Translated from La autogestión en Argentina a 20 años del 2001. Published with permission of the author.
For the first time, 2001 drew attention to a phenomenon that sectors of the labor movement had been leading for at least ten years before the uprising: the struggle for the recovery and self-management of various factories and work sites. This process later became known as "businesses recovered by their workers" [ERTs, using the Spanish acronym]. In this text, we propose a critical evaluation of the limitations and potential of this important Argentine experience.
It is quite common, in referring to the movement of recovered businesses in Argentina, to establish a relationship between the events of 2001, or to expressly identify it as arising at that time. The recovered factories, along with the piqueteros [street protesters] and popular assemblies, appeared as new social movements that represented a break with everything that had come before, born of the rebellion of December 19th and 20th.
This relationship appears in all kinds of stories and imagery, both among activists and in the media, and even in academic works. And while it is not strictly true (business recovery processes have numerous antecedents in previous decades and a development that we can trace as far back as the late 1980s), there is a clear moment of explosion of these experiences in the political and social life of our country that cannot be separated from the crisis that caused the fall of the government of Fernando De la Rúa and opened a new chapter in the recent history of Argentina. And this is so because 2001 gave a great deal of visibility to a phenomenon that already existed, but was constrained to the tiny space of a factory (a handful of them), and turned it into a point of reference for the struggle of many sectors at a time of enormous social mobilization.
This visibility was not just circumstantial or limited to the media, but gave impetus to a movement that rescued the very idea of the self-management of work, which had been very widespread among the "new left" of the '60s and '70s, but fell out of use by the 2000s. The new visibility gave it power that otherwise would have been hard to gain. This force even had an impact on state institutions, which were compelled to respond to a demand that could hardly be described as massive: there were around a hundred “occupied” businesses (there was also a conceptual and political dispute over the name of the process), and only totalled a few thousand workers, at a time when the unemployed movements mobilized hundreds of thousands, and a quarter of the population had lost their jobs. How did a movement of such small dimensions come to occupy such an important place in the understanding of a gigantic crisis, which strained the economic system and called into question the very institutionality of the country? Why did it have such a strong impact on the symbolism of one of the greatest crises of the neoliberal model in the world prior to the global crisis of 2008? What did thousands of activists who enthusiastically supported the process see, and what relationship does this have with the relative tolerance of the political system and its repressive forces towards situations that, in other historical moments (past, and perhaps future), would have been swiftly and mercilessly dismantled?
A first answer to these questions has a lot to do with the link that was quickly made between crisis and recovery. The workers who occupied factories were identified as a break with the old, stagnant, bureaucratized movements – starting with labor unions – that were incapable of resisting neoliberalism. These workers were part of the great movement unleashed in 2001, alongside the assemblies and the piqueteros. Their characteristics of resistance for a just cause (the defense of work in the context of a brutal economic crisis and massive unemployment), their demands in the workplace, and the way they occasionally blocked streets or invaded the spaces of more affluent social sectors aroused the sympathy of the middle class, which, apart from the brief moments of "picketing and pots and pans," do not tend to empathize with the struggles of those they see as beneath their own social station. On the other hand, the weakness of political institutionality produced by "que se vayan todos" ("they all need to go") prompted public officials at all levels, including legislators and judges, under the circumstances, to give in to demands that had been dismissed out of hand just a few months earlier, such as passing expropriation laws, granting judicial permits, giving subsidies, pledging support, etc. All these issues gave the movement unexpected strength, which resulted in concrete advances toward conflict resolution. As a consequence, the average length of the occupations [before expropriation happened], which was almost a year before 2002, was reduced to less than five months in the following years, and more than a hundred expropriation laws were passed in different provincial legislatures, even in the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires.
