By Bob Stone (Based on dispatches by Marie Trigona)
Argentina's recuperated business movement held a fair-trade festival September 28, 2007 in support of the Bauen, a hotel in downtown Buenos Aires run by its workforce as a cooperative since 2003. There was indeed something to celebrate: an order evicting the co-op from the hotel had been temporarily suspended.
Deeply in debt, including to its own workforce, the Bauen's former owners had fired the entire workforce in December 2001 and closed the doors. They were indifferent to the hotel's deterioration, and made no plans to reorganized and reopen the hotel. Argentina was then in a deep economic crisis characterized by collapse of the Argentine peso, which virtually overnight lost over two-thirds of its value. Unemployment passed 25% as the crisis deepened throughout 2002.
With no income and hunger threatening, the workers broke the locks and re-opened the Bauen in March 2003. Their intention was not to join a movement of cooperatives in recuperated firms. They did not presume to change the world. All they wanted was their jobs. They began floor-by-floor rehabilitation, admitting guests as floors became available.
Since its workers have restored the ruined hotel to profitability, receptionist Elena Cruz notes that the owners who had walked away from it now want it back. "All of a sudden they threw us out into the streets on December 28, 2001. Because of the poor administration of the businessmen we had to leave the hotel. Now that we re-opened a hotel that was closed they tell us we have to leave. If they do that, 154 families are going to be kicked out of the hotel without jobs."
On July 20, 2007, the Bauen Hotel co-op received a 30-day eviction order from a federal court in response to a petition by the Mercoteles group. The court recognizes Mercoteles as the property's legal owner but it accepted an appeal on behalf of the Bauen cooperative temporarily delaying eviction. This is what the festival was celebrating.
The 19-story co-op hotel is situated in the equivalent of Buenos Aires's Times Square. This makes it the most visible example of Argentina's recuperated enterprise movement, made up of over 180 firms with histories similar to the Bauen's. The co-op has been busy running a prominent and modern hotel, but it has not forgotten its roots. The hotel's comfortable spaces have been a focus of political organizing by the movement that has rallied to its side.
"Occupy, Resist, Produce"
When the peso collapse hit in December 2001, most big capital had already fled the country for tax havens. But when the middle class went to their banks for their savings, they found they were nearly destitute. The crisis could have led to class war. Instead the working class and the poor came together behind the demand "they should all go," referring to the politicians of all parties. More significantly, a large array of economic democracy experiments then flourished to meet immediate needs: community gardens and restaurants, local currencies, neighborhood assemblies, etc. Of these experiments, the recuperated enterprise movement has alone endured. Its slogan is: "Occupy, resist, produce." Pino Solanas, world renowned filmmaker, remarked that the Bauen's resistance "proves that a non-capitalist form of management is viable in a society that has been in crisis."
The coalition of cooperatives that the Bauen has helped to build now seeks a long-term legal solution for the 10,000 workers currently employed in such enterprises, many of which are being contested by previous owners. According to Bauen advocate Federico Tonarelli: "Taking advantage of the fact that the court has accepted our appeal, and that we now have more legal time, we have organized today's [festival] activity to demand a National Expropriation Law before the National Congress, the place where the law needs to be passed. The recuperated enterprises don't have a definitive legal framework. A national expropriation law would not only provide workers with the legal right to the buildings, but a framework for all the recuperated enterprises."
The eviction order had come just as the Bauen Hotel co-op was spearheading a newly organized Federation of Self-Managed Worker Cooperatives so worker-run businesses could strategize on how to collectively overcome market challenges. "It's difficult for a cooperative to become viable without capital resources and state subsidies," said Fabio Resino, a legal advisor at the Bauen. According to Resino, the federation's cooperatives - of which there are now 30 -- are building a network for marketing goods produced under self-management to enhance their survival chances in a dog-eat-dog market.
The collapse of the Argentine peso bears comparison to the current crisis of the US dollar, which is daily losing its value. If the dollar collapses and a similar depression hits the US, will the US public be able to invent an effective economy without money, as the Argentines did? The question is haunting. Meanwhile, having weathered the crisis, the Bauen festival symbolizes a positive resolution. Over 50 worker-owned businesses participated in it with sales stands, street theater and live music. Should the US crisis - tied up as it is with the global economy - become as acute as Argentina's, can we envision a similar outcome?
Bob Stone, a retired philosophy professor, is a Research Associate at the Center for Global Justice in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico (www.globaljusticecenter.org) and a member of the editorial board of Grassroots Economic Organizing.