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Zanón: Brief History

A worker watches as porcelain tile goes down the line at Zanon

I recently got back from visiting Zanón. Zanón is a ceramic tile factory in the province of Neuquén. It is also one of the largest and most well known Empresas Recuperadas. I was excited to visit the factory because many people have held it up as a leading example of workplace democracy in practice. I plan on writing  several short posts on different aspects of the cooperative. In this post I will summarize the history of how Zanón came under worker control in 2002 and some of what has happened since that time.

Cerámica Zanón

Cerámica Zanón was opened in 1979, as a private business, by the Italian businessman Luis Zanón. Over the next twenty years Zanón became the most productive ceramic factory in Latin America. The immense factory, covering an area of 80,000 square meters (about 850,000 square feet), sold ceramic and porcelain tile all around Argentina, and even exported to a number of countries. In 1994, the factory produced 1,000,000 square meters of ceramic tile and, according to one source, left Luis Zanón with a profit of 77 million dollars.

This productivity came at the cost of a grueling pace of work within the factory. Mario Balcazza, a longtime Zanón worker, told me that during this period there was an average of one worker death per year in the factory. One out of every two days there was a workplace accident. More than 100 supervisors and managers, distributed throughout the 3 daily shifts, made sure workers kept up with production. To ensure managers could easily identify if a worker was out of place, workers in each part of the factory had a different color uniform. “Like we were prisoners,” Balcazza remembers.

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Blog Update

I am a bad blogger. I haven’t posted anything on here in like a month. But that’s all about to change!

I wanted to use this post to update folks on what I have been doing and some of the topics I will posting on in the near future.

Hotel BAUEN

The Hotel BAUEN is a cooperatively run hotel in downtown Buenos Aires. It has been open to the public since 2003. In 2001, the original Hotel BAUEN, a traditional capitalist business, went bankrupt. In between the bankruptcy and the reopening, a small group of workers who had been laid off occupied the hotel and formed a cooperative (more on the history in the future). Since reopening the hotel, the cooperative has grown to more than 150 workers at present!

After working as a waiter at a Hyatt  hotel in San Francisco for the past several years I was interested to spend time at the BAUEN. I wanted to see how a hotel could operate without bosses.  I have been spending 2 days a week at the hotel since the middle of February. I have been teaching English to some of the members of the cooperative in exchange for an education on how their cooperative works. It’s been interesting! I will try to write in depth on this over the next couple months. Please let me know in the comments section any questions you have about the BAUEN and I can answer them in future posts.

Bachilleratos Populares

In the past 6-7 years a network of alternative schools has been developing in and around Buenos Aires. The Bachilleratos offer students, of any age, who did not graduate high school a chance to earn the Argentine a equivalent of a GED. What makes them unique is that they are run by groups who have an explicitly left wing political orientation. I have been teaching English in a Bachillerato run by a group called the Collectivo de Educadores y Investigadors Populares (CEIP). Over the past 6 years CEIP has organized a number of Bachilleratos in different worker cooperatives. They have a philosophy (and practice!) of popular education. I will try to write several posts on CEIP and the Bachilleratos in the coming months. Let me know any questions you have or topics of interest.

SUBTE Workers

The Subway system in Buenos Aires was privatized in the mid-nineties. The new privately run company laid off many workers and cracked down on worker dissent. In the past 15 years the SUBTE workers have been able to organize themselves to (successfully) fight back against layoffs and changes in working conditions. In the process they have broken from their old bureaucratic and conservative union, and formed a new militant and democratic union. They are currently fighting to gain official recognition of their union. I will write on this struggle as well as possible connections between the movement of Empresesas Recuperadas and struggles for union democracy.

Zanon/FaSinPat

FaSinpat (formerly Zanon), located in the province of Neuquén, is the largest and most famous of the Empresas Recuperadas. It is a ceramic tile factory currently boasting around 500 members! They have played a very important role in supporting other cooperatives and are currently helping workers in another nearby ceramics factory form a cooperative. I will be spending time there in the near future. I will write about the internal structure and dynamics of the cooperative as well as there political orientation. Let me know in the comments section if you have any specific questions/topics of interest related to Zanon.

Cooperatives

I will also try to write some short posts on other cooperatives in and around Buenos Aires. I will mix in some posts on related political happenings as well.

That’s all for now! Put your questions/thoughts/topics of interests in the comments section. Participate!

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Maderera Córdoba

Once upon a time Maderera Córdoba was a nationally know company. Over 60 workers produced custom made furniture and cuts of wood. By the end of the 1980’s the company’s showrooms, workshops, and warehouses sprawled across 6 different locations in Buenos Aires. It’s products were advertised in soccer stadiums throughout Argentina.

Then, in the 1990’s, it all started to unravel. The passing of the longtime owner coupled with Argentina’s disastrous head first dive into the deregulated global capitalist economy left the company on the verge of bankruptcy. The owner’s daughter took operational control over the company (she owned half while the other half belonged to the owner’s wife) and used it to accumulate large debts. Exactly how she accumulated the debts (i.e. what she spent all the money she took out of the company on), and if she inherited any debt from her father, is not clear to the current members of the cooperative.  Meanwhile, sketchy accounting and a lack of strategic planning left the company unable to compete in the domestic market with new multinational competitors. The bill finally came due in late 2001. A decade of Layoffs, the sale of properties, and the physical deterioration of the remaining properties was followed by the initiation of bankruptcy proceedings.

