Winds of Freedom: An Argentine Factory under Workers’ Control*

Laura Meyer and María

Because Zanón is an example of work and freedom1

Zanón is a ceramics factory located in the remote and frigid Patagonian province of Neuquén. The experience of its workers in struggle has been recounted in many news stories, journal articles, and books. Many observers have written of these workers who occupied the factory, overthrew the old collaborationist union leadership, began to produce on their own, hired new workers linked to various movements of the unemployed, and became politically active in the community, not only in their own province but also in other parts of the country. This extraordinary experience, like that of other occupied factories, transcends time and place and becomes part of the accumulated experience and awareness that workers will draw upon as they confront new capitalist crises.2

Zanón under workers' control has inspired the lyrics of popular Argentine songwriters and rock bands and has also been the subject of numerous films such as Corazón de fábrica (Heart of the Factory) by Virna Molina and Ernesto Ardito, La toma ("The Take[over]") by Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis, Escuela de planificación (School for Planning) by the documentary group Contraimagen, FaSinPat (Factory w/o Boss) by Daniel Incalcaterra, and No retornable (Non-Returnable) by Sebastián Cáceres and Damián Parisotto, among others. The ceramics workers also received great support from the Madres de Plaza de Mayo and from world-renowned intellectuals.3 In addition, hundreds of young people from all over the world have visited the workers to learn of their experiment.

All this recognition helped strengthen Zanón under workers' control – something that could not have happened if these ceramists had not built a firm social alliance with other workers and with the community as a whole, with the active support of movements of the unemployed, teachers, students, intellectuals, and parties of the left, who joined the workers in resisting all state attempts to eject them, while raising strike-funds and organizing demonstrations, among other acts of solidarity.

These workers carried out one of the first of a whole series of factory takeovers within the so-called process of fábricas recuperadas (recovered factories) that spread through Argentina – a result of the profound economic, political and social crisis triggered by the historic recession of 1999 – showing that the workers can produce without bosses.

Faced with an attempted lockout by Zanón's management, which wanted to impose a restructuring plan with only 62 production workers, the workers on October 2, 2001 – after months camped outside the factory without receiving any wages – voted by absolute majority in a meeting to remain in the factory alongside the machines, that is to say, to proceed to the takeover (toma) of the factory and to prevent its closing and defend their jobs. Exactly five months later, on March 2, 2002, 240 workers lit the furnaces and the fábrica sin patrones (factory without bosses) started to run, in the process not only resuming production but also igniting a struggle against the company and against the union leadership.4

In order to understand this experience, we must take into account a prior process of organization in which these workers began creating what has been called, since mid-2004, sindicalismo de base (rank and file unionism) – expressed in the growing use of workers' assemblies and in the rise of new union leaders and alternative procedures, including taking control of certain internal commissions and bodies of delegates and even constituting "alternative" union locals (seccionales) "which present themselves in opposition to the leadership of the national unions – particularly to those belonging to the bureaucratic and pro-management CGT (General Confederation of Labor) and less so to those belonging to the CTA (Argentine Workers’ Center), which was founded on class-conscious and democratic principles.”5

In 2000, the ceramists took an important step in the defense of their independent and democratic form of organization when they took over Local 21 of the Sindicato de Obreros y Empleados Ceramistas de Neuquén (SOECN), an affiliate of the national union of ceramists (Federación de Obreros Ceramistas de la República Argentina, FOCRA), thus establishing the first class-conscious local in the industrial sector since 1983. These workers became a national and international model for working-class struggle against capitalist exploitation – not only because of their practices of workers' self-management (autogestión obrera), but also because of their independent and class-conscious organization which linked issues of production with those of politics, and because with their local experience they showed that the workers, by imposing their hegemony at the national level, would be able to address the problems plaguing the community, such as housing, unemployment, and healthcare.

