Owning Upwards

How workers in Argentina have taken over failing firms, and turned them around

by Nina Fowler

Since the 2001 economic crisis in Argentina, around 200 businesses and factories have been occupied by their workers and turned into cooperatives, a phenomenon known as the recovered factory movement. Nina Fowler reports from the factory floor of the movement’s flagship, FASINPAT.

In the south of Argentina, the workers of a certain ceramics factory are hosting a major rock gig. Thousands of locals are arriving by car, bus, bicycle ; others, from Neuquen’s north-eastern barrios, have made the ten kilometre route from the city centre on foot. Our mecca is not just about the music. FASINPAT, formerly known as Ceramica Zanon, is the flagship of Argentina’s recovered factory movement and, after eight years of illegal and semi-legal occupation, the workers have finally been awarded full expropriation.

As the headline act, Attaque 77, sets up their gear, Omar Villablanca, secretary-general of the FASINPAT collective, takes the stage. “Once again chicos, once again muchachos, we have a factory without bosses and a festival without police. This is how we show the people who govern us that we can look after ourselves, by ourselves!”

Strong words. Coupled with straining rock guitar, footage of local police brutality projected on a big screen and four thousand chanting Argentine youths, Villanova’s speech reads like a Trotskyist’s wet dream, yet a return visit to the factory revealed a different side to the FASINPAT story.

Welcome to FASINPAT

The route to Neuquen’s industrial parkland cuts through kilometres of rolling, arid hills. This is dinosaur bone and petrol country, fine soil ideally suited to ceramics manufacture. There are four such factories in the area and FASINPAT, with a production capacity of up to 5000 square metres of tiles a day, is the largest ceramics factory in South America.

The slogan at the factory entrance reads “We Keep Working, We Keep Fighting”. Inside, the atmosphere is relaxed, familial. Yerba mate, a green leaf tea typical to Argentina, is shared outside a work station and several dogs roam amongst the machines. The departure from typical top-down working dynamic is obvious. “If you were caught drinking mate under [previous owner Luis] Zanon”, agrees guide Jose Luis, “you’d be kicked out straight away. Here, we’re more like a family.”

Jose Luis is one of the founding FASINPAT members. Of the 150 workers who originally took over the factory in 2001, only around 30 remain. The rest of the collective’s 460 members have been integrated gradually from a pool of friends, family and those known to need work. Women and residents of Neuquen’s poorer barrios are better represented than under Zanon. International media attention, most notably Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis’ documentary The Take has also brought more than a few foreigners to the factory floor; two visitors from Switzerland and Colorado stayed on to learn the trade and an Italian has just left after close to a year.

Alberto ‘Kico’ Esparza has worked in the press (ceramics, not media) section of the factory since 1997. He traces the story of Zanon and FASINPAT back to the recovery of the factory labour union in 1998, previously under the indirect control of factory bosses. The new union leadership began immediate work towards increased unity on the factory floor. “Like all modern factories, Zanon was very segregated,” recalls Esparza. “Even the colour of our uniforms. When we began to work in a more unified way, this continued outside the factory with football and social activities.”

In 2000, representatives from the reinvigorated Zanon union won control of the provincial ceramics union and began lobbying in earnest for improved working conditions. After the death of 22-year old Daniel Ferrás as the result of inadequate factory medical facilities, union members held an eight-day strike, taking to the streets in protest for the first time.

At the end of September 2001, after three years of increasing union activism, Luis Zanon locked the factory gates and sent telegrams of dismissal to all 250 workers. The union was organised in preparation for the closure. In the weeks prior, Zanon had closed the factory’s medical and transport services and shut off the ovens, normally left running 24-seven. By the time the factory doors were locked, the workers were owed three months of back pay.

“We were ready for [the closure] says Esparza. “We’d won previous fights but Zanon had stopped investing in primary materials and machinery. The bosses were abandoning the factory, it was clear that a clash was coming.”

Taking the factory

The 2001 closure of Ceramica Zanon occurred at a time of national economic crisis. Public panic regarding Argentina’s escalating foreign debt led to a nation-wide bank run, and, as a result, a nation-wide bank account freeze dubbed the corralito. Citizens from every strata of society rioted in the streets and the country tore through five presidents in two weeks.

While Zanon’s problems were internal rather than external, the dilemma faced by the workers’ union was not an isolated case. As factories and businesses folded across the country, thousands of workers were left locked out and waiting for wages.

“We always try to analyse our problem, to see that the situation in our factory was not one of chance,” says Esparza. “The way we see it, the problem wasn’t that Luis Zanon was a bad boss. Many businesses were working to the same criteria and making similar decisions.”

The reaction of Zanon’s workers to their factory’s closure set them apart. After five months of sit-down strikes, mobilisations and camping outside the factory in tents, a group of around 150 workers decided to re-enter the factory and resume production. The occupation was driven by necessity rather than ideology – without other employment options or functional social support services, the workers and their families were desperate. “From the first day,” says Esparza, “our primary objective was to maintain a source of income.”

Within a few months, ten new jobs had been created and a first shipment of 20 000 tiles had been dispatched. By February 2003, almost a year after the initial occupation, another 30 jobs had been created. In February 2004, with production up to 120 000 square metres of tiles per month, the workers formed a co-operative and renamed the factory FASINPAT, an abbreviation of fabrica sin patrones (“factory without bosses”).

