The pollen and the bees

Thousands of Argentineans have set up co-ops to save their bankrupt workplaces from closure. Joseph Huff-Hannon reports on their experience.

NEW arrivals in Rosario often find it hard to pass up a shot of espresso or a milanesa sandwich at a nondescript café inside the main bus terminal. Argentineans are endearingly loyal to their gastronomic habits, and here in Rosario they can afford to be loyal to their politics as well, though their taste buds might not know the difference.

Nubecoop is the first ‘fast-food' co-op in the country, run by its workers since January 2003, after they had occupied the premises illegally for over a year. The restaurant's monthly profits are now shared equally by the nine employees. ‘Now we take home 1,000 pesos each. Before we earned 400,' says Walter Martínez, who has put in 12 years making coffee and drinks behind the bar.

While the members of the co-op work more hours now than they did under the old boss, you won't hear Martínez waxing nostalgic about him. ‘We may have more responsibilities now, but there are fewer pressures. And working without a boss is priceless.'

Nubecoop is just one example of a growing ‘franchise' in Argentina: worker-run ‘recovered' businesses. A characteristic of these new co-ops is their diversity: a refrigerator factory in Tierra del Fuego, schools in Buenos Aires, an auto-parts factory in the city's suburbs, a newspaper in the city of Córdoba and the largest ceramics factory in Latin America – Zanón in Patagonia.

Since capital flight and currency devaluation unleashed a devastating economic depression at the close of 2001, over 200 failing businesses in Argentina have been occupied, legally expropriated and reopened as worker co-ops.

In December 2001, when city squares nationwide were taken over by angry citizens, few predicted that the accepted wisdom about how to run a business would come crashing down with the Government. But across the country that wisdom is being hotly disputed.

Thousands of traditional businesses were declared bankrupt after the currency devaluation of 2002, and tens of thousands of Argentineans were forced into collecting cardboard in the streets for a living.

So far, not one of the new worker co-ops has gone out of business. They employ over 15,000 people. Almost all of these jobs are the end result of months of struggle. Workers often live in their bankrupt businesses to resist eviction and lawsuits from the former owners. They face all manner of roadblocks to stop them formalizing their coops and getting the businesses back up and running.

This is why they have come to be known as the ‘recovered' workplace or factory movement. From the ruins of a dying business, time and again people have banded together and fought to recover what has meant most to them, in a country with record unemployment and growing poverty – their jobs and their dignity.

Farewell, old Argentina ‘Of course it is easier to have nice vacations in the summer and winter, teach your class and go home,' says Veronica Mohr, one of the teachers at the Communications Institute, a co-operatively run school in Buenos Aires. ‘But maybe we chose this because we see that in Argentina today that way of life is over. And we see that we'll have to redo many things to change the reality of this country.'

The challenges involved are the same here as elsewhere. Salaries are equal, issues are discussed among all, every member has a vote and decisions are made in an open assembly. In this nation of talkers, such assemblies can drag on for hours.

Abel, another teacher at the school, has an ironic take: ‘Sometimes the assemblies overflow with talk, but resolve very little. I think that we are very democratic, and in fact we discuss some of the smallest issues that perhaps don't even need to be discussed – what to do with the keys, etc – where really someone should just say: “Okay, we'll do it like that. Enough already!”'

The birth of these worker co-ops generally follows a pattern. After months of receiving a fraction – or nothing at all – of their wages, employees are informed of impending bankruptcy and told to vacate the premises. Sometimes the owners simply disappear in the dead of night, taking with them valuable machinery or inventory.

Argentinean bankruptcy law – rewritten during the manic privatization spree of the 1990s – leaves no room for doubt that a functioning factory or workshop will soon be sold off and end up as so much scrap metal. The corruption of the process is blatant. Judges are bought off, companies are reacquired at a pittance of their value by former owners, workers are left with their hands empty.

In ‘recovered' businesses, however, workers choose not to sit on their hands. They refuse to stop using them. They ‘strike' by working.