Most activists saw the businesses and factories that were occupied and put back into production under self-management as a phenomenon of enormous significance, due to its symbolic power and political visibility. During the scorched-earth neoliberal policies in the 1990s, unions were mostly complicit or weakened -- to such an extent that, with few exceptions, their capacity to resist had been reduced almost to zero. The sudden appearance of dozens of factories taken over by workers willing to form cooperatives or, in the cases where the parties on the Trotskyist left had managed to lead, to fight for nationalization and workers' control, represented a sort of resurrection of the working class. By looking close and projecting into the future, it was possible to get a glimpse of the unexpected possibility of a self-managed future, an alternative that appeared almost miraculously to resume the anti-capitalist struggle. This idea was fed by attention from the anti-globalization movement that was on the rise in the central countries, with a constant stream of activists coming with foreign currency to a suddenly cheap Argentina to see the laboratory of the future society on the ground. The documentary The Take (in Spanish, La Toma), made by Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis, made factories such as Zanón, Brukman, and Forja San Martín famous worldwide. Another world was possible, and the taken factories showed it.
But, indeed, and beyond the other-worldly dreams, something different was being formed in the recovered companies. Small groups of workers took from the State the possibility of appropriating the means of production from the old bosses. They formed worker cooperatives that received varying degrees of government support for their operation, and without manuals, they practiced collective and assembly-based management that replaced the capitalist management of the labor process. In some cases, they were highly aware of what was being done; in others, they simply let themselves be swept along by events. Generally, the unions stood back and watched them. Sometimes, they were just another part of the scheme of emptying and looting the company's assets. But, there were some exceptions, such as the UOM Quilmes or the Federación Gráfica Bonaerense, where they were an essential part and promoter of the processes. The self-management of work, as an alternative to traditional economic management, came to be incorporated into the toolbox of the working class to defend itself from unemployment and the abusive conditions of the bosses. In this way, a key concept was rescued for any project for an economy and a society that wants to overcome capitalist exploitation.
Other phenomena closely linked to the crisis of 2001 (such as the barter clubs or the assemblies) quickly shriveled until they almost disappeared, or became residual processes as the country recovered from the most traumatic aspects of the collapse, or they converted into movements with a geographic base (like the majority of the piqueteros) or were otherwise absorbed by the political system. The recovered businesses, in contrast, continued on in forms not very different from their origin. While some have been operating for more than two decades and have managed to consolidate themselves as both productive units and workers' organizations with collective management, in most cases, there has been little progress beyond what was achieved in the months after the recovery. The basic problems are the limitations of legislation that does not consider self-managed work as a real possibility for productive management, the unresolved disputes over property, lost labor rights compared to work as employees, and the difficulties workers encounter taking on a relatively equal commitment to management responsibilities that previously belonged to the bosses. These continue and add to the typical structural problems of self-management in the framework of capitalism, and, in the last years of the Macri government, to unprecedented State aggression.
The fascination with the novel movement of workers who took over the factories that the bosses abandoned eventually wore off. Twenty years later, the recovered businesses are in a panorama with old and new problems and numerous lessons that should be debated and heeded. Generally, we discreetly leave these issues in the background, so as not to interfere with the defense of a movement that we love and support, but a critical review should not overlook the challenges and limitations of a movement that, frankly, few of us imagined would not only survive for twenty years, but grow and multiply.
A brief journey through the history of the movement
As we pointed out at the beginning of this article, the movement of recovered companies pre-existed the 2001 crisis, despite having been repeatedly associated with it. One of the keys to seeing this background is right there in the definition: a recovered business is a process that goes from capitalist management of a business to collective management by its workers. That is, from the business being capital-owned, vertical, and hierarchical, to self-management. With this relatively simple concept, we leave aside normative definitions – whether it is a worker cooperative, whether it has been expropriated, whether it has ownership of the plant, etc. – which are most people's way of identifying “recoveries,” and of the ideological sort – describing them based on an idea that pre-existed the organization, or using self-description as a criterion, depending on what they consider themselves. Both categories of analysis can be included in the concept, depending on the case, but we prioritize a process and a definition based on the mode of social and economic organization.
