Workplaces of all kinds have been occupied – from textiles, printing and metallurgy, to ceramics and industrial bakeries. Schools, hotels and supermarkets have also been occupied.
Across Argentina more than 200 workplaces have been “recovered”, as the occupation movement puts it. The high point came with the crisis of December 2001. Two months before that the banking system collapsed, and the devaluation that followed produced a series of bankruptcies.
The occupations were a response to this crisis. Most were carried out by employees of firms that were in the hands of creditors, or others that were bankrupt or on the verge of bankruptcy.
Workers decided to occupy and maintain production rather than become unemployed. Today they are an example for the working class everywhere. The occupation movement coincided with the growth of popular assemblies and the rising activity of the unemployed workers (known as piqueteros).
Actions by the piqueteros were crucial at a time when employed workers were paralysed by the fear of unemployment.
Today some of the occupied workplaces have become the flag bearers of the movement, like the Zanon plant or the Bauen Hotel.
There are probably no more than 10,000 workers directly involved in occupation – yet they are politically and ideologically key in the debates across Argentinian society.
Why, they ask, should the right to property be more important than the right to work? Their answer was to impose a different set of values, in which the maintenance of the labour force rules over the logic of profit.
To date, no government has been willing to support this workers’ victory with legislation, nor accede to the workers’ demands for a law of expropriation of bankrupt plants.
Some cases were resolved individually, and some expropriations were put in place by reluctant legislatures, but these have set no legal precedent.
The Hotel Bauen cooperative, for example, has been refused control of the building despite the fact that its owner built the hotel during the last military dictatorship with a bank credit for millions of pesos which he never repaid.
Those on the right have loudly called on shareholders to refuse to allow their capital to be used to save bankrupt firms. They argue that workers are parasitic on society – an extraordinary argument when it is the capitalist class that has been rescued from each collapse.
By occupying, workers are not just questioning property rights, but the whole relationship between workers and bosses in which the foreman dictates and the workers obey.
The occupations have shown that workers can continue production without the bosses and their legions of unproductive inspectors. This has led them to question the idea that the creative power to increase social wealth lies only with capital.
Now not only can the workers produce, they can also discuss how to produce, rotate different tasks, learn new ones, and democratically determine deadlines and working time.
This revolution in practice has produced a revolution in consciousness too – a challenge to an ideology which up to now would have been unimaginable without hierarchies, subordination and obedience. This has produced a re-politicising of social and labour relations.
It has strengthened class consciousness – not only in terms of the confrontation with the bosses, but also in terms of class solidarity and workers’ control.
The ruling class has now turned the process that began in 2001 in a new direction. The Kirchner government, with its populist and nationalist message, has gathered significant popular support despite the fact that it has essentially continued the policies of previous neo-liberal governments.
The economy is growing at 9 percent annually, unemployment is falling and fewer firms are closing. Although the occupied factories are in many cases organised democratically and without internal hierarchies, they still have to compete on the market, and that affects the way they are run.
Commercial and production priorities often pressure workers to change their priorities, abandon the street, and with it the solidarity and unity of the class. And that pressure also acts to reproduce internal hierarchy.
Given the current period of political stability there are real risks that many firms will become commercial cooperatives bereft of any sense of struggle.
The only response is to continue to develop political consciousness within the movement, and to ensure the highest level of participation and solidarity among workers.
The Recovered Factories Movement (MNER), which includes most of the occupied plants, is divided organisationally and ideologically. It is crucial that the leading occupations such as Zanon, Bauen and the Renacer metallurgical plant should lead a reorganisation of the movement.
This should be based on three key issues – total independence from the Kirchner government, the highest level of workers’ democracy and the calling of a rank and file delegates’ conference of the MNER, and lastly a continuation of the struggle to recover new plants and factories, irrespective of any deals with the government in power.
As a new stage of struggle develops, it should be against a background of factories under workers’ control together with the organisations of the employed, the unemployed and casual workers, joined in a common class perspective.
Jiorge Sanmartino is a member of the Organisation of Left Economists and the Praxis Current in Argentina.
Fabio Resino is a member of the management committee of the Bauen Hotel Cooperative.