As recession slashes through Buenos Aires’ textile district, one factory continues resolutely to roll out clothing for the wealthy. Window displays at the front of the factory – where headless dummies sport double-breasted jackets, tweed blazers and camel-hair coats – belie what is happening inside. Here at the Brukman factory, blue-coated seamstresses and tailors are in control. Their bosses left their desks nearly a year ago. When it comes to deciding who does what, this suit factory is now suit-free.
Despite police raids, government suspicion and persistent judicial harassment, 53 workers in Brukman – one of the Argentine capital’s largest clothing factories – refuse to give in. Their 12-month occupation, they say, is not ideological. Losing a job in Argentina at the moment is akin to contracting a terminal disease. Unemployment stands at 22 per cent, while over 6 million people have fallen beneath the poverty line so far this year.
Until late last year, the non-unionized and mostly female workforce swallowed each fresh wage cut or slight from their superiors without complaint. ‘We thought that with the country as it was, everyone was in the same position. We were thankful for the job,’ recalls worker Elisa Díaz.
By December 2001, a three-year slump, unpayable debt and an overvalued currency had incited a stampede of capital from Argentina – and a freeze on bank withdrawals. The Brukman family, with its penchant for cutting wages, whittled weekly pay in its 12-year-old factory down to 5 pesos (then equal to 5 dollars); a week later it became 2. On 18 December, none of the owners appeared in the factory.
Assemblies each week decide strategy, which a committee then seeks to put into effect – a process free of employers
‘If we hadn’t taken the factory then, the bosses would have closed it,’ remarks Mathilde Adorno, a veteran seamstress. She now chuckles at the memory: ‘We held meetings all morning; we were all very nervous. When the bosses didn’t turn up, we decided to wait. That evening we held our first assembly and 23 people stayed locked in all night. When I got here the next morning the others had put up protest banners all over the factory. We’d taken a decision without knowing what we were up against.’
The next evening was the first of the workers’ formal occupation. ‘We were all inside, laid down on the floor out of fear,’ continues Adorno. ‘We’d put cardboard over the windows so nobody could see us and switched off the lights. Then we felt a noise swelling up from outside. We thought it was the police. It was coming from all sides. We didn’t know where to run to. Then someone opened a window and saw what it was – a cacerolazo!’
Armed with spoons, saucepans and tureens rather than guns, the people of Buenos Aires had spontaneously taken to the streets that very night to demand an end to President Fernando de la Rúa’s administration. The crisis that followed marked an economic nadir, but the jolt to Argentina’s grassroots has lasted. Neighbour-hood assemblies, picket groups, unemployed workers’ unions and collective enterprises have flourished while discredited government institutions and trade unions stagger on. ‘All is quiet, then someone throws a stone and out of nowhere a million follow,’ observes Osvaldo Bayer, the chief chronicler of Argentina’s labour history.
In the confines of Brukman, staff at first did not dare produce without an overlord. ‘We thought the equipment was sacred,’ remarks Adorno. But after a month of waiting and speculating, those who remained in the factory finally abandoned their scruples. Gerardo, a bespoke tailor from Naples with 52 years of experience in the trade, started chalking cloth again. The women on the shop floor took their seats at the sewing machines. Steam billowed from presses again. Volunteers set off in search of sales. Only the management suite on the first floor stayed fallow.
For the workers, the takeover has always been about achieving a living wage. The results have exceeded this goal. Once overheads have been met, wages are divided equally between all the workers: monthly pay now stands at 450 pesos ($130 in the wake of devaluation). Assemblies each week decide strategy, which a committee then seeks to put into effect – a process free of employers, though not of the rancour and rivalry that stems from such a joint effort. Committee member Celia Martínez admits that mistrust of any possible leaders is deep-seated. ‘We’re used to lies, to being used,’ she wearily observes. ‘Some time or other we have to trust again.’