From this point of view, the recovered business is sometimes juxtaposed with the cooperative movement or with the "social economy," understanding it as neither public nor private sector, but rather, under social management (and lately, solidarity), and also in a process of transformation away from a capitalist economic unit based on wage labor. The older cases are not abundant, but they exist, and there are even some “recovered” businesses (although no one called them that originally) still operating that started as far back as the '50s, like La Calera transport cooperative, in Córdoba, or the Cogtal print shop, now in Avellaneda, in the province of Buenos Aires, which, at the time, was the workshop of the leader of the CGT de los Argentinos, Raimundo Ongaro.
But, the current process started at the end of the '80s with the first resistance to the business closures which were beginning to characterize the deindustrialization process that began under the dictatorship. These closures accelerated in the last days of the Alfonsín government, and turned into a brutal conversion of the productive and industrial structure of Argentina during the government of Carlos Menem. It was then that the first cases began to emerge. Some were supported by the Quilmes section of the Metallurgical Workers Union, led by the leader Francisco “Barba” Gutiérrez, such as the Adabor, Mosconi, Vélez Sarsfield, and Polimec factories.1 Others were helped by the Federación Gráfica Bonaerense, based on the example of Cogtal, like the Campichuelo printing press. Most other cases took place in isolation, such as the Inimbó textile factory in Chaco, the Coceramic brick factory in Entre Ríos, the Santa Isabel meatpacking plant in Santa Fe, and the Yaguané meatpacking plant in La Matanza. Some leaders and activists began to emerge, and towards the end of the decade, some very high-profile cases were laying the foundations of what would later become the National Movement of Recovered Companies (MNER), such as the Zanello tractor factory in Las Varillas2 , Córdoba, IMPA metallurgical company in the city of Buenos Aires, and Gip Metal in Avellaneda3 .
By the time the crisis erupted, several of these cases and currents were already linked to each other, and the role of December 19th and 20th served as a catalyst for a budding movement, which was to find unexpected resonance in a social and political climate that was boiling over. This first moment of organization, while weak, was key for the uprising of December 2001 to act as a unifying force in the process and to consolidate occupations and conflicts, most independent of each other, as a movement that proposed the self-management of businesses that closed and managed to generate a path towards what was already beginning to be called "recovery." It was a zigzagging path through the problems that the situation presented to them, which were enormous, and not without debate, such as contrasting the idea of cooperatives with that of nationalization under workers' control posed by the organizations of a sector on the left. Throughout 2002, with more than a hundred businesses occupied and struggling to transition to self-managed production, the movement consolidated. It became visible to Argentine society and the world, and formed an organization, the aforementioned MNER, which managed to bring together most of the ERTs (though some never did join, and others continued to be linked to other political options, such as Zanón and Brukman).
From fragmentation to movement: the recovered businesses in 2001
The days of December 19th and 20th, 2001, were a turning point in the recent history of our country, a huge economic, political, and social crisis that also involved the closure of thousands of businesses and factories of all kinds. While the savers protested at the banks about the corralito, looting spread in peripheral neighborhoods – though not only – and the saucepans tolled throughout the city of Buenos Aires, there were also workers in various factories, workshops, and companies who saw how they had lost their jobs and became unemployed from one day to the next. In some cases, they occupied the plants to defend their jobs, such as the Brukman textile workers who, on December 18th, found themselves alone in their factory, or the Zanón workers, who had been in full occupation for months already. In others, such as the workers of the Bauen Hotel, they were resigned to go home as they boarded up the entrance of the building that they would recover, with the support of the MNER, a year and a few months later.
The dramatic turn of events accelerated the process of unification between these different cases and broke down the relative isolation between them. If the entire country mobilized, the recovered companies were not going to be an exception. The following months saw the movement emerge, which not only began to organize (with a center in Buenos Aires, but also in provinces such as Santa Fe, Córdoba, and Neuquén, with cases in almost all of the country's provinces), but also to create ties of solidarity with the other movements and present a coherent position to the State.