Here we will examine how it has been possible for the ceramists and their union (the SOECN) to continue after eight years to set a standard for organization and struggle, in contrast to the increasing passivity of the majority of social movements that arose from the 1999-2003 economic disaster and the popular rebellion that threw out the De la Rúa government on December 20, 2001.6 The continuing relevance of the Zanón struggle reflects three central factors. First is its origin and trajectory. Driven by a deep economic and social crisis, the Zanón workers – like those in hundreds of enterprises throughout Argentina – had no choice, in terms of protecting their jobs, but to take radical direct actions like factory takeovers (tomas de fábrica), which required them to confront not only management but also the state and the union bureaucracy. A second factor is the experiences of the great social struggle in Neuquén province for the democratization (recuperación democrática) of the SOECN leadership, and also of the popular uprisings of Cutral-Có in 1996 and 1997.7 Finally, another important factor was the influence within the factory of a wing of the Argentine Trotskyist left. Through its practice of asambleismo [worker assemblies], a product of ideologically diverse radical-democratic working-class traditions, it brought together the most combative activists and unified the vast majority of the workers in defense of the factory. These sectors revived worker activism for the first time since the defeat imposed in 1976 by the military dictatorship, and nourished a class-conscious militancy which sparked political discussions and forms of self-organization throughout the working class.8

Workers' democracy and independent organization: Class-conscious unionism and the factory committee

The conquest of the internal commission and the recovery of the SOECN

In 1998, before the decline of Carlos Menem's neoliberal government had set in, assemblies within the factory were prohibited. In those conditions a group of workers presented an opposition slate in the union elections. This slate demanded, among other things, equal pay, equal rights for subcontracted workers, decisions by assembly, and the revocability of managerial posts. Surmounting all the obstacles posed by the union leaders – who had recourse to every type of restriction and persecution – the opposition slate won by a vote of 177 to 44 against the official list headed by the secretary-general of the Internal Commission of the factory, thus defeating a pro-management union leadership which ignored firings and maintained "an authoritarian and bureaucratic mechanism of decision-making and a practice of turning over to management anyone suspected of being rebellious" (Favaro & Aiziczon 2003: 27).

After taking over the Internal Commission, the new leaders took on two basic tasks: on the one hand, to reach and organize all the workers in the factory, and on the other, to try to recover (recuperar) the SOECN (which represents four factories: Cerámica Zanón, Stefani de Cutral-Có, Del Valle, and Cerámica Neuquén) as an instrument of struggle for all the workers of the province, whether employed or unemployed. This new form of union organization encouraged an anti-bureaucratic and class-conscious militancy. The recovery of the SOECN was achieved in September 2000, in the wake of an extremely tough struggle, inasmuch as the bureaucracy did not want to recognize the new affiliates.

Thus was built a union that breaks with the limitations of corporate unionism and goes beyond the immediate workplace. In response to every violation of workers' rights and to any social problem in the city of Neuquén and surrounding communities, the population turns to the Zanón workers and their union. The meetings of the union's executive committee are open, the positions are revocable, decisions are guided by an assembly mandate, and the leaders receive the same wage as any worker. The institution constantly seeks to coordinate and unify the demands of all sectors of workers.

Factory committee (Comité de fábrica)

Las dos patas sobre las que nos movemos son la producción y la política. (The two legs on which we walk are production and politics.) -– Carlos “Manotas” Saavedra, coordinator of production

Following a long struggle, Zanón was declared bankrupt in August 2005, and in October its worker management was provisionally recognized under the rubric of the FaSinPat (Fábrica Sin Patrón) cooperative. This was after almost seven years of worker control. There were 240 workers when they took over, producing 1.07 million square feet of tiles per year. Today, with 230 workers, their annual production has reached 4.31 million square feet. Unlike many cooperatives, whose workers are employees, in Zanón the workers enter as full members of the cooperative with equal rights and obligations. In 2002 they took an extraordinary initiative. For the first new jobs created under worker control, they proposed to incorporate as full members unemployed compañeros from militant movements throughout the region. This proposal received massive support in the assemblies of each shift of the factory. Later, also on the initiative of the ceramists, members of different left organizations and parties were also brought in.

To implement worker management (gestión obrera), the ceramists applied the same principles of democratic organization that they had used in the struggle against the bureaucratic Internal Commission. The entire factory had to