Argentine Workers Build New Economy

The Brukman textile workers profiled in “Starting Over” (YES!, Fall 2002) are now back to work after being violently evicted by police in April 2003. A court in December declared the factory bankrupt and turned it into a state-owned company under worker control.

The clothing plant was abandoned by owners who, workers say, owed them back wages. Workers renamed it the December 18 factory, commemorating the day they began operating it themselves. The owners claim the factory was illegally taken over by the workers.

Worker-run factories like Brukman have continued to operate successfully in Argentina since the 2001 economic collapse caused many businesses to go bankrupt. At a recent national seminar sponsored by the National Movement for Recuperated Businesses (MNER), coordinator Jose Abelli estimated that newly recuperated businesses are putting 15,000 workers to work. Some of them, like Brukman, seek eventual state ownership, while others want to remain independent cooperatives.

“We're demonstrating that success is not profit but the creation of work and social inclusion,” said coordinator Eduardo Murua, according to the Argentine website

MNER is working to revise the national bankcruptcy law to give workers a say in what happens to bankrupt businesses and create a state fund that would assist worker cooperatives. It is also creating a fund to use profits made by more successful co-ops to assist struggling businesses.

Two other movements that erupted after Argentina's plunge into economic crisis, urban barter clubs and neighborhood assemblies, have fared less well. The clubs eventually collapsed when people ran out of items to trade and corruption and counterfeiting of barter “credits” invaded the clubs. The streetcorner neighborhood assemblies, which once held as many as 200 people each, have shrunk to smaller groups of 10 to 30 asambleistas who nevertheless continue to organize health and cultural fairs, soup kitchens, and seminars.

This year activists hosted an “international autonomous January” in Buenos Aires that drew activists from around the world to discuss grassroots organizations like the Argentine assemblies, the piquetero unemployed groups, whose activities range from roadblock protests to farming collectives, and the Mexican Zapatistas, who emphasize local autonomy and horizontal political structures.

Though economists have seen a slight improvement in the country's outlook, the unemployment rate remains at 20 percent, more than half of Argentines live in poverty, and one in four doesn't have enough for a basic meal.

In the 2003 presidential elections, Argentines overwhelmingly rejected neoliberal Carlos Menem's bid to return to power, in favor of center leftist Nestor Kirchner. Kirchner has taken a tough stance with the IMF and gone after human rights violators from the military era, though he has received some criticism for allowing repression and criminalization of the piqueteros. Argentine activists have successfully pressured the government to reject planned military “games” by the United States on Argentine territory.

“We are not just workers taking back our jobs,” said Murua. “What we want is an entirely different model for our country.”

Lisa Garrigues is a YES! contributing editor.

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