Excerpted from the intro to Sin Patrón: Argentina?s Worker-Run Factories, by the Lavaca Collective (Haymarket)
We were on the roof of the Zanón ceramic tile factory in Patagonia, Argentina, filming on March 19, 2003, the day the bombs started falling on Baghdad.
As journalists, we had to ask ourselves what we were doing there. What possible relevance could there be in this one factory when bunker-busting apocalypse was descending on Iraq?
But we, like so many others, had been drawn to Argentina to witness first-hand an explosion of activism in the wake of its 2001 crisis.
Almost entirely under the media radar, workers in Argentina have been responding to rampant unemployment and capital flight by taking over traditional businesses that have gone bankrupt and are reopening them under democratic worker management. It's an old idea reclaimed and retrofitted for a brutal new time.
The movement of recovered companies is not epic in scale - some 170 companies, around 10,000 workers. But six years on, and unlike some of the country's other new movements, it has survived and continues to build quiet strength in the midst of the country's deeply unequal "recovery.'
These struggles have had a tremendous impact on the imaginations of activists around the world. At this point there are many more starry-eyed grad papers on the phenomenon than there are recovered companies.
But there is also a renewed interest in democratic workplaces from Durban to Melbourne to New Orleans.
That said, the movement in Argentina is as much a product of the globalization of alternatives as it is one of its most contagious stories. Argentine workers borrowed the slogan "Occupy, Resist, Produce" from Latin America's largest social movement, Brazil's Movimiento Sin Terra, in which more than a million people have reclaimed unused land and put it back into community production.
The legal and political case for worker control in Argentina does not rest only on unpaid wages, evaporated benefits and emptied-out pension funds. The workers make a sophisticated case for their moral right to property - in this case, the machines and physical premises - based not just on what they're owed personally, but on what society is owed.
The recovered companies propose themselves as an explicit remedy to all the corporate welfare, corruption and other forms of public subsidy the owners enjoyed in the process of bankrupting their firms and moving their wealth to safety, abandoning whole communities to the twilight of economic exclusion.
This argument is, of course, available for immediate use in North America. In Argentina, just as in the U.S. occupation of Iraq, those bromides about private sector efficiency were nothing more than a cover story for an explosion of frontier-style plunder - looting on a massive scale by a small group of elites.
Privatization, deregulation, labour flexibility: these were the tools to facilitate a massive transfer of public wealth to private hands, not to mention private debts to the public purse. When the capital and its carpetbaggers had flown, what was left was not only companies that had been emptied, but a whole hollowed-out country.
On April 17, 2003, we were in Buenos Aires in front of a fence behind which was a small army of police guarding the Brukman factory. After a brutal eviction, the workers were determined to get back to their sewing machines.
In Washington, DC, that day, USAID announced that it had chosen Bechtel Corporation as the prime contractor for the reconstruction of Iraq's architecture. The heist was about to begin in earnest, both in the U.S. and in Iraq. Deliberately induced crisis was providing cover for the transfer of billions of tax dollars to a handful of politically connected corporations.
In Argentina, they'd already seen this movie: the wholesale plunder of public wealth, the explosion of unemployment, the shredding of the social fabric. And 52 Brukman seamstresses were in the street, backed by thousands of others, trying to take back what was already theirs.
It was definitely the place to be.
Naomi Klein's forthcoming book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise Of Disaster Capitalism, will be published worldwide in September 2007.