Interview with Andres Toledo of Argentina's Cooperativa Ale Ale
cross-posted from Co-operative Economies Research
People often associate the movement of recovered businesses in Argentina with the crisis of 2001-2002 and indeed, during that time, many businesses were occupied and recovered to be run under worker self-management. However, this movement is ongoing. According to Andres Ruggeri of Facultad Abierta (reporting on the fourth survey of worker-recovered businesses in Argentina which you can find on their website), as of the close of 2013, there were 311 worker-recovered businesses in Argentina. Among those 311 worker-recovered businesses, 63 began during the period between 2010 and 2013! This interview with Andres Adrian Toledo, below, highlights one of those: Cooperativa Alé Alé. But first, here's some brief background:
Alé Alé was one of six in a chain of restaurants under the same owner in Buenos Aires. In December 2012, the workers learned that the owners were planning to close all of the restaurants. They were behind in receiving their salaries by some four months, and one of the restaurants, La Zaranda, had already closed. The workers didn't want to be out on the streets, and they knew Alé Alé could be a viable business, so they got together, formed a co-operative, and took it under their control. They convinced the other four remaining restaurants to do the same, but, because of an impending eviction, Alé Alé’s struggle would long outlast the others. They had to occupy the restaurant and hold their ground for a year, learning how to manage their business collectively all while navigating the court system and fighting eviction attempts.
Yes, we’d heard of many of them, co-operatives like Hotel Bauen, Brukman, Chilavert… I had always heard. But one always listens to these things and says, ‘Wow, poor people,’ no? But you never know that it’s going to happen to you and you’re going to face all of this!
We were the first… Had we not done this, all of the restaurants would have been closed and 180 workers would have been in the streets.
~Andres Adrian Toledo
The workers of Alé Alé guarded the restaurant 24 hours a day, running their business by day and sleeping on makeshift mattresses and chairs wherever they could by night. They stood ground and fought the eviction for a year. In December 2013, having secured another location, they finally reached an agreement with the owners of the building to vacate in six months. Now, just as other co-operatives helped them, they’re helping the workers of Lalo who have formed a co-operative and are facing eviction from their restaurant.
I conducted this interview with Andres Adrian Toledo, president of the co-operative Alé Alé in August 2013 during their long period of resisting eviction. I had met him for the first time on ‘children’s day’ (dia de los ninos). My friend Lisandro and I had gone to lunch, and afterwards, while we were waiting for a rich desert of whiskey and ice cream, we asked if we could talk to someone about the co-operative and their experience in it. The waiter said yes, he would get someone. Five minutes later, Andres came over and introduced himself. He said, “I’m always here. You can come any time.” Monday was a holiday, so I made an appointment for Thursday.
Alé Alé wasn't yet open when I arrived, but the door was open, so I went in. I told one of the gentlemen in black and white that I was there to meet Andres Toledo. He said he would get him and asked if I would like a cup of coffee. He returned with a fresh cup of coffee and told me that Andres would be out in a few minutes. I was relieved. I had some coffee while I waited for him.
I've had some great interviews in Buenos Aires, but this one was one of the most inspirational. What you see here is a rough translation that I did myself--please excuse the mistakes.
Interview with Andres Adrian Toledo of Cooperativa Alé Alé: August 22, 2013
Andres: My name is Andres Adrian Toledo, President of Cooperativa Alé Alé. I'm going to tell you more or less how all of this happened, so you understand us. As we say, it was one day after another. There was a process that led up to all of this. The whole year 2012, we were coming in three or four months behind on our salaries. We would go to the office to try and claim our salaries. We would say, "we would like our salaries," and they would say, "If you don't like it, you know what you have to do. You have to leave. That's how it is." Things like that were happening that year.