The attention each conflict generated in a mobilized society was, in many cases, the key that made it possible to hold off an unfavorable correlation of forces. An exemplary case of this was the Chilavert printing press, which came out of a typical asset-stripping process, which had left only eight workers in a dying workshop, and which the police would doubtlessly have evicted if a very broad network of solidarity had not been created: the IMPA factory contributed its experience and a truck that blocked the door, and thousands of people summoned by the Pompeii assembly formed a human barrier that dissuaded the police from provoking a confrontation that would have been politically unproductive in that context. A few months later, the Buenos Aires Legislature approved the expropriation of Chilavert unanimously. Even businesses with undecided worker collectives benefited from this push, obtaining their expropriations under the umbrella of the movement, with legislators ready to get rid of the problem as soon as possible. As the political crisis receded, this force weakened, which meant that, in subsequent years, things were not so expeditious, and processes remained inconclusive.
Having control of the plants and machinery solves part of the problem, but it is hardly everything. Self-management, especially in an economy in deep crisis, means solving complex issues, and it is not enough simply to have “the workers lead.” A predominant view at the time was the romanticization of the occupation, which led (and in part, continues to do so) to overvaluing this stage of the process. It is obvious that this is a foundational moment, the much-desired “appropriation of the means of production,” but part of it is the unavoidable fact that it was the capitalists who made the decision to leave the company, and rather than being appropriated by a class offensive, they abandoned means of production that were unused or unusable. It soon became clear that the "occupied factory" without a group of workers organized to put it into production, without capital, without solidarity and support networks around it, and without an economic framework to build or rebuild, can be a beautiful cultural center, but if it fails to generate decent jobs, it will not fulfill the objective for which it was taken over. The recovery of work is, from the perspective of the workers, the main goal, the floor without which the rest of the things do not make sense. But, at the same time, there is the paradox that, if the process gets stuck at this primary objective – even if economic "success" is achieved – without transcending into a socially and politically broader framework, it is only a matter of time before the potential in the transformation of the recovered company dwindles to a bare minimum.
This essential problem for all work self-management processes was something that was glimpsed in those first months and years, but, because of the urgency of getting through the most acute stage of conflicts, was postponed until a more stable time. The debate was between the alternatives of nationalization with workers' control and expropriation and the formation of cooperatives. It was settled by practice: no occupied factory was nationalized, much less under workers' control, by a bankrupt and aimless state, at least until the inauguration of Néstor Kirchner in 2003. And later, this was not the option taken by the government, either. Instead, the more winding path tried by the rest of the recovered companies, which was based on tactical flexibility and experience, proved its effectiveness.
The relationship with the State and, through it, access to support programs and political tools for conflict resolution was the next cause of debates and differences between leaders and organizations, as well as disputes over the leadership of a movement with broad public visibility. The unity of the MNER did not last long. A lawyer who specialized in recovered businesses, Luis Caro – an ambitious character and a long way from any revolutionary proposal, but effective in handling himself in court – fractured the movement by January 2003. Subsequently, different sectors were separated and, over time, the ERTs were disintegrated into various organizations and federations. Their basic problems, however, remained very similar.
Their later evolution, once the situation in the country began to stabilize, saw the consolidation of a process that, unlike other social movements, needed to take its place economically and concentrate on solving particular situations in each case. It was not geography or permanent mobilization, or even access to state resources that guaranteed survival, but production and income generation. This implied the reintegration of companies previously bankrupted or abandoned by their employers into the market. State support, as important as it was, did not and could not ensure – unless the hypothetical “nationalization with workers' control” had taken place – the flow of income that would pay salaries and cover costs and investments. This had to be done through insertion in the market, which forced the workers, one way or another, to supplant the employer and the management structure that carried out this function, without departing from collective management, or risk becoming a factory in which self-management is gradually replaced by a vertical structure. Reality took charge of showing that this struggle, which was much less striking than, and far removed from, the mobilizations and heroic moments of the takeovers, was going to be the great challenge to overcome.
Lessons from twenty years of worker self-management
The nearly one hundred recovered companies that were represented in the first MNER, which emerged directly from the sessions of 2001 and 2002, became more than 400, which, in spite of the Macri government and the pandemic, are still operating as I write these lines5 . A bit more than 15,000 workers make up a movement that, despite its many things in common, has not reached a minimum level of organizational unity for a long time, with groups that are generally weak and that have leadership whose credentials consist mostly of their ability to dialogue with different public agencies and government officials. Some smaller and more compact organizations show more unity and, in some cases, certain organizational constants and criteria that can be taken as differentiated models. But, as a whole, the movement survives, in spite of this fragility.