Factory owner Luis Zanon, one of Argentina’s business elite, did not take well to the co-operative’s fledgling success. Legal action to reclaim the factory was initiated and five attempts were made to evict the workers using police operatives. Union representatives received death threats, and a woman associated with the factory was subjected to multiple violent attacks. [1]

On 14 August 2009, after eight years of occupation, the provincial legislature awarded the FASINPAT co-operative full and indefinite legal expropriation of the factory. As part of the expropriation deal, the state of Neuquen agreed to pay off the factory’s $23m peso (NZ$8.5m) debt, owed by Luis Zanon to the World Bank and Italian company SACMY as major creditors.

Una fabrica del pueblo

The support of the local community proved crucial to the success of the occupation. In April 2003, up to 5000 people, including organised piquetero protest groups, turned up to protect the workers from eviction procedures. According to Esparza, public opinion was also the ultimate decider in the decision to expropriate the factory. “[The support of the public] gave us the exit,” he says. “[The provincial government] knew that if they didn’t expropriate the factory, they’d have to pay the political cost.”

The relationship between FASINPAT and the people of Neuquen runs both ways. The factory regularly donates tiles to community projects and tries to provide work for those most in need. In 2004, the co-operative built a public health centre in the rural community of Nueva España and, in 2006, a house for a local family who had lost both parents in an accident. The next project on the books is a public school on the factory premises for workers who have not completed primary and secondary schooling.

The workers host music and cultural festivals a few times a year to further cement their relationship with the local community. “We’ve always tried to show that the factory is a public space, not private property,” says Esparza. “The festivals also demonstrate that the factory is doing fine, that people can come visit and drink mate at the factory any day. We want to finish the lies that we are a rebel group, radical leftists, Trotskyists; that the factory is bankrupt, broken.”

Over 200 businesses and factories in Argentina have been recovered by their workers since the 2001 national economic crisis, and provide a total of over 13 000 jobs. [2] The late 2008 global financial crisis has triggered several new factory occupations, including Kraft-owned biscuit factory Terrabusi. FASINPAT, as both the largest recovered factory and the first to win full expropriation, has inevitably been placed in the role of mentor and, inevitably, developed a reputation as the spearhead of a modern-day Worker’s Revolution.

Esparza agrees that the recovered factories and businesses represent an alternative political system. “It is a struggle against the system that, for us, took us to the point where we had to defend our right to work against our boss. It is an alternative to the system where, if you lose your job, you’re left reliant on luck to find another job or, worse, reliant on a government subsidy.”

That said, he cautions against treating the phenomenon as an organised and ideologically-founded movement. “Each experience is extremely diverse. Some, like ours, we occupied and then stayed put until they gave us the factory. Others knew a bankruptcy was coming and, in some cases, formed a co-operative to take charge of the industry. Others made a deal between the workers and the old bosses. [Terrabusi] is an experience with important similarities [to FASINPAT] but on a different stage, we’re talking about nearly 3000 workers.”

While FASINPAT is providing legal advice to the Terrabusi union and helping with publicity, Esparza insists that the Terrabusi workers are being left to develop their own solution to the factory closure. “There’s no slogan and it’s not about us creating political or populist occupations. For example, next to us we’ve got another ceramics factory, the Ceramica Neuquen, but our union representatives would never interfere and say to the workers ´bueno, if there’s not a solution, we’ll occupy the factory and take over production.´”

While many members of the Neuquen community are supportive, FASINPAT workers have had to struggle against the ‘stigma of the left’ since their occupation began. “For us it was like suddenly there was this idea, this mystique, this dogma – ‘oh look, Zanon’s gone lefty, they’re all leftists’”, says Esparza. “Any moment, you might pass your next-door neighbour on the street on your way to work and he has transformed you into a social militant, a representative of the working class. He sees you differently.”

“For the community, politics is something linear,” he explains, “something for those who wear a suit and tie and campaign for votes. The rest of us don’t have the right, capacity or reason to be ‘political’. This is the conception. So if you argue, put yourself into the middle of this, they think you want something out of it. In reality, after eight years, yeah, I do want something more out of this but primarily I am here to work with my compañeros.”

Esparza believes that biased media coverage is largely to blame for FASINPAT’s distorted reputation as a radical socialist haven. “If you can’t share a mate with your neighbours, play a game of football with your friends, something is wrong,” he says. “We’ve always said that the best that can happen is that you [the media] come here and see what is Zanon. If not, we run the risk that each person demonstrates the reality that they want to see, in line with their own interests.”

The next chapter

The FASINPAT struggle has not ended with the expropriation of the factory. The late 2008 global financial crisis hit Argentina’s construction industry hard, and factory production is down to just half of full capacity. Worse, FASINPAT is the only factory in the province to pay full price for gas and electricity – a total of close to a million pesos per month. Under Luis Zanon, a close friend of former Neuquen governor Jorge Sobisch, the factory recieved an 80% power subsidy. Today, the workers´ co-operative is lobbying for permission to buy gas and electricity from the province at wholesale prices, and for the government to treat FASINPAT as a default ceramics supplier for public works.

Despite an uncertain commercial future, Esparza has no regrets about the way he and his compañeros chose to defend their right to work. “There is a social justice, a criminal justice, and a commercial justice,” he says. “If we’d waited around for the laws to give us justice, we would have lost out on all three.”

Footnotes:

[1] Benjamin Dangl. ´Member of worker-run factory in Argentina kidnapped, tortured´. http://www.zmag.org/znet/viewArticle/6717
[2] Marie Trigona. ´FASINPAT: A factory that belongs to the people´. http://americas.irc-online.org/am/6400

Nina Fowler is a Wellington based former Salient writer who occasionally returns to South America.