Like bees in a field of wild flowers, the glimmer of hope offered by this movement is pollinating organically

‘Something that should be clarified is that we don't take over businesses that are functioning and paying salaries,' says Cándido, a member of the Chilavert printing press in Buenos Aires, one of the first businesses to be occupied and reopened as a co-op in 2002. ‘We are taking businesses that have been abandoned by their owners.'

Chilavert is now a venerable ‘grandfather' of this new family. ‘The most distinctive feature of this co-operative is that it wasn't won merely by its eight workers,' says Cándido. ‘It was also won by the neighbours; the teacher, the plumber, the grandmother from the neighbourhood who came out and fought off the police, who helped stop the eviction attempt.'

The law and more

After winning the legal right to run the company, the co-op's next task was to create something new out of the old – a new way of working together. ‘To be honest, we took over the premises in a reflexive act to save our jobs. Afterwards, when we formed the co-operative and started to make purchases and look over the accounting records on the computer – that is when this new idea starts turning around in your head.'

Like many a good idea, this one has taken on a life of its own. On a lazy spring day in 2003 the exemployees of the downtown Hotel Bauen met at Chilavert to discuss occupying the abandoned four-star hotel that had been their place of work for years. Months later, the employees of a small airline teetering on the edge of bankruptcy had the same conversation, this time at the Hotel Bauen, by now legally expropriated and managed by the Callao Co-operative.

Like bees in a field of wild flowers, the glimmer of hope offered by this movement is pollinating organically – complete with legal staff and political organizers who help to propel the process.

The National Movement of Recovered Businesses is one of numerous umbrella organizations that support the birth and growth of the co-ops. It is no easy task to restart production at a bankrupt business under the continual threat of eviction. The legal battle is, however, often the most ferocious and important. The occupations may have popular legitimacy, but it is legal expropriation that gives them the protection they need to keep working.

The Constitution of Argentina provides for the right to work. In bankruptcy proceedings the movement's lawyers make the case for the workers as ‘priority creditors'. They are often owed hundreds of thousands of dollars in back pay. With 20-per-cent unemployment, and widespread public fury with politicians, city and provincial legislatures have frequently found this a convincing argument. In case after case, legislation has handed failed businesses over to newly formed co-ops.

The framework of a co-op is, however, not always the most appropriate. After the owners attempted to close it down, Clínica Medrano, a health clinic, was occupied and run for two years by 25 employees. In December 2003 the co-op chose to be absorbed into the public healthcare system of Buenos Aires.

‘The heart of our struggle was the defence of our jobs,' says Alberto Bianco, one of the medics at the clinic. ‘We formed the cooperative within that framework. But we never said that healthcare issues can or will be solved by forming hundreds of co-operatives in the country. Healthcare has to be provided by the State – that is its obligation.'

What matters

When the clinic functioned cooperatively it provided services to workers from other co-operatives, as part of an informal healthcare ‘ plan'. Despite a collective work arrangement and the equitable sharing of profits, the nature of the ‘product' mattered. According to Daniel Coria: ‘Healthcare is different. We didn't realize it but are learning that now. We couldn't make a living. We lived off handouts, bags of food, but no real earnings.'

This is what it comes down to. The raison d'être of the movement is the preservation of jobs and a dignified life. People who have worked 10, 20, 30 years under a boss have to change everything about their working lives, often in unexpected ways, just to hold on to their livelihood. People are not simply ‘reclaiming' their old jobs. They are also claiming new rights in the old workplace – the right to democratic decision-making, to discuss issues or grievances, to take on new responsibilities.

Every month brings news of a new occupation or co-op. These are rights many more Argentineans would relish having. But not everyone is happy. At the Chilavert printing press, Cándido claims the old boss still stops by now and again, ‘to give us a hard time. He even said recently that he wants to come back and work with us. Not in a million years.’

Joseph Huff-Hannon worked as a translator and researcher on The Take, a documentary film commissioned by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation about new social movements in Argentina in 2003. Many of the interviews in this feature were conducted during that time, others are more recent, and still others were obtained with permission from