Twenty years after the key moment of the constitution of an identity as recovered companies (differentiated from other cooperatives or other, more ephemeral or irregular movements) when about thirty of the first cases that took their first steps, we can outline a series of analytical elements that can give rise to a critical evaluation of this experience of worker self-management in Argentina. In a general aspect, from the point of view of alternative construction, we can make an outline of the main potential and achievements of the self-management experience that ERTs lead in our country.
In the first place, the experience of the recovered Argentine businesses shows, once again, that self-management is an economic, social, and political process that can have an impact on the restitution and generation of employment devastated by neoliberal economic policies. While these are rather special conditions, since they presuppose the existence of a previous company that is abandoned or bankrupted by the employers, the ERTs show that workers who know their trade and are capable of organizing themselves to resume and maintain productive activity can also generate effective management mechanisms.
These management mechanisms are none other than the democratization of the social relations of production, but within the framework of a productive space that is limited and circumscribed to a particular productive unit. Still, they show the potential of the working class to dispense with employment structures. As Marx stated more than a century and a half ago,6 in cooperative factories (in this case, our ERTs), the exploitation of labor directly by capital is abolished, although the workers are not able to become independent from the indirect exploitation through the market.
In turn, as an economic phenomenon, self-management of work is a tool that has not been developed until now by the popular movement in the dispute over the distribution of wealth. The popular economy, in general, has not managed to reproduce – at least not in groups greater than a few thousand people in very specific spaces – the operating conditions that are achieved in ERTs and in other cooperative processes with capital investment capacity; even in a very limited way. This is mainly due to two fundamental elements of the recovered businesses that are not found in the majority of the experiences in the popular economy: the existence of a previously structured group with experience and labor discipline (which is sometimes called the “culture of work”), and capital preserved from previous employer failure in the form of facilities, machinery, and sometimes value networks. Having both conditions is not a guarantee of success, as we have seen, but they are a starting point that popular economy organizations do not usually have and, as a habit, do not propose.
As a social phenomenon, the self-managed company is a powerful binder of social and solidarity networks, a collective organizer that is little used. The difference from other organizations is its economic base, rather than territorial. But, at the same time, businesses, especially the ERTs, have little-used or idle spaces that can serve as a base for other popular initiatives, and their very nature as a labor organization can function as a concentrator of a network of social relationships that strengthens the community that surrounds it. However, there are few cases in which this has been achieved, or has been done on the basis of a popular power-building strategy.
In this last sense, the potentiality of the political process of the ERT has been little explored, which could become, based on the previous points, an interesting exercise of popular power. The tendency of cooperatives in general, and of recovered companies in particular, to close in on themselves, a trend supported by the urgent need to sustain income through economic activity in the market and by the shallowness of the organizational fabric achieved, limits the scope of experiments in this direction.
These general considerations should be complemented by others concerning the difficulties and limitations of the experiences in the ERTs over the years.
The first thing in this sense is that the consolidation of self-managed companies must have a correlation at the state level in support programs and legislation that ensure the rights and achievements of self-management. The movement of recovered and self-managed companies, in all its variants, has so far been ineffective in generating the conditions to advance this issue after the achievements of the first few years. The reform of the bankruptcy law in 2011 was the last advance in this regard, and even that had many limitations. This does not have to mean any detriment to their autonomy. It has to do with the consolidation of rights obtained by force and the struggle of a movement that has already been fighting for decades – at different times, for the eight-hour workday, the legalization of trade unions, or the right to social security. The working class that practices self-management is in a legislative blind spot: associations for work are recognized, but not subject to labor standards. They must comply with the same tax and administrative formalities as corporations, but they cannot receive credit and are systematically left out of public policies (some of this began to be reversed recently, but there is still a long way to go). Achieving a floor of labor and economic rights would be a huge boost for the consolidation and expansion of self-management.
