Worker-Owned Factories. Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Recognition that Deepens Reform.
Researcher: Dr. Carlos Forment. Associate Professor in the Departments of Sociology and Politics at the New School for Social Research---Graduate Faculty.
Project Description:At the height of Argentina's 2002 economic crisis, thousands of workers in Buenos Aires faced losing their jobs as factories closed in bankruptcy. A decade later, more than two hundred worker-owned factories employing 16,000 workers (who in turn support roughly 100,000 dependents) have successfully brought production back from the brink. These fábricas recuperadas engage in profitable business ventures across the city with businessmen and bankers who have overcome the stigma of association with the working class. The city government has collaborated by creating the legal framework for this transformation from privately-owned, bankrupt firms to worker-owned cooperatives, thus establishing an institutional commitment to new forms of ownership and use of economic resources.
As a result of the 2000-2003 economic crisis in Argentina, many factory owners declared bankruptcy and closed their factories. In response to this threat to their livelihoods and identities, groups of workers took over some of the factories and resumed production themselves. Today two hundred fábricas recuperadas (worker-run factories) employ 16,000 workers who would have otherwise been un- or under-employed and, these workers in turn support roughly 100,000 dependents.
The city government of Buenos Aires played a pivotal role in establishing the legal framework for this transformation from privately-owned, bankrupt firms to worker-owned cooperatives, thus establishing an institutional commitment to new forms of ownership and use of economic resources. As a result, cooperatives in Buenos Aires work closely with the municipal government and compete successfully in market terms.
The existence of these worker-run, 'recuperated' factories challenges conventional practices of industrial ownership and labor relations, and the relationships that worker-owners have established with suppliers, sub-contractors, and buyers are fraught with tension. Within the now cooperatively-run factories, workers understand themselves in new ways, emphasizing their own competence and the value of collective decision-making and rejecting the notion that the presence of a boss is either necessary or just. At the same time, workers disagree about the need for social welfare programs, hold a variety of views of unemployed workers, and make a range of contentious choices about maintaining equality among workers or reestablishing new forms of hierarchy. Born out of crisis in the neo-liberal model, the fábricas recuperadas used legal and market mechanisms to address in a new way the economic needs of those workers most threatened by financial and industrial globalization.
While the conservative press and most of the private sector oppose the fábricas recuperadas and the very idea of worker ownership and management, the fábricas engage in profitable business ventures across the city with businessmen and bankers who have overcome the stigma of association with workers, resisting pressure from other capitalist-owned firms and breaking rank with their own class. Businesspeople who interact with the fábricas often initiated these commercial relationships through necessity, having only the recuperated factories as customers for particular products or sellers of needed inputs. Commercial relationships also resulted from chance networks of personal connection, as when a worker at one enterprise facilitated contact between the owner of that enterprise and workers at a recuperated factory. In such cases, in the absence of a clear "owner" responsible for fulfilling contracts, businesspeople initially engaged with the fábricas only reluctantly, refusing to extend credits or afford forms of flexibility granted to regular capitalist firms in similar circumstances.
As a result of these ongoing commercial contacts, however, businesspeople changed their views of workers. They began to see workers as competent at a range of tasks, including managerial decisions, as dignified human beings, and as members of society deserving of secure work and social rights. Businesspeople who did business with the fábricas began to compare the workers favorably to the previous owners, because the owners had run their factories into the ground, often absconding with equipment and funds at the moment of bankruptcy, while the workers demonstrated ongoing commitment to sound and successful business practices and enduring commercial relationships, including openness to the needs of the businesspeople themselves for reliable and high-quality production. In contrast, businesspeople who had no direct contact with the worker-owned factories continued to oppose their very existence and view the workers as inferiors without dignity.
Political recognition thus came about not through electoral, party politics, or the application of political ideology to pressing issues, but rather through the practical experiences of workers and businesspeople as they grappled with an unprecedented economic crisis. Workers and businessmen sometimes coincided in their judgments of each other and in their assessment of a range of issues central to public life, and at other times they did not. Overall, the differences that separated them were fluid, indicating that the two groups could be, in the course of pursuing their own business interests and practicing politics, brought together into an alliance in support of enduring reforms.
In Buenos Aires, we see recognition of workers by those businesspeople who engaged in commercial relations with the worker-owned factories (fábricas recuperadas). Through the experience of day-to-day commercial relations with the fábricas recuperadas, these businesspeople changed their minds and began to use a language of recognition, with their business practices falling into line with their new beliefs about the capacities and rights of workers.
Experience leads businesspeople to recognize formerly excluded groups as citizens deserving respect where a crisis has destabilized both economic growth and class identities, as occurred in Argentina in 2001-2002. In Porto Alegre, where there was no comparable crisis, businesspeople who attended participatory budgeting meetings and gained favorable results did not revise their negative opinions of the capacities of poor people or the value of democratic participation.
National Movement of Worker-Owned Factories website
Argentine Federation of Worker Cooperatives website
Video on worker-owned factories from the film Beyond Elections
Open Faculty Program on Worker-Owned Factories, University of Buenos Aires
Fajn, Gabriel. 2003. Fábricas y empresas recuperadas: protesta social, autogestión y rupturas en la subjectividad. Buenos Aires, Centro Cultural de la Cooperación.
Monteagudo, Graciela. 2008. "The Clean Walls of a Recovered Factory: New Subjectivities in Argentina's Recovered Factories." Urban Anthropology, Vol 37 (2), 175-210.
Rebón, Julián. 2007. La empresa de la autonomía: tabajadores recuperando la producción. Buenos Aires, Colectivo Ediciones.