The Unpredictable Future: Stories From Worker-Run Factories in Argentina

The Unpredictable Future: Stories From Worker-Run Factories in Argentina

Written by Benjamin Dangl

November 24, 2009

Reviewed: Sin Patron: Stories From Argentina’s Worker-Run Factories, edited by Lavaca, 320 pages, Haymarket Books, 2007.

Following the social upheaval in Argentina in 2001-2002 a book was published in Spanish that a lot of activists and independent journalists in the country began trying to get their hands on. It wasn’t in all of the bookstores, but news about it traveled like wildfire. Now the legendary book, Sin Patron: Stories From Argentina’s Worker-Run Factories, is translated and available to the English-speaking world.

The book includes a number of illuminating interviews and chapters by Lavaca, a journalism collective based in Buenos Aires that continues to produce some of the best analysis and stories on social movements in the country. With Sin Patron, Lavaca brings together dynamic voices and stories from the hearts of Argentina’s inspiring movements.

The timing couldn’t be better for the release of this book in English. Readers in the US seeking creative solutions to the current economic crisis may find some helpful suggestions in Sin Patron.

Workers in Argentina during that country’s crash figured out they needed to go beyond the law to survive. “For workers in Argentina there is no law. It only exists for the powerful,” said Eduardo Murua, President of the National Movement of Reclaimed Companies. “If we were stuck outside [of the factory] asking the judge to keep it open, we would get nowhere. If we were to ask politicians, we’d get even less. Only through occupation could we recover the jobs.”

One story of occupation and worker control told in Sin Patron is that of Sime Quarry, located in the province of Entre Rios. The owners of the quarry ran the business into the ground, but it was taken over by its workers and kept in operation under worker-control. Leading up to the closure the bosses abused the workers verbally and physically. María del Huerto, 45 years old, said that in December of 2002 the bosses of the quarry “gave us a 35-day unscheduled vacation.” The “vacation” lasted until January 20th, when the workers went back to the quarry to find it abandoned. It was “a pasture with no lights, running water, or telephone service. Nothing. It was desolate,” María said. Just a few machines were left.

María met with fellow workers and members of the Movement of Recuperated Companies, and they discussed taking over the quarry themselves. They decided to arm themselves before the takeover in case they ran into any resistance. “We took firearms, and some neighbors lent us shotguns. We announced that we didn’t want to shoot anyone, but wanted to defend our workplace and keep the bosses from stealing anything else.”

It was a terribly hot time of the year and mosquitoes were everywhere. No one had any money, so they used the guns to hunt. “To eat, the men hunted apereá rabbits – they’re brown; they look like big mice. They also fished caruchas from a nearby lagoon, and Don Joaquín would send us tarpon fish from the market. What had happened to us? We thought of ourselves as middle class, and here we were, begging and hunting to make ends meet,” María said. At one point, the workers were getting so desperate they had to sell furniture in order to buy meat.

Over time, they formed a cooperative and a judge ordered the plant be given over to them in April of 2003. Now the quarry is back in business, fully operational under worker-management.

The Zanon ceramics factory was also occupied and put under worker control around the same time. Reinaldo Giménez, a long time worker at Zanon, spoke of when the business was closing down and the boss refused to pay the workers what was owed to them. The boss “put everyone in the same boat, and the workers with the longest tenures said, ‘This scumbag should have paid me. I gave him my life, but he has no feelings, no compassion, and he makes no distinctions.’”

The tension with the boss blew up, and the workers went on strike, setting up tents outside the factory, marching, picketing and organizing a communal kitchen. Local schools, workers and neighbors helped out however they could; even prisoners in jail supported the workers by donating their food. The workers reached out to the community, explaining their plight to passersby. Locals empathized with them because they were hard-working people with families. It was this connection and support from the community that helped the workers of Zanon eventually transform the factory into a cooperative. Ramírez said, “We always said the factory isn’t ours. We are using it, but it belongs to

the community.”

That’s a key message at the heart of this book – that these failed factories and businesses should belong to the people, not the wealthy bosses who mistreated workers and then abandoned ship. Such challenges to classic ideas of private property and workplace hierarchy course through every page in Sin Patron. These examples of worker management defy the bankrupt logic of capitalism itself.

Angry workers everywhere should grab a copy of Sin Patron to read of the Argentines who built new worlds when the old ones failed. As the Lavaca editors write in the introduction to their book, “The limit of all prediction is what people are capable of doing. It is not chance, but courage, that makes the future unpredictable.”