Reports from Argentina
Posted: Jan. 16 2003, 20:16Today I visited Brukman. It is absolutely amazing.
Brukman is a textile factory in Buenos Aires. Fifty-six people work there making men's suits with brand names like Christian Dior. The workers are men and women, young and old, with various jobs: cutters, sewers, cleaners, salespeople, etc.
Brukman looks like a normal factory. Everyone wears a uniform and concentrates on their sewing machine. But Brukman is anything but normal: it has no owner, no manager, no bosses.
A year and a half ago Brukman was operating as a typical Argentinian business. The deepening economic crisis meant that more and more workers were being fired. Those who stayed had to deal with pay cuts, long hours, and bad treatment. What had been a salary of 100 pesos a week was lowered to 50, then 20, then 10, and by December 2001 the workers were being paid 2 only pesos a week – that's just enough to buy a hamburger!
The bosses kept saying that there was no money at the moment but the workers would get a few more pesos the next week. This went on for months. On December 14 the workers had had enough. They left for the weekend with a promise that they would be paid on Tuesday. Amongst themselves they decided that on Tuesday they would do whatever it took to get the money they deserved.
Tuesday came and the workers sent a delegate down to the owner's office to demand their money. The response was typical: "no money right now, maybe in a few days, etc."
But this time the workers didn't resign and go home. A bit more than half of them stayed in the factory and said they wouldn't leave until they got all the money they were owed.
The factory owner treated this like a joke! He said fine, the workers could stay there, he even handed them the keys. As night fell a lot of workers were scared: the boss had left, but they still didn't have the money they needed to support their families, and the police could come at any time to kick them out.
By a complete coincidence, the very next day (December 19) the whole city exploded in the Argentinazo. Millions of people were in the street banging pots and pans, demanding the resignation of the finance minister Cavallo, and once he had resigned they demanded the resignation of the whole government. This threw the country into such chaos that no one bothered the workers at Brukman.
But they still didn't know what to do. They were in the factory but had no way of sustaining themselves and their families. They had to go into the street and beg for coins, or ask people from the neighborhood to donate food.
In January, having occupied the factory for an entire month, they decided to start selling the suits that were in the stock room. This helped them get by, but the inventory was quickly running out.
So in March the Brukman workers made a decision which few workers in the history of capitalism have ever made: they decided to start making suits themselves, without any owners or managers.
The factory was organized on a completely democratic basis. Every week a general assembly was held to make the major decisions. Various commissions were elected to direct the work of the factory: Labour Commission, in charge of distributing the different tasks, Sales Commission, repsponsible for getting the suits into the market, Finance Commission, with the job of balancing all the books, and Internal Commission, in charge of all the political matters.
Work continued largely as before. The suppliers kept sending material and the distributors kept ordering suits. The work environment was a bit more relaxed (workers could bring their children with them, for example) and everyone now had to help out running the factory, but the jobs were basically the same: the sewers still sewed, the cutters still cut, the cleaners still cleaned. Everyone had to work in production – there were no bureaucratic "leadership" positions. Some jobs needed to be filled anew, since all the accountants and salespeople had left with the bosses. But the workers had little trouble taking over these jobs, just like they had little trouble running the factory.
That was one year ago, and today work continues much the same. It's hard to make ends meet, with a continuing economic crisis and a hot, humid summer in which no one wants to buy three-piece suits, but the Brukman workers are getting by. While the old owners were continually firing workers, the factory under workers' control has actually been able to re-hire a few old compañeros. There exist plans to incorporate unemployed workers ("desocupados" or "piqueteros") into the factory as well, but unforunately the financial sitaution doesn't permit that right now.
During the year there have been two attempts to seize the factory. In November 2001 over 200 elite police officers stormed Brukman, arrested the workers who were on guard, seized important documents, broke down security doors, and tried to remove sewing equipment. This all happened early in the morning, but almost immediately the left political parties, the popular assemblies, the piquetero groups, and radical students mobilized and came by the hundreds to support the Brukman workers. Within a few hours the police were forced to retire.
