The four star Hotel Bauen sits in the centre of the Argentinian capital, Buenos Aires. At first glance it looks no different from any similar establishment. The staff are less servile than those in your average luxury hotel, otherwise it’s business as usual.
Its guests seem oblivious to the fact that the company has been under workers’ control since 2003. The Bauen and its history are in many ways typical of a growing movement across Argentina that now has over 200 workplaces without owners or bosses.
Federico Tonarelli and Jorge Suarez explained the history of the building and its occupation.
In 1978, Argentina’s brutal military dictatorship worked with private business to build the hotel for the football world cup. Following years of mismanagement, and the siphoning of profits into bank accounts overseas, the hotel went bust in 2001 as the country was hit by economic crisis.
Then in 2003 a group of 35 unemployed workers occupied the derelict site. They planned to run the hotel collectively, even though the previous owners had stripped everything of value from the building and vandalised what they could not take.
Workers at other occupied workplaces provided what help they could. The occupied Zanon factory, for example, provided the ceramics for the interior and donated money for equipment.
A large cash injection also came from Venezuela after a touring symphony orchestra from the country visited the project and then secured funds from the embassy. The hotel reopened in March 2004.
“The hotel is now run as a workers’ project,” said Federico. “All decisions are taken collectively by assembly. The hours we work, how much we pay ourselves, whether to make modifications, how to build new parts.
“We took the idea from the neighbourhood assemblies that sprung up during the economic crisis of 2001-2. It was something new for all of us, but the hotel now functions better than when there was a boss.
“We still have much to learn and are learning all the time, but this is key to the struggle and also to the struggle of the national movement of occupied workplaces.
“The main idea is that instead of being represented by a trade union bureaucracy that’s bought off by the government, we can organise ourselves, we can take decisions democratically and run companies collectively.”
Many of Argentina’s unions are still influenced by Peronism. This ideology originated in the mid-1940s when populist army officer Juan Peron took power and was able to deliver some reforms for workers in exchange for union backing for the government. For many workers, the unions are still viewed as being too close to the Argentinian state.
Trade union leaders have generally been less than supportive of the occupation movement. “Unfortunately the bureaucracy is very strong in our union,” the workers told us. “They were completely against our action at a time when we were permanently under threat of eviction by the authorities.”
The threat of eviction became a reality for the workers at Brukman, a clothing factory that we visited in a neighbouring district. An occupation by workers breathed life back into this bankrupt business, but the boss tried to make a comeback, leading to a violent battle for control.
Two of the veteran occupiers, Delicia and Juan Carlos, explained their struggle to us: “The first eviction attempt came three months after our occupation began. Police in riot gear removed five people who were staying overnight.
“We activated our telephone tree and within minutes hundreds of people from the neighbourhood assemblies, student groups and campaigning organisations had arrived, and it was the police who were evicted from the building.”
There was a new eviction attempt eight months later. Juan Carlos was one of five people looking after the building. He said, “They came at 2am, more of them than the previous time. I was pinned to the floor. I had my hands tied behind my back and a gun held to my head like some kind of terrorist.”
The workers, one of them accompanied by their seven year old daughter, were taken to a maximum security jail on the outskirts of the city. They were locked up with Argentina’s most hardened and violent criminals.
“They refused to tell us where the workers were being held,” said Delicia. Eventually they were released with serious charges hanging over them. But the outrage of the community was now at boiling point. The police, bosses and scabs were evicted from the factory under a hail of stones and bottles by over 7,000 demonstrators from the community and assemblies.
Again the workers re-entered the factory and resumed control of production.
Six months later the final eviction by the authorities was the most violent.
Hundreds of police and special forces threw out the workers and militarised the area with huge barriers to stop them returning.
Two days later, the workers attempted to return along with 7,000 supporters. They were met with extreme force. Tear gas and baton rounds were fired and over 100 people were arrested, some dragged by their hair from hospital beds. Juan Carlos was found face down near the breached barrier, unconscious, with seven rubber bullet wounds.
The workers began a legal process and set up a protest camp near the police barrier which lasted for over eight months. Finally they won their case and were able to return legally.
Juan Carlos remembers the mess left by the owners. “Machines had been destroyed, everything was dirty and stuff was piled everywhere,” he said.
“We thought the Americans had mistaken it for Iraq and bombed it!” With local and international support the factory reopened and remains operational to this day.
Local solidarity has also been key to the success of the Zanon ceramics factory in Neuquen near Patagonia – the oldest, biggest and most overtly political of the occupations. We were given a tour of the site by Rodrigo Arratraro.
The factory has been threatened with eviction five times. On each occasion police and bailiffs backed down when they saw the opposition.
“The only reason we are here today is because of the support of the community. The authorities don’t want to risk the political cost of evicting us,” said Rodrigo.
Neuquen’s teachers have traditionally been the most militant workers in the area – the day before we arrived they blockaded the main motorway as part of a pay dispute.
During one of the eviction attempts they wrote to every parent in the area and mobilised 10,000 local people outside the factory gates.
Meanwhile the workers barricaded themselves inside and used homemade catapults to fire ceramic ammunition at intruders.
Workers at Zanon have returned the solidarity shown by the teachers. We were shown a huge consignment of custom made alphabet tiles that will be used in local primary schools.
For the time being the the government of Nestor Kirchner is tolerating the occupation movement. Occupations are seen as a defensive tactic, used by workers to protect their jobs, and in most cases managers have already fled.
However, if the movement grows it could present a greater threat to Argentina’s elite. Many of the people we spoke to recently attended an occupied factories conference in Venezuela, hosted by the country’s radical trade unions.
It was a chance to share experiences and discuss whether the movement could pose a challenge to the status quo.
Whatever the outcome of these debates, the occupations give a living example of how bosses and trade unions prepared to collaborate with them are surplus to requirements.