In the middle of December 2012, more or less, a supervisor came to us and said the restaurant was going to close one of these days and that we wouldn't have the possibility to recover our salary. They owed us four months salary, vacation time, seven years of retirement contributions... So we started thinking--because this same year, June of last year (2012), one of the other restaurants closed. We were six restaurants, a chain of restaurants. La Zaranda is the one that closed in June. The others are La Soleada, Don Battaglia, Los Chanchitos, Mangiata, and Alé Alé. When we heard that La Zaranda closed and left everyone in the street, what could I do? I was the first to say we [had] to do something. It can't be that we forty workers are thrown out into the streets without the possibility of doing anything! From some point of view, we've got to see an open door.
So we went to the union--the Gastronomy Union--and they dropped the ball. They didn't help us. They said the businesses owed a lot of money and it would be very expensive, so they didn't give us a hand. After all this, we left, indignant, upset and crying, saying “What can we do?” And then we looked at the page from the recovered businesses.
Janelle: You had heard about the other recovered businesses?
Andres: Yes, we'd heard of many of them, co-operatives like Hotel Bauen, Brukman, Chilavert. I had always heard. But one always listens to these things and says "Wow, poor people," no? But you never know that it’s going to happen to you and you're going to have to face all of this! [see our story on Hotel Bauen's eviction fight-Ed.]
That's how I arrived at Hotel Bauen and talked with the President, Frederico Tonarelli. He helped me. He advised us because they're also with the association of co-operatives, FACTA [the Federación Argentina de Cooperativas de Trabajadores Autogestionados--Federation of Self-Managed Worker Co-operatives in Argentina]. So, we talked with a lawyer. We started to use the paperwork to see exactly what was the situation of the business. The business was at the point to close everything. So there wasn't an alternative; we didn't have another option other than to take the place. I found out everything. The rental agreement had expired, there was an eviction agreement, and contest of creditors. Everything indicated that Alé Alé was going to close the first days of January and, no matter what, we'd be in the street.
Janelle: And the owners hadn't told you anything?
Andres: No, they hadn't told us anything. That's when I saw that the only open door to get out of this was to form a co-operative. So I had to talk to the group. We had to talk because we're 40! It's not easy. We had to convince everyone that the only exit we had was this: to be united, form a co-operative, and this way we'll face an employer who only saw [it] fit to close the restaurant. If we stay together, we'll solve this. If we're going one way and the other--if this one says yes and that one says no--we won't get anywhere. If we, the workers, get together and say, "Look, let's form a co-operative and show them that Alé Alé always grew thanks to us, not them." Because it was us who came and cooked, cleaned and attended the tables and did everything. All they did was the capital. Nothing more.
So there I was, carcomiendo la cabeza [approximately, “driving everyone crazy”-Ed.]. And everyone began thinking and saying, "Is this true or is anything this kid’s saying true?" It was difficult because there are workers who've been here 15 years and then, just like that, someone comes and says, "Let's form a co-operative or the business isn't going to be anything." It was hard to believe. It's like, "What do I do? Is he saying things that aren't true? Or is it true what he's saying?"
The owner called and said, “Whoever is responsible for the accounts is doing it with a criminal charge against them and [is] going to jail,” things like that. So the cashiers left and I said, "no problem." Now I manage the accounts.
The truth is I knew it was the only option we had, but I didn't know what was going to happen, if they were going to put me in chains and send me to prison or what. I didn't know anything. But I did it. With all of this they said do it, let's do it together. So everybody, the 40 workers, said, “Let's go with the co-operative.”
The first thing we did was to get rid of the supervisors and say they couldn't come back. Then, the owner called, and they passed the phone to me. He said they were going to evict us and I would go to prison. I had been advised on this. I said to him, “So, if this is your business and you're doing things right, come here and defend it. Come here, I'm waiting for you here. In the meantime, I'll be managing it. Self-managing.” We asked the owners to come and talk to us, but they never appeared. Never. So we did everything.
The 13th of January we started working together on everything. The owner called and said, “Whoever is responsible for the accounts is doing it with a criminal charge against them and [is] going to jail,” things like that. So the cashiers left and I said, "no problem." Now I manage the accounts.
