New Internationalist

Hotel Solidarity

Issue 384

Worker-control opens hotel doors to more than tourism in Buenos Aires

While the Argentine economy has been plunging down, life at Hotel Bauen has only been going up. Two years after being ‘taken’ by the hotel employees, the legendary Hotel Bauen has been reborn. The hotel was built in the run-up to the 1978 football World Cup by an entrepreneur named Iurkovich, who secured soft loans from the then military dictatorship to construct the hotel. But as Argentina slowly destabilized – first during the Dirty War and later during the belt-tightening economics of former President Carlos Menem – the tourism industry collapsed, leaving the once-elegant Hotel Bauen in a sad state of disrepair. The hotel was closed. Iurkovich’s debts went unpaid.

Photo: Sammy Loren
Lobby for change: downstairs in Buenos Aires' Hotel Bauen. Photo: Sammy Loren

Receptionist Luisa Casanova worked at Hotel Bauen during the Iurkovich era in the early 1990s, but left to work at Bell South for eight years. She returned to the Bauen after the 2001 economic collapse. By then the workers had already ‘taken’ the hotel. But reopening its doors has meant a lot of work – wrecked living areas and dysfunctional bathrooms needed repairing and the ungodly 1970s interior design required reviving before guests could finally be accommodated.

The Bauen is now a worker-run co-operative and Casanova is enthusiastic: ‘There are higher wages and the work doesn’t feel worthless.’ Business is soaring. The lobby now bustles with patrons from all over the world. Just to the right of the entrance a display advertises hip ‘exploitation free’ shoes manufactured in a recently recovered Argentine footwear factory. The sweet rhythms of the nightly house band float up a staircase from the downstairs bar. Up to 400 people line up each weeknight to catch the politically tinged comedy and piano routine of radio personality Alejandro Dolina.

‘It is more than just a hotel,’ explains Casanova. ‘Political groups and unions meet here during the week; people from the provinces come here to find job opportunities. Bauen influences other social movements in a positive way.’

However, Iurkovich’s sons have recently filed suit to regain ownership of the hotel. ‘After the “take”, Iurkovich thought that the workers would only stick it out for one or two months and then quit,’ says hotel clerk Diego Siles. ‘Now that (Iurkovich) sees us fixing everything and making money, he wants (the hotel) back.’

The workers dispute the claims, pointing out that the Government loaned the money and no-one ever paid back the loans. ‘The hotel in reality belongs to the Government,’ said Siles. If given ownership, the workers have pledged to pay back the loans. This dispute about ownership mirrors the problems facing many workers and former owners of recovered factories in Argentina. Casanova, who describes herself as ‘without interest in politics’, nonetheless concludes: ‘If the Government isn’t corrupt, it will side with the workers.’

Sammy Loren

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