October 2006 expiration date neared, the worker assembly voted to step up actions and community efforts. On October 20, 2006, the workers won a longstanding legal battle for federal recognition of FaSinPat for three years.

Argentina’s working class has celebrated the FaSinPat workers’ temporary victory. With legal status, the FaSinPat can concentrate on planning production, improving working conditions, and developing community projects. As part of this celebration, the cooperative has invited other workers to visit Zanon to learn that they, too, can function without a boss or owner. The workers’ assembly has resolved that it is now in a position to teach others about self-management.

The term “self-management,” as used in Argentina, is derived from the Spanish concept of “auto-gestión,” means that a community or group makes its own decisions, especially those kinds of decisions that fit into processes of planning and management. Zanon workers are putting into action systems of organization in a business in which the workers participate in all of the decisions. Worker self-management in Argentina is helping plant the seeds so that future generations can reverse the logic of capitalism by producing for communities rather than profits and empowering workers instead of exploiting them. Zanon has formed part of the movement of recuperated enterprises that are putting into practice democratic alternatives and worker self-determination.

Argentina’s employee-run businesses are very diverse, each with its own specific legal standing and forms of organizing production. In almost all cases workers took over businesses that had been abandoned or closed by their owners in the midst of Argentina’s financial meltdown in 2001. Typically the owners ceased production, stopped paying wages, and went bankrupt. The workers’ decision to take over their plant was a decision made out of necessity—not necessarily out of ideology. The immediate concern of protecting their jobs motivated the workers to continue production without a boss or owner.

Many of the recuperated enterprises have functioned and competed in a capitalist market for years with no legal standing. Without definite legal status, many worker-run businesses have been at a disadvantage in dealings with suppliers and customers and have lost ground in the market.

Since 2003, workers have operated the cooperative Bauen Hotel in Buenos Aires with no legal standing or government subsidies. Since taking over the hotel, the workers have slowly begun to clean up the ransacked hotel and offer its services. The hotel reopened with a staff of 40 and now employs some 150. Employees have rallied since December 2005 to pressure the Buenos Aires city government to veto a law that would restore the hotel to its former owner. The city government refused to veto the law. If the Bauen cooperative does not succeed in pushing through a new favorable law they risk losing their hotel.

On a local level, the Bauen hotel has become a prime example of coalition building and the development of a broad mutual support network. In the midst of legal struggles and the challenges of successfully running a prominent hotel, the cooperative’s members have not forgotten their roots. The nineteen-story worker-run hotel has become a political center for worker organizations, including FaSinPat. The floor is covered with beautiful high-quality porcelain tile, a trade between worker-controlled Zanon ceramics factory and Bauen. Regularly, Zanon workers and other social activists organize events and stay at the hotel while visiting Buenos Aires. The MIC and subway delegates hold regular meetings at the hotel and stage rallies to defend worker self-management against state-ordered evictions.

The factory takeover has been used for over a century as a tool for working-class liberation. In many historical struggles, the factory take over was simply used to make demands heard rather than taking over production.

At a time when the Argentine working class is recently recovering from privatization and the attacks on labor laws, the recuperated enterprises are putting into practice a model—based on equality, direct democracy, and solidarity—that is radically different from the capitalist one. In that process, these recuperated enterprises are creating a new working-class subjectivity for the working class worldwide.

Increased Violence Against Workers

Thirty years of intense neoliberal policies have devastated the Argentine working class. In order to implement the current economic order a military dictatorship had to make 30,000 labor activists and students disappear during the 1976–83 military dictatorship. Some say that in the midst of human rights trials and union conflicts, the government is resorting to tactics that are reminiscent of the dictatorship.

Protesting students, teachers, public workers, unemployed workers, and indigenous communities have faced increasing hostility from the national government and respective provincial governments. President Nestor Kirchner has failed to raise the standard of living, and attacks against workers’ organizations have increased in the last year. In 2006 national unemployment still stood at 12.5 percent, with over 5.2 million people unable to find paid work adequate to meet their monthly needs.

In the most recent case of direct state violence against workers, Carlos Fuentealba, a forty-two-year-old public educator, died on April 6 after a policeman shot him in the head with a teargas canister at short range. Fuentealba was participating in a road blockade that the provincial teachers union organized as a protest action, after a month-long strike to demand a pay raise and public education grants. The teacher’s death has fueled opposition to the local government and coalition efforts among workers’ organizations.

Argentina’s main teachers union held a twenty-four-hour strike, while the state-worker umbrella unions held a two-hour work stoppage. Striking public transportation workers virtually had Buenos Aires at a standstill. Buenos Aires subway union delegate Carlos Taborda said that workers were outraged when they heard the news of Fuentealba’s death. “Every worker is affected by the death of the teacher. It doesn’t surprise me that so many people protested today because when workers’ human rights are violated, the working class here in Argentina mobilizes.”

The teacher’s death has fueled opposition to the local government and coalition efforts among workers’ organizations. Social movements in the region have grown in the past years since Argentina’s 2001 economic crisis.

Carlos Fuentealba is not the first worker to be killed for protesting in Neuquén. His death coincided with the tenth anniversary of the killing of Teresa Rodríguez, a janitor and innocent bystander shot by a police officer during a protest on April 12, 1997. Police shot her as she crossed a bridge that unemployed workers had been blocking in the oil town of Cutral-Có. It was one of the first piquetes (road blockades, which later became the method adopted by piqueterosnationwide). Teresa Rodríguez has become a symbol for the piquetero movement, but her murder has gone unpunished; the four police officers charged with the murder have been released and pardoned.

Since 1995, more than sixty people have been killed during protests in Argentina. Julio Talabera, an activist from HIJOS—an organization of Children of the Disappeared—says that governments support police brutality to instill fear and criminalize protest. In the past two years unionists have received threats and have even been attacked. Shortly after the UTC went public last spring with hundreds of reports of abuses, over a dozen of the union’s representatives were threatened. And in a particularly shocking episode, two men kidnapped the nine-year-old son of José Orellano and Monica Frías, textile workers who had reported slave-labor conditions in their shop. The attackers held the boy at knifepoint and told him to “tell your parents that they should stop messing around with the reports against the sweatshops.”

The Road Ahead

Even in the face of attacks many of Argentina’s labor organizations like the subway workers, public health workers, and several worker-run enterprises have fostered a broad mutual solidarity network to defend workers rights. Subway workers have pledged their willingness to use striking as a direct action against state repression of labor conflicts. In Neuquén, Zanon has formed a broad mutual solidarity network among local community groups, workers in struggle, and recuperated enterprises nationally and internationally. While doing so, the FaSinPat collective has turned into a major mobilizing factor in the Neuquén province.

Argentina’s social organizations, just as in Chile, Uruguay, and Brazil, have faced new challenges due to the resurgence of the “progressive pink tide” of social democratic governments. Increasing police brutality, political arrests, and criminalization of social protest are just some of the challenges along the “pink road” ahead. How to continue to build a broad coalition movement is the biggest obstacle for Argentina’s working-class organizations in the face of the government’s attempts to co-opt organizations and implement pro-business policies, while cutting back public spending. Despite political challenges, Argentina’s independent union organizing initiatives and recuperated enterprises represent the development of one of the most advanced strategies in defense of the working class and resistance against capitalism and neoliberalism.