After a bit, the the police came. Imagine! That first day we were all sure they were going to come and evict us. By chance, I was here alone talking to a lawyer, saying, “What do I do?” She was saying you have to do this and that. I mean, we were all excited and saying “Up with Alé Alé”, but there I was alone with the lawyer. Really this was beautiful, because I faced a policeman, and he asked me what was happening and I told him the story. I said, "Look, this happened. And the other thing... They owe us four months salary, seven years retirement contributions... And now we've taken the place, and we're going to work as a co-operative." The police man looked at me and said, "You know what? Don't leave here. Stay here. I'm a worker like you. The only thing we're going to do... These people want us to get you out of here, but we can't without the order from a judge. So, I only came to give you this paper, and I'm going. I'm going to collaborate with you peacefully. But move forward, don't leave here. Stay here and you're going to win." I said, "Wow!"
Janelle: [laughing hysterically]
Andres: So we started. We got everything together for the first eviction attempt. Everyone came, all of the worker co-operatives from everywhere from all the provinces came to help give us a hand so we weren't evicted. The first attempt to evict us that happened on the first of March really made an impression on me. There were 300 people from all the recovered businesses--Hotel Bauen, Brukman, Chilavert--all of them and businesses that came in from the provinces. Because during those first days and that month when we started self-managing [“autogestionar”] all of this, we were talking to them.
Janelle: All these days, were you open?
Andres: Yes, always. We never closed. We only closed when they made the intent to evict us mid-day, but by night we were open again. Because this is the idea: You're going to try and evict us. We're going to resist. We're going to resist because you're not going to get us out of here.
The idea is not to fall. If we have to go to battle, we'll go to battle. The month we began to self-manage, the owner called and said, “These ‘negros’ aren't going to last long, they're going to kill themselves.” And I said, “Really?” For me, this is a real vindication--even more because we're five restaurants with the same owner.
So my plan was to talk to the other restaurants, talk to the compañeros so they would be united with us and form co-operatives as well--because they were going to be thrown in the street no matter what. All the restaurants were going to close. So I went first one night to Don Battaglia at 12 or 1 a.m. and, when they came out, I started to talk. I said, "Look, one month ago we started a co-operative, and we're covering our salaries. We know the abuses you are facing, that you're three months behind on your salaries and that you're going to close any minute. All of the restaurants are in the same situation. Look, if you guys get together with us, us workers, we're going to have much more force, and we're going to show them that the workers can do it. Think about it, call me. We'll make a meeting and together we'll make it work."
Two days later they called me: "Hey Andres, you know you're right. They're going to close the restaurant." [laughter, inaudible]
So we went to Don Battaglia and from there we were two. We had more power. We had more volume, more force--and from there, we did it again. I did the same thing with La Soleada. I went to talk with them. "Look man, it's going to close and now we're two already..."
They began to check, and they called me and said, "Andres," he said, "you're right, come here." So we went to La Soleada. We went to La Soleada but, eh... it was like a bucket of cold water.
Janelle: Cold water? Why?
Andres: This was more difficult. La Soleada is a little bigger than this. Then Los Chanchitos and Mangiata were the last [...] to come out because they were employees with many more years--with 30 years of history. And it was more difficult for them to understand what was happening. But from there, they've been with us, and all five restaurants are co-operatives. All five restaurants are functioning as worker co-operatives legally. The only one that's having conflict is us.
We were the first that started all of this and drove all of this. Had we not done this, all of the restaurants would have been closed and the 180 workers would have been in the streets.
So, all of the restaurants are on the path to form co-operatives. All of the others are there with the membership enrollment and their ownership and accounting paperwork. The exception is us because we have the problem of location. The other restaurants are fine because the owners of the buildings are glad to have the rent from the co-operatives. Here, no. The owner of the building wants us out. So afterwards, what happens?
