The outskirts of Buenos Aires are grim and cluttered, and our route out of the city was lined with weathered billboards stuck like hectic postage on every flat surface. In contrast with the sleek, tech driven city center, the rim of Buenos Aires is still deeply industrial. It’s a place where workers sell the hours in their day for a wage and spend the majority of their waking lives inside a factory answering to a boss. I was there to seek out another way to conduct business; One that provides lives and livelihoods separate from the hierarchical wage system, which for the past 12 years since the economic collapse has been growing in the rubble, inside large warehouses and dusty offices.
For the past two months, I have been visiting, interviewing and working with the worker-owners of Argentina’s empresasa recuperadas, or “taken factories”. The taken factories movement gained enormous momentum after the Argentine economic collapse of 2001, when foreign investors saw their business in Argentina’s strong industrial sector crumble and they closed up shop. Workers at some of these factories saw the lunacy in letting their former work places lie cold and vacant while they were out of work. They already knew how to run the businesses and operate the machines. One by one, they began to occupy their factories and demand the right to work (protected under Argentina’s constitution) and re-start production as a worker owned cooperative. Their logic was that since their labor produced all the added value for the products, and their employers had walked away from their businesses, it was their only option. It was their right to run the factories themselves under horizontal direct democracy.
This movement provided immense hope for many around the world who saw factory occupation and reclamation as the beginning of a paradigm shift; a chance to build a new system within the broken shell of global capitalism. This flood of energy and idealism was undoubtedly released in the US by a film by Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis called The Take, which outlines the struggle of one cooperative to gain control of production in their former work place. I had a window into the maturation of this dream and witnessed the textured and complex landscape of factory reclamation in Buenos Aires 12 years after the first factory take over in the early 2000s.
As a student of economics (which in my public university means a student of neoliberal economics) and a young activist, I saw the worker ownership model in Argentina as a beacon I could orient towards; a perhaps-viable alternative and a method of resistance that was widely applicable. The movement has held fast to some fairly radical principles, while also neatly assimilating to dominant business strategies as it has become institutionalized. The stories of workers I interviewed were filled with contradiction, relentless struggle against oppression, and marginalization accompanied by mundane resignation to the status quo. My time in Buenos Aires helped me redefine the meaning of dignified work. It provided me a way to frame the global struggle for worker self- determination.
La Matanza worker-owned cooperative makes screws of all lengths and shapes and sizes, and was reclaimed from its owners in 2003. At the time of the take over, the boss hadn’t paid salaries in ten months. The workers who remained staged a fifteen day occupation of their factory to ensure that the boss couldn’t ferry the stock away and sell it off. The nine current members (or socios) of La Matanza are aging, most close to sixty years old. Some have worked in the dim, cold interior of La Matanza for forty years and overseen the reclamation. They are building new relationships based on horizontal authority and collective decision making with the men they worked next to for so long. None of them drive. Their work clothes are not unlike weekend lounge clothes: slacks and a button-up shirt covered by a comfortable pullover sweater with holes in the elbows. Fine metal dust has been ground into the fabric that stretches over their older-gentleman bellies, giving these men a gentle sheen.
Business is pretty good at La Matanza they said, with a stable client base and higher-than-average returns (they’re not called wages in this coop). They feel secure in their work. Everyone said the biggest problem was the delays they experience when the machines break down.
“Well, how old are the machines?” I asked.
They looked at each other, shrugged, and said casually, “Around one hundred years old.”
When these centenarians break down, the workers take them apart. They hone new parts out of scrap metal and coax them back to life. But it takes a couple days and that’s the biggest impediment to consistent production.
My next stop outside the city was a coop called SG Patria Grande. The outside is as underwhelming as they come (although it’s hard to imagine a deeply impressive warehouse in an industrial suburb), but as soon as we stepped in from the bright sunlight I was surprised by a flurry of color and activity. Boxes were flying around the warehouse, being chucked from the loft and unceremoniously caught and stacked in a truck. Everyone working was young, under thirty-five, and very active, whistling and cracking jokes. The boxes flew through the air with such ease because this coop distributes a wide array of intentionally lightweight and flimsy products: disposables. Every imaginable combination of Styrofoam, cardboard, wrapping paper, and Kleenex lay carefully ordered in a layer of packaging. It’s a warehouse stacked to the ceiling with what amounts to future trash.
Trying to put aside my skepticism regarding the sustainability of their model, I began chatting with Julio, one of the founders of SG. He is 35, super alert and casual. He bounced around on the soles of his bright red Converse as he spoke with us. He started SG with more than a dozen friends when they were in their late twenties. They are all from middle class backgrounds and are much younger than other coop socios I met. They concentrate on building cooperativism as a social movement.
He said that when they first started, there were just a few stacks of boxes at the back, and now they’ve crept forward so that the room is nearly bursting. Like the mercury rising in a thermometer, the huge back stock is a measure of the good health of this growing cooperative.
Julio smiled happily at this thought, but grew serious for a moment and said, “It’s great, but everything in this room will get thrown away”.
This startled me.
He went on. “Yeah, you know that huge trash island the size of Texas in the middle of the Pacific ocean? All this stuff will probably end up there, or somewhere like it.”
He was still smiling, but not a cheeky grin, just with the ease of somebody who has come to terms with the truth and has stopped torturing himself about it.
Julio went on to speak candidly about how all the socios know that disposables are an ugly business, but their enterprise is booming right now. The coop has a dream of using funds from their distribution business to open a responsibly-produced bulk food store and restaurant, and seem very serious about making the transition. They realize they will rely on revenues from future trash for at least the next ten years.. They’re trying to offer more corn based compostable products, but they are not confident that these products are a viable long-term alternative.
The contradictions didn’t end there.
On one wall of the warehouse there is a huge colorful mural of a masked Zapatistia warrior with a masked baby on one hip, waving the rainbow-checked indigenous flag. In the US it would be unthinkable to see such a blatant representation of a clearly subversive group like the Zapatistas in any sort of capitalist business establishment. Even odder is that this Zapatista mama is flanked on the wall by a life sized cut out of Christina Fernandez de Kirchner, Argentina’s current female president. She seemed to oversee the entire warehouse with her artificially plump lips pursed in satisfaction. This is the type of small business her rhetoric is intent on supporting, although in practice she strongly favors supporting massive Argentinian corporations. Perhaps more importantly, she represents a distinctly mainstream “business as usual” attitude to capitalism that clashes with the chants of “que se vayan todos” (“get them all out”, referring to the power elite) that rang through the streets in 2001 when the empresas recuperadas movement was born.
That was a time when people were desperate enough to imagine what a more radical shift might look like. The empresas recuperadas movement helped people envision what an economy based in solidarity and horizontal decision-making might be. It helped them imagine how that would change their daily lives and their relationships to their neighbors. Small gains for people clawing their way back towards middle class have tempered that vision and many social movements in Argentina have set their sights on reform and not revolution.
Julio saw me staring in bewilderment at the two women on the wall, he just smiled again and said mischievously, “We like a little bit of everything at SG”.
The socios at SG are doing incredibly admirable work, not just in their business plans and cooperative workshops, but in their ability to live at the axis of a number of colossal contradictions. They live lightly in that complicated and confusing place. They do business with their eyes wide open while laughing in the face of the despair capitalism is supposed to instill. They are thinking carefully and with humility about their place in the movement and in the world, while making sure their families are strong and well cared for. I think they are doing their absolute best, while trapped in a series of oppressive systems. Perhaps this is all we can ask of Work and Business right now; that it allow us to do our best and chuckle at the absurdity when our best still feels like its destroying us and the planet.