Here's a more detailed description from the PTS:
The Brukman workers have been given the opportunity to turn the factory into a collective. This would allow them to operate legally like any other business. The offer, however, comes with a lot of restrictions. The workers would have to pay the government for the factory within a period of two years, and if they couldn't pay, they would have to give it up.
So the Brukman workers have decided to fight on. Their demand is for a nationalisation of the factory under workers' control. That, they say, is the only way to guarantee that the jobs stay and production continues.
Every worker in Brukman will tell you that they are not revolutionaries out to change the world. They are just normal people who wanted to keep their jobs so they could support their families. There had been examples of workers occupying factories throughout 2001 (most notably the occupation of the giant Zanon ceramic factory) but the Brukman workers weren't familiar with them. They weren't following anyone's example, just trying to get by as best they could.
After a year of struggle, the workers at Brukman are coordinating with occupied businesses all over the country; the second Congress of Occupied Businesses was held right outside their factory. They now call for a Congress of Employed and Unemployed Workers, a Revolutionary Constituent Assembly and a Workers' Republic.
A year ago these workers never thought they could run a factory by themselves. Now they see that workers can run a factory just fine – so why not a whole country?
From my perspective as a revolutionary socialist, this is a good example of a "transitional demand" as described by Leon Trotsky*. The workers, even though all they want is a decent job and enough money to support their family, come to realize that they can only achieve these goals through the socialist revolution. This is why we are going to win, comrades: even if people don't like to think too much about "social classes" or "revolution", there comes a point where everyone gets fed up with global capitalism's crap, and starts to fight for an alternative.
As I was leaving Brukman I ran into Carlos, a comrade from the PTS. He was talking to two young people who had just arrived at the factory to seek the advice of the workers there.
The two are workers from a bakery that was closed by one of the owners in December. Fifteen of the workers have been occupying the bakery for the last four days.
Much like the Brukman workers at the beginning, these bakery workers aren't sure what to do. The electricity, gas, and telephone have been cut off, and all the primary materials (flour, sugar, etc.) were hauled off by the owner.
The PTS is arranging a lawyer for this bakery and there will be a small meeting tomorrow. On Saturday is planned a bigger assembly to get the word out about this latest occupation. Apparently these workers are in a favorable situation, since two of the owners – who control a total of 50% of the business – were also screwed over by the main owner and want to turn the bakery into a collective.
Still, these workers are in a critical phase. They have to guard the bakery twenty-four hours a day, without light and in terrible heat. Their only source of food is whatever they bring from home. They estimate they need 3,000 pesos to get production going; hopefully in the coming days we will be able to get a strike fund (more like an "occupation fund") started. I had the honor of donating the first fifty pesos.
It was truly inspiring watching the Brukman workers encouraging and giving advice to the two bakery workers. The working class, when they can escape even a little from the restraints of capitalism, is capable of incredible solidarity. Everything Che Guevara said about the "new man" with "new morals" as necesary for socialism is bullshit! The morals are already there: they are proletarian morals.
I'll keep updating about the bakery as events unfold.
SNEAK PREVIEW OF THINGS TO COME:
1. There is a demo tonight against the war in Iraq. It starts at the Plaza de Mayo and ends at the American Embassy. Expect clear skies with an 80% chance of tear gas.
2. In February I will be visiting Zanon with two American girls from the United Students Against Sweat Shops. Zanon is like Brukman, just five or six times bigger.
3. I filmed for about an hour at Brukman, asking people questions about their experience with workers' control. They were used to this, since journalists from all different countries visit the factory every day. Expect a documentary sometime in March.
* See L. Trotsky, "The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution":
– Dzhon Rid
One thing I forgot to mention:
At first the bakery workers didn't want to accept my fifty peso donation. But then a worker from Brukman explained that we Yanquis have more money and come all the way to Argentina to help in just this way.