All Power to the People!
here's what happens when the boss gets out of the way!
from today's ny times
Workers in Argentina Take Charge of Abandoned Factories
By LARRY ROHTER
UENOS AIRES, July 5 — The workers at the IMPA aluminum plant here all can remember when their company was privately owned, and a few veterans even recall when it was the property of the state. But these days, as the result of the worst economic crisis in the country's history, it is the workers themselves who are the factory's stockholders and managers.
When the economy collapsed here 18 months ago, the situation was so bad that the owners of many factories simply shut their doors and walked away, in most cases owing their employees months and months of back pay. Rather than accept that situation, workers — backed by neighborhood associations and left-wing groups enamored with the idea of "people's capitalism" — have sometimes been able to persuade bankruptcy courts to let them take over the company's assets.
"The only boss here now is the customer," said Plácido Peñarieta, one of nine employees at the Chilavert Artes Gráficas cooperative, which prints art books and posters, calendars and concert programs. "We've learned to depend on ourselves and nobody else."
Across this nation of 37 million people, at least 160 factories employing an estimated 10,000 people are now being run as cooperatives by their employees, ranging from a tractor factory in Córdoba to a tile and ceramics plant in Patagonia. But the largest concentration is here in the capital and its suburbs, where the nucleus of the country's industrial production is located.
With 172 workers making aluminum cans, foil and wrappers, IMPA is the largest of the so-called retrieved factories here. Production is still far from the peaks of the 1990's, but since workers took over with an initial 50 employees under contract, production has tripled, to 50 tons a month.
"We could easily be turning out 90 tons a month, because we've got the orders but not the working capital," said Guillermo Robledo, chosen by the workers to be the plant manager. Instead, he added, "we're in the ironic position of having to extend 60-day credit lines to our customers, some of whom are large multinationals" with much easier access to capital than a workers' cooperative.
Like most of the cooperatives, this factory is run by an administrative council, whose members are elected by the workers. Monthly assemblies are held to discuss issues like salaries — which have nearly doubled since the low point as the economy collapsed — how many new workers to hire and who they should be.
The IMPA workers have even voted to turn space that was not being used into a neighborhood cultural and arts center.
The positive response to the cultural activities, said Eduardo Murúa, a leader of the cooperative, provides "an umbrella that prevents the banks from acting against us" and has gained the factory favorable publicity and financial support from the city government.
Faced with the loss of jobs and tax revenues, the municipality has sought to help by taking legal title to abandoned or derelict factories and the machinery inside. Under new legislation, it rents the premises to the workers' cooperatives and supports them in their efforts to negotiate with creditors.
"Our responsibility as elected representatives is clear," said Delia Bisutti, president of the City Council's economic development commission and the main sponsor of the law. "Given a choice between bankruptcies, many of which are fraudulent and intended simply to loot assets, and maintaining some job postings, we have moved to reduce the social costs of this awful crisis."
But with the Argentine economy — especially companies that export goods — finally showing some signs of recovery, the original owners of some plants have resurfaced. That has led to legal struggles with workers and, in one recent case, even violence.
In April, the police sought unsuccessfully to enforce a court order and evict workers from the Brukman textile factory, a producer of men's suits, jackets and pants. The 56 employees who have been running the plant since the end of 2001, though owed wages, had not followed the procedures established by the city ordinance to gain control. That provided a legal basis for owners' complaints that they are merely trespassers and thieves.
At factories where ownership is not in dispute, the employee-managers confront other problems. Initially, workers say, some longstanding suppliers and clients were reluctant to do business with them, and even now, bank loans and supplier credits are nearly impossible to obtain.
"It was difficult to get started because even though the company had a reputation, people did not believe that we workers were capable of managing things," said Jorge Luján Gutiérrez, an employee of the Chilavert print shop. "We had to show that the high level of quality was still intact and that the only thing missing was a few executives in the front office."
Workers acknowledge that they too have had to change their attitudes. "We had no notion of all the things we were going to have to learn," said José Camilo Guglielmero, a founder of the cooperative that now runs Ghelco, S.A., a leading producer of sauces and toppings for ice cream and pastries. "I've never liked to speak in front of people, but now I'm talking to clients and helping to design marketing and sales campaigns."
Now that they are shareholders and not just employees, the workers are also more willing to make personal sacrifices in the name of the corporation. At Ghelco, for example, "everyone makes the same wages now, from directors to the janitors," Mr. Guglielmero said: 600 pesos, or $200, a month, compared with the 1,200 pesos a month he said he earned under the previous owners.
When wages at the aluminum plant were initially cut drastically, workers bought cattle to slaughter at the plant, agreeing to take part of their pay in meat rather than money. "Everybody is a partner here," Mr. Robledo said. "That's our strength, the commitment we feel to something that is our own."
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