This is all fairly normal. Businesses go bankrupt all the time. But what makes this story worth retelling is what happened next. Between December 2001 and November 2003, while the Bankruptcy proceedings dragged on, the owners started paying the remaining workers at Maderera Córdoba less than what they were owed. In the fall of 2003, as the situation continued to deteriorate, the 12 workers who were still left at the company began discussing forming a cooperative in order to take control of the business. This was not a spontaneous decision. Some background: In 2003 Argentina was in the midst of a deep economic crisis. In the proceeding years many businesses had gone bankrupt and shut down- often owing their workers significant back wages. In some cases, workers decided to occupy their workplaces to demand payment of their back wages. With help and influence from activists and lawyers connected with already existing cooperatives, many of these workers organized themselves into cooperatives and began demanding that the bankruptcy proceedings be used to grant their cooperatives control of their workplaces. Since these workers were almost always owed substantial back wages they considered themselves creditors of the business and believed the bankruptcy proceedings should be used to repay their debt, as well as the debts of the other creditors. Further, workers argued that the bankruptcy proceedings and related laws should be used to serve the public good- in this case protecting jobs, not the private property of irresponsible (and often criminal) owners.

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The Ancient Past, The Modern Past, and the Uncertain Present

A worker at the Crometal Cooperative presses metal

Before arriving in Buenos Aires one of my contacts was Esteban Magnani, a professor of political theory at the University of Buenos Aires, and a staff member at La Base. La Base is a non profit organization which gives loans to cooperatives in Argentina. It was formed in December 2004 to provide a source of credit to the Empresas Recuperadas (Businesses that were abandoned by their owners after the Argentine economic collapse in 2001 and then taken over by the former workers, who restarted production and reorganized the businesses as worker cooperatives). Since then, La Base has made many relatively small loans totaling almost 3 million Argentinian Pesos (about $780,000 USD at the current rate of exchange) to Argentinian cooperatives (not exclusively recovered businesses). After I arrived, Esteban agreed to take me around to different cooperatives that La Base is currently working with.

Patagonia

Our first visit was to Patagonia, a small sewing workshop on outskirts of San Martin- one of Buenos Aires’ countless (formerly) industrial suburbs. After exiting the highway we rolled across the dirt roads of the villa, the word here for shantytown, where the workshop is located. Eventually, we found the workshop- a small partly brick building on a dirt road lined with other small partly brick buildings.

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Luciano Arruga: Desaparecido en Democracia

A couple days after I arrived in Argentina a friend invited me to a protest against police brutality in a working class Buenos Aires suburb called La Matanza. Over the past several years many local youth have been killed by police. In one shocking case, a youth from La Matanza, Luciano Arruga, was “disappeared” by police. Disappearances refer to a practice, common under the Argentine Military dictatorship from 1976-1983, in which the authorities rounded up thousands of political dissidents and then secretly detained and murdered them. Someone would simply go missing, never to be heard from again.

According to family and friends, on several occasions police had tried to force Luciano Arruga to rob for them but he had refused. Then, on the night of January 31st, 2009, he has beaten by police and taken away.  He has not been seen since. As in the murders of other local youth, no chargers have been filed to date in Luciano Arruga’s disappearance.

The protest, meant to call attention to the broader problem of police brutality and impunity for their crimes, commemorated the one year anniversary of his disappearance.  When we arrived in La Matanza, family and friends of murdered youth, as well as a wide array of political groups, where gathering in a central plaza. From the beginning, the protest had a heavy, serious air, as many family members carried pictures of loved ones killed by the police. Eventually, a group of these family members linked arms and began to lead a march out of the plaza. We immediately blocked an intersection and stood, singing and chanting. I kept looking around for police, who were nowhere to be seen, especially since there was no permit for the march.

No police arrived, and soon enough the march continued down a city street. There were periodic pauses marked by chants and songs against police violence. I was impressed that everyone participating seemed to know the songs despite the fact that they were more complicated than your typical call and response. When I asked my friend about it she explained that many of the songs had originated in the times of the military dictatorship. They had thus retained both a place in the collective memory and a continued political significance. Indeed, as we walked down the street chanting, an old lady who was sitting at a bus stop joined us in song. It was one of my favorite moments of the protest. In the US I’ve become so used to getting insulting comments and dirty looks from passersby when I participate in public political actions. Even though we were blocking the street, and therefore preventing her bus from coming, she wanted to show her support. And she knew all the words.

Eventually we reached a large avenue and proceeded to block that as well. Then something really unexpected happened:

A group of Bolivian dancers, led by a car blasting music, led its way through the march. At first, I was totally at a loss for what was happening. Then, a car trailing the group emerged with a Bolivian flag and a picture of a youth killed by the police.

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Welcome to the Blog

I will be in Buenos Aires, Argentina through July.  While I am here I will be learning about the worker cooperatives (called Fabricas Recuperadas) that have sprung up since the economic crisis in 2001. The blog is meant as a way for me to reflect on my experiences here and to share my thoughts on some of the interesting (and hopefully inspiring) organizing that is happening here.

Thanks for reading!

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