Reports from Argentina
the supermarket conflict goes on
Posted: Feb. 07 2003, 03:37Today I went to the Northern Zone with the ¡NO PASARÁN! kids and we met a fun new friend: Mr. Trade Union Bureaucrat!
Yesterday night I was at a meeting of the Commission for Solidarity with the Occupied Businesses. The main topic was how to oppose the National Movement of Recuperated Businesses (MNER). The MNER is a group that is trying to eliminate the revolutionary character of the occupations by turning them into legal, isolated cooperatives – of course they see the workers of Brukman and Zanon, who have an insatiable will to fight and a revolutionary program, as mortal enemies who must be "isolated" and "destroyed." The leader of this "movement" is a rich lawyer with close ties to the PJ and the catholic church, and actually represents the owners of San Cayetano supermarkets!
The MNER currently represents a good portion of Argentina's 200-odd occupied businesses. The Commission for Solidarity, in contrast, is composed of only four: Brukman, Zanon, the Tigre supermarket in Rosaria, and as of last week the Grissinopolis bakery in Buenos Aires. In order to reach out to other cooperatives a new Sub-Commission for Visits was formed, with 12 members, to go to occupied businesses and present the revolutionary program of Zanon and Brukman as an alternative to the reformist plans for cooperatives.
The first stop for this new Sub-Commission were the San Cayetano supermarkets. The kids from ¡NO PASARÁN! came running in during the meeting to tell us about everything that had happened. The protest in front of the headquarters was still going on – the warehouse had been blocked off continuously for more than a week – but on Monday a group of fifty compañeros went to occupy another branch of the supermarket, which they found completely militarized by busloads of riot police, and then went to a third branch which they sucessfully occupied. *
So fifty people, mostly workers but also a few activists (including Pablo from ¡NO PASARÁN!), have been occupying that supermarket for four days. A number of workers had expected to get some cash right away, and they gave up after the first day and left. On Thursday there were about thirty maintaining the occupation.
I kept thinking to myself "how neat that it's a supermarket – they'll have food and drink for months!" and I couldn't help jealous thoughts of looting the candy section of my local supermarket. But it turns out that the owners had been expecting a move like this and in the last week had systematically cleared out the store's already low stocks. The workers did have food which they had brought with them, but it wasn't the smorgesborg of my revolutionary phantasies.
So the Sub-Commission for Visits, complete with representatives from Brukman, Tigre, and the Madres, went to offer their support to the workers occupying San Cayetano. Everything had been fenced off by the police, but their was only one officer guarding the door – I suggested we could just dash inside, but other activists pointed out that that one cop had a shotgun. So we were limited to talking to the occupants through a second-story window and a hole in the delivery entrance.
Shortly after we arrived came one of the managers and A REPRESENTATIVE OF THE UNION. Over the last month Argentinian revolutionaries have been at pains to explain to me that the trade unions in this country are not like the ones in Europe – here they such blatant enemies of the working class that not one worker has any faith in their "representatives". Today I was able to see that for myself.
The most notable thing about these "defenders of the workers" was that they hadn't shown up during the entire first week of the conflict! It was only after this last store was occupied, and it became clear to management that nobody was leaving, that they called in the union to "mediate." So these union representatives came up together with the owners' representatives (and even up close it was impossible to distinguish) and explained how things were gonna work:
You see, compañeros, tomorrow we are going to have a meeting at the Ministry of Labor with the owners, and they are going to tell us when you will be paid. There won't be any arguments, any negotiations, they are just going to give us a date for when they are going to pay up. But we don't want to endanger this meeting, compañeros. This occupation makes us look like crazy people and the best idea would be to end it and trust the Ministry of Labor.
Where was the union during the whole week of protests in front of the headquarters? Where was the union in the last six months when the workers weren't being paid more than a few supermarket gift certificates? The truth is that the union only came because the workers had occupied the store – now they explained that this wasn't an effective tactic and was only hurting the workers. The workers had seen that they could take the situation into their hands and solve problems their own way, but now they were being told that they should give up and trust matters to a corrupt union.
So basically, we're hearing the exact same line from the union that we heard from the company president the week before. What an odd coincidence!
The worst part was when the bureaucrat started to talk about "unity." This fucking upper-middle-class lawyer with a suit and a cellular phone wanted to tell these less-than-minimum-wage workers a thing or two about unity. Apparently, the union wanted to defend all the workers, and was very concerned that this occupation would divide them. The bureaucrat said that the workers inside the occupation might settle with the owners and leave those outside in the cold. "Would you guys be happy if your friends inside collected their money right now?" i.e. "The guys inside will stab you in the back the first chance they get!" So in the name of unity he divided the workers with suspiciousness and mistrust.
We activists of course made our interventions. He told us more than once, in the same patronizing tone we were familiar with from management, that this was an assembly for workers and everyone else should "keep their little mouths shut." You don't work here either, and we activists have been here giving support a lot longer than you! But particularly touching was one really passionate commentary by an old man from the Polo Obrero, explaining how the union was trying to divide the workers in order to defeat them, and they were just "fucking traitors." The bureaucrat had no answer for this, so he threw a fit about the lack of respect and threatened to leave. Like some five year old brat who wants to take his ball and go home because no one is being "nice."
Here we observed a rather disturbing phenomenon, though. The bureaucrat made a showy exit, clearly hoping to be followed, and a few workers did. Most stayed with us, but then they wanted to hear what he was saying. Soon all the workers were once again circled around him. I don't think this represents any faith they might have in the union as such. It's just that here's a guy who is promising money tomorrow and that's hard to resist.
When tomorrow comes and goes with nothing but meaningless contracts that will never, ever be paid, I'm sure the workers will realize that the union, just like management, is their eternal enemy. Then they will take things into their own hands and we will see some goddamn fireworks. But first they need to try this proposal of doing things the legal way – it's the only way they'll learn.
– Dzhon Rid
* This was the very branch that the three girls and I had visited last Wednesday on our way back to Buenos Aires. We had spread revolutionary propaganda among the employees, and it appears that it worked, although rather belatedly. [See the end of my first report about the supermarket.]