: This essay is excerpted from the introduction to Sin Patrón: Argentina’s Worker-Run Factories, by the Lavaca Collective (Haymarket).
On March 19, 2003, we were on the roof of the Zanón ceramic tile factory, filming an interview with Cepillo. He was showing us how the workers fended off eviction by armed police, defending their democratic workplace with slingshots and the little ceramic balls normally used to pound the Patagonian clay into raw material for tiles. His aim was impressive. It was the day the bombs started falling on Baghdad.
As journalists, we had to ask ourselves what we were doing there. What possible relevance could there be in this one factory at the southernmost tip of our continent, with its band of radical workers and its David and Goliath narrative, when bunker-busting apocalypse was descending on Iraq?
But we, like so many others, had been drawn to Argentina to witness firsthand an explosion of activism in the wake of its 2001 crisis–a host of dynamic new social movements that were not only advancing a bitter critique of the economic model that had destroyed their country, but were busily building local alternatives in the rubble.
There were many popular responses to the crisis, from neighborhood assemblies and barter clubs, to resurgent left-wing parties and mass movements of the unemployed, but we spent most of our year in Argentina with workers in “recovered companies.” Almost entirely under the media radar, workers in Argentina have been responding to rampant unemployment and capital flight by taking over traditional businesses that have gone bankrupt and are reopening them under democratic worker management. It’s an old idea reclaimed and retrofitted for a brutal new time. The principles are so simple, so elementally fair, that they seem more self-evident than radical when articulated by one of the workers in this book: “We formed the cooperative with the criteria of equal wages and making basic decisions by assembly; we are against the separation of manual and intellectual work; we want a rotation of positions and, above all, the ability to recall our elected leaders.”
The movement of recovered companies is not epic in scale–some 170 companies, around 10,000 workers in Argentina. But six years on, and unlike some of the country’s other new movements, it has survived and continues to build quiet strength in the midst of the country’s deeply unequal “recovery.” Its tenacity is a function of its pragmatism: This is a movement that is based on action, not talk. And its defining action, reawakening the means of production under worker control, while loaded with potent symbolism, is anything but symbolic. It is feeding families, rebuilding shattered pride, and opening a window of powerful possibility.
Like a number of other emerging social movements around the world, the workers in the recovered companies are rewriting the traditional script for how change is supposed to happen. Rather than following anyone’s ten-point plan for revolution, the workers are darting ahead of the theory–at least, straight to the part where they get their jobs back. In Argentina, the theorists are chasing after the factory workers, trying to analyze what is already in noisy production.