Now, the Brukman crew are among the darlings of a vast popular movement that has its eyes set on bringing the country’s political establishment to its knees. Support and suit orders have poured in from the myriad groups in Argentina’s opposition front, with whom the Brukman staff often march through Buenos Aires or block roads. The model has spread. In March, 270 workers in the Zanón ceramics factory in Neuquén fired up the kilns in their own doomed plant and have since managed nearly to double wages despite three eviction orders. Around 110 factories across Argentina are now occupied or edging toward workers’ control.
In response, authorities and business leaders have retreated, but surrender is out of the question. Around 100 police officers dressed for a riot in March stormed the Brukman plant at dawn in search of activists and criminals. They found three workers and a baby – and pulled out when neighbours thronged the street in protest.
Attempts by the Brukman family to monitor the property are also unmistakable. One morning late in August, the local police chief and seven gun-toting officers arrived alongside the owner of a cloth factory who claimed to be searching for seven rolls of alpaca fabric stolen from him in a heist. For 30 agonizing minutes, under the watchful eye of volunteer lawyers and workers, the cloth magnate proceeded to compare every material in the factory with his own samples. None matched – and the police cars withdrew again.
For historian Osvaldo Bayer, who has written on the brutal repression of labour uprisings in the 1920s, Argentina’s bloody history does not bode well for such experiments: ‘Suddenly they’ll send in 1,200 policemen and break it all up. When the repression starts, it is brutal – that is our way.’ All too aware of this prospect, the staff is negotiating with government ministers for a system of state ownership combined with workers’ control. Their aim is to convert the factory into a source of work for over 1,000 people. So far, ministers have shown limited interest, a fact that Díaz puts down to their own links with business leaders in the textile trade.
As for the front window, the workers at Brukman have a better idea: scrap the suits and make hospital or school uniforms instead.
Change the rules
At a recent birthday dinner, a community worker told me about her husband’s mental breakdown. He was an architectural draftsman who’d worked with the same company for many years when it went bankrupt. As is increasingly the case in my country – Australia – the workers lost all their back-pay in addition to holiday, superannuation and long service leave entitlements: in her husband’s case tens of thousands of dollars. He went on to another company, worked many hours of unpaid overtime to help keep the company afloat… and ended up in a dark room curled up in a foetal position.
After reading about the experience of the Brukman factory workers, I wondered what could have happened if the workers in this man’s first company had just kept on going without their employers.
That’s what’s happening in Russia – in the Yasnogorsk Machine tool factory near Tula, south west of Moscow. Having worked without pay for a year, the 4,000 workers of the privatized factory discovered that the machines they’d produced were being stolen by the plant’s General Director. The outraged employees took over. They locked out the plant administration, replaced the board of directors, took a greater role in decision-making, got their back-pay and then granted themselves a 50-per-cent pay increase. Four years later, they are still going.
Meanwhile less than 150 kilometres away in the Ryazan textile plant, 290 women workers fought against their firm’s bankruptcy and liquidation in 1999 by using fire engines to blockade demolition equipment heading for their factory. Then they too steadily worked on to achieve back-pay, wage increases and more control in decision-making.
These two factories are among 40 ‘protest firms’ now operating throughout Russia. ‘No-one hears or reads about [these firms] in Russian or international media,’ says John Simmons, who has worked in project partnerships with both the World Bank since the 1970s and some 200 Russian firms since the late 1980s. ‘The last thing the oligarchs want people to see are the happy faces of employees who have just replaced their bosses.’1
The economies of Argentina and Russia are in meltdown. It would be easy to sideline their experiences as having sprung from extreme circumstances. But viewed another way, workers at factories like Brukman and Yasnogorsk have – from necessity – opened the door to another political space. Their experience is that, in a globalized world where bankruptcies and asset-stripping shut down workplaces and leave wage earners without pay and entitlements, traditional methods like walking off the job are simply useless. So they’ve reversed strike action: rather than withdrawing their labour they’ve kept it going. And when they haven’t been paid what they were owed, they’ve asserted a moral mortgage over the goods they’ve produced and the equipment with which they’ve worked. After all, banks call in their debts all the time – why not the people most affected?Chris Richards
- ‘Transforming Russian Enterprises: Performance, Ownership and Management’: a lecture given for the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington DC on 4 March 2002.
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