Reports from Argentina
wrapping up at the supermarket
Posted: Feb. 03 2003, 00:43Yesterday I went back to the San Cayetano supermarket in the Northern Zone of Buenos Aires. The workers are still protesting and blocking the headquarters. Management still refuses to pay them their salaries.
I got some more information about everything that happened. The workers who occupied the supermarket down the street from the headquarters were in there for nine hours. In the end they were forced out by a combination of police pressure and capitalist tricks.
There were a total of fifteen workers in the occupation: seven who worked at that store and eight who had come as a delegation from the protest in front of the headquarters. There were no activists inside the store – one of the kids from ¡NO PASARÁN! tried to enter but the police grabbed him. The activists had to yell out their messages of support from the street.
Everything started out fine. The workers took over the store and locked all the doors. They made a demand to management: pay the salaries in full, not just to the workers in that supermarket but to all the workers who were owed money. They said they wouldn't leave until that demand was met.
But it soon became clear that these were not experienced proletarian fighters, just young supermarket clerks. The police said they needed to write a report, so the workers let two cops come in to "assess" the situation. The activists outside were yelling out "stop! don't let them in!", but it was no use. Once the police were inside, there was no way to get them out.
Then the district attorney came, and she also needed to go inside to do some "assessing." So the workers let in the district attorney along with four more cops. Now there were six police officers and a lawyer against fifteen workers.
Management drew up an agreement in which they offered to pay the workers in the store 60% of their salaries the very next day, with the other 40% in a few weeks. There was nothing for the workers who were protesting at the headquarters – management wanted to resolve the pressing problem of the occupation and ignore all the other workers, like they had done on Monday with the occupation of the headquarters.
There were six police officers armed with shotguns walking around the store – it was clear that the occupation was not going well. Twelve of the fifteen workers were convinced that management's offer of 60% was the best they could get and they signed the agreement. The other three, all young women between 20 and 25, remembered their comrades still protesting at the headquarters and refused to sign anything that didn't include them. However, with the combined pressure of six cops and twelve other workers, these three eventually gave in and signed.
So the occupation that began on Wednesday at 3 pm was over before midnight. All the workers had gotten was a piece of paper that promised 60% of their salaries, a promise which soon proved to be completely meaningless.
The fifteen workers went to the headquarters the next day to collect their money. Management kept them in there for eleven hours (!), discussing terms and provisions. In the end they didn't get any money at all, just a promise that management would go back to negotiations this Monday.
So here we are, a full week after the headquarters were first occupied. Sixty workers collected a portion of their salaries, but there are hundreds more who have nothing. The only bright side is that everyone is getting better organized. The workers now have a regular assembly and elected representatives. The Polo Obrero brought a lawyer who is advising the workers. ¡NO PASARÁN! now has a guard schedule to make sure that there are always at least three activists at the supermarket, 24 hours a day. Management is better organized too: in every San Cayetano store I've seen there are several manager-looking types in the doorway checking out everyone who goes inside. (This is capitalism folks! The owners would rather pay dozens of managers and police officers hundreds of pesos a day than make the slightest concession to the workers. That's called the "efficiency of the free market"!)
Everyone is just waiting for Monday to see what move management will make next. San Cayetano's only warehouse now has been closed off for a full week – in many branches you can see they are running low on stock – so the owners must feel some pressure to settle.
Only time will tell.
Now if you think that's bad, you should hear what happened in that occupied bakery I mentioned a few weeks back. That also started out great: the workers had taken over the store, started up a strike fund and a solidarity campaign, and were preparing to start producing under workers' control. They had the support of the workers of Brukman, who gave them invaluable advice based on a year of struggle, as well as the support of the PTS, who sent a lawyer and a number of activists to provide encouragement.
But here we have the same problem: The workers lacked self-confidence. Even when they talked about re-opening the bakery as a cooperative, their idea was to contract one of the former owners as an "advisor" who would direct production. None of the workers could imagine that they, through a democratic assembly, could direct production themselves.
Then there was the matter that only one of the owners – the "bad" one – had taken off. There were two more – the "good" ones – who talked the line of wanting to help turn the bakery into a cooperative, but were really conspiring behind the scenes to get the business back under their control.
In this situation it was easy for the "bad" owner to return and, in conjuction with the two "good" ones, end the occupation. He used the same patronizing talk that you expect from a middle school principal to convince the workers to leave: after all, it was his store, and if anything happened to these naïve workers, he would be to blame. Then he promised them all bars of gold and a winged monkey, i.e. he promised that he would re-open the store soon and guarantee them all their old jobs.
That sounded a lot safer than some crazy talk about "workers' control"! Everyone knows workers are just dupes who could never run a business!
So the last time the kids from ¡NO PASARÁN! and I went to offer our support, we met the owner and the last four workers of the original fifteen who were occupying the bakery. These four were going home soon, too. Apparently, the workers are so anxious to help the owner get his business back on track, so they can get back to their old jobs, that they are renouncing the debts he owes to them – up to five thousand pesos each! – and even giving him the contents of the strike fund.
So the money I and other activists gave to help workers open up a community bakery and protect their jobs is now going to help a crooked capitalist repay a few debts so he can keep exploiting. What I want to know is, can I get a refund?
– Dzhon Rid