Another pending matter is the scarcity of specifically political or even professional training in management processes for the workers, which is almost exclusively the responsibility of the organizations. ERT workers are halfway between the unionized worker and the worker in the popular economy: they expect solutions from an absent employer (sometimes replaced by the leadership of the organization itself) or from the State. This situation, which speaks to the difficulty of generating a collective direction of production, in most cases turns into delay or even failure to build a truly collective organization of the economy.
In turn, self-management can no more overcome market conditions – which, logically, would be very difficult in such an unfavorable context – than it can overcome the obstacles the State presents. But to advance in autonomy from the market (that is, to achieve the ability to define in part its own rules and conditions of production), it must have economic tools that give it the necessary “backing” to do so, that is, capital and the ability to generate productive as well as social innovation (which is generally related to the investment made). And here appears one of the main strategic challenges of self-management in the framework of capitalism: how to generate capital without exploitation and without a broad social and political support network that provides what productive activity itself delays or cannot generate. This network can include the active support of the State (which would require a government that wanted to do so) and social entities that can depend on this and are able to build on their successes.
In this way, the experience of the recovered businesses differs little from most of the historical track record in our region and at other latitudes, especially in the cooperative movement. It is the challenge that the Polish economist Jaroslav Vanek synthesized in "the danger of usurpation of self-management by worker-owners," which underlies the development of a self-centered, self-financed, and self-managed organization without ties to larger structures that give it meaning. The paradox is that economic success results in a loss of the self-management process, while politicization without achieving the objective of generating a decent income for all members of the organization runs the risk of not being able to ensure survival. The answer to this challenge may happen, we suspect, through the expansion of the networks that contain self-management, the diversification of sources of financing and capitalization, and the existence of a political structure for training and practice.
The latter is especially valid in factories and companies of certain sizes, which cannot generate the conditions of reproduction of their economic circuit in the medium term, or investment to ensure their long term, something that usually appears with the need to renew capital goods and upgrade technology. Legal precarity is a key factor in this limitation, since few companies have the property titles they need to be able to access bank credit and, worse, in Argentina, there are not many financing alternatives so far. But even if there were, large capitalist companies have long based their expansion on credit, state support, financial investment, and appreciation in large concentrated conglomerates, with the ability to offer whatever resources its business units need, and to close down any that do not fit into the scheme with no trouble. The isolation of self-managed companies makes it almost impossible to overcome these situations.
Finally, and returning to what was stated above, the growth of these experiences is fundamental for the development of alternatives for the popular economy that manage, on the one hand, to avoid putting all its eggs in the basket of contested State resources and, on the other hand, to end hyper-exploitation through subordination to the productive chains of concentrated capital.
In summary, twenty years of self-management provide a good basis for overcoming some of the limitations pointed out, if we can debate them without fear of weakening the movement or showing weak flanks to the powerful enemy that is, without a doubt, capital, generally faithfully accompanied by the State. On the whole, and despite these limitations, the recovered businesses are nothing other than the revitalization of the self-management process as a tool for the economic and social construction of the working class, an instrument abandoned in the historical process by unions and partisan organizations. It is an idea that has been forgotten and pushed into the corners of historical memory, but that lives and resurfaces in each experience of collective economic organization, such as, without a doubt, the businesses recovered by their workers. The popular rebellion of December 19 and 20, 2001, contributed decisively to making this possible.
Translation by Steve Herrick, with help from Julio Garcia.
Header image by Guglielmo Celata.
- 1Now the Felipe Vallese Worker Cooperative.
- 2Now Pauny, one of the few cases in which the recovery did not result in a cooperative, but in a three-part joint-stock company that includes the participation of the workers' cooperative.
- 3Now the Union y Fuerza Cooperative.
- 5Data from the Open Faculty program of the UBA and the National Registry of Recovered Companies of the INAES.
- 6In chapter 27 of Volume III of Capital.
Andrés Ruggeri (2022). Self-management in Argentina 20 Years After 2001. Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO). https://geo.coop/articles/self-management-argentina-20-years-after-2001
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