The first attempt at eviction here at Alé Alé... We made an announcement to call all of the worker co-operatives, recovered businesses to come here in solidarity. We invited them to help prevent the eviction. When the day came, we had the four other restaurants and all the co-operatives of the whole province! We were--this is what I was telling you--we were more than 300 people! From column to column and corner to corner [he's showing me with his hands], filled with people! And all of the newspapers and media! They brought everything.
Waiting for the official judgement to come and make the eviction, we had gone to give notice to the police station because they were friendly with us and they had told us that tomorrow would be the eviction. 'Prepare yourselves.' They didn't want to force us out because they're workers as well...From there we were ready.
Four or five months ago, it was just me and my compañeros, and now 500 people or more were here helping us! We had media--which lent us a real hand--and all around the building it was the same. The whole world was here and inside and out. There were easily 700 people here in total. It was intense. There were national representatives, a mayor, registrars, [incomprehensible] Juan Carlos Junio, a mountain of people were here inside. In the moment, this makes you think, “Wow,” no? The people in solidarity. They came to lend a hand to prevent the eviction. Without them, we would have been evicted. This was brilliant.
It's not that you win all of the battles. If you lose one of the battles, you get back up for the next battle. And attitude is a big part of it. This is a big force and difficult, too. Because, in my case, I'm the elected president, so I have to stay motivated, and beyond that, I have to motivate everyone around me. It's work, but in some way I have to maintain motivation. Sometimes the only motivation is to help when one of the compañeros are falling and encourage them because moments happen when you fall. After so much time guarding the place and ah… It's tough. So many days without going home… It's tough. Sometimes I fall and I have my 40 compañeros to pick me up.
We're strong because the time came when I was working on prices and improving the quality of the meat and vegetables, we were improving the quality of service--the attention people were getting--and the people kept coming and they said to us that we had changed but for the better. They could tell the climate had changed for the better. There's a great environment here now--the attention to clients, the food, the ability to have everything for you and your experience to be perfect. Before, we really didn't give a damn. We were working three or four months behind on salary, so we were like, whatever. We didn't care about much and the cook didn't even want to cook! What do you think? Four months behind on your salary, you wouldn't to want to cook...
Everything was done grudgingly. But now that it's ours, we know that we can do it and that in reality, the workers can do it alone. How can I explain it to you. It's so good what's happening. Well, good and bad. Good because we're a co-operative; we're doing it ourselves. The bad part is that we have the eviction pending, nothing more. The companionship and the unity is going to change that. The only way to solve all of this is to be united, to resist together, strong as a rock, and face everything in the path and move ahead. Together is the only way we're going to solve it.
Like this! Week after week people who had stopped coming because the food was bad or the service was bad have returned to try and see what has happened. And they've said, “Wow! We're going to keep coming back and we're going to recommend it to others.” So, we're getting more clients. And sometimes, I sit [at] a table to talk with the guests and I say to them that when they come to have lunch or dinner, they are part of this fight with us. Without them, we're nothing.
So when we see people having dinner or lunch, they form part of this struggle because they come to contribute so that we can bring our salaries home. We couldn't come to this struggle alone. Without clients, we couldn't do this. So we try to do our best. Every day.
And we're here every night with the guarding. We get together over there and play 'Clue' or cards because it can get boring. We try not to have much internal conflict because this could separate us. So what do we do?
Nobody is going to earn one cent more than another. From the dishwasher to the wait-staff, chefs, and myself, the president...I put more effort in planting the seed but I do it because I care about it, not for the money.
We are friendly because during the week we agree not to have any type of ‘discussion.’ No disagreements. For example, if someone wants to complain about something, whatever it is, they say nothing. On Sunday at 4 in the afternoon, we have our assembly. Every Sunday. We all get together for the meeting [to] discuss and deal with everything that happened during the week. We present the numbers so everything is transparent. Everyone knows how much money came in, how much money went out, what was paid and what hasn't been paid, and the money we're saving or spending. The most important thing about all this is that here we all earn equal pay. Nobody is going to earn one cent more than another. From the dishwasher to the wait-staff, chefs, and myself, the president. I don't want to earn one cent more than anybody else. I put more effort in planting the seed but I do it because I care about it, not for the money.
So, if we're going to grow, we're going to grow together, side by side as equals. For me, this is a co-operative. We had to change that system of shit that gives each one a different pay... The person who washes dishes earns less than the cook and the cook earns less than the manager. We changed this system. Here we earn exactly the same. So, everybody helps. Thank God. This way is working.
Anyway, on Sundays, we go through the numbers and business, and then we start our discussions. 'This happened and that happened during the week...' Sometimes we have blocks and tensions and arguments... All of this. But for Monday, we have everything out and repaired without anger or bad feelings. You don't have to bring things up on Monday because you had your time on Sunday to say it. This is the life here at Alé Alé.
I suggested that idea, but other restaurants don't do it that way. The only thing I was able help convince them of was to take over their locations. Each one runs it the way they want--and some things I don't agree with, like the pay scales [incomprehensible]. One earns more because he's president... So we had a meeting with all the presidents [of all five restaurants], and I suggested that if they're going to be the president, the leader, that they should do it because they care about it, not for the money. It should be, as we say, the blood of the leadership of the group. That's how it should be because if not, it doesn't work.
Janelle: And now, in general, do you think you earn more than they did before?
Andres: Yes, we earn much more. [incomprehensible]
Janelle: Really? [laughing]
Andres: Yes because they weren't paying us and anyway, the money that the owners used to take from us isn't taken away anymore. But I thought you were asking me if we're all equal here in the context of the eviction.
No about the money, we earn a lot more. We earn a lot more because we put in double the effort, we're working harder, people are helping more. People are in solidarity. The people come in for dinner and lunch. They're helping us more. We're earning more, and, well, the money [the owners] took for themselves before, now it stays here. We're earning more and saving more.
Janelle: To invest?
Andres: To invest in other things. Invest and open another Alé Alé. For December, November--December or March at the latest.
Janelle: To move this one or to have two?
Andres: Two. From here, we're not leaving. [His index finger points down to the table with conviction] From here, we're not leaving.
But, okay. For me this is a co-operative: equality for everyone, forget about the individualistic work and work in companionship. Work in companionship, discipline, charge everyone the same, everyone takes the same pay. Change of the system of shit where one earns more because he's doing the books and another earns less because he's washing dishes.
Janelle: Are you guys associated members of FACTA? And do you have to pay dues?
People are in solidarity. The people come in for dinner and lunch...We're earning more and,...the money [the owners] took for themselves before, now it stays here.
Andres: No, no. We contribute to FACTA but we're not 'associated' yet. We're not yet associated with FACTA. What we hope moving forward is that we're five restaurants. With one more co-operative, we'll make a federation. That way we'll be able to generate more work force and more--and, as we say, power to do more.
This is a struggle [...] to show everyone that we can do it.
Janelle: It's important because there are struggles here and in all parts of the world. And they're watching, right? Well, we hope they're seeing what one can do. What you've done here is amazing.
Andres: Of course. For example, here we're 40. One person can't do it alone but one person can look for a solution, find the information, and find out what they can do. And when they know, they can do it. They can form the group and the group can do it. Hopefully, people see that there's a solution, there's an open door and an exit that they know there's something to face the management. The only thing they have to do is unite the workers. Nothing more. [another worker comes to ask Andres a question]
Janelle: I imagine you have to get to work with other things.
Andres: Well, yeah. I have to talk to a woman with the radio. We are consciously trying to get publicity because it's important to have more people, and so workers know they can do it. It's important.
Janelle: Thank you so much for sharing your story. I'll be looking for your news by internet, facebook and sharing your story with friends, colleagues and my blog.
This interview with Andres Adrian Toledo was conducted by Janelle Cornwell at Cooperativa Alé Alé in Buenos Aires, Argentina on August 22, 2013. Thank you to Andres Adrian Toledo and all of the workers of Alé Alé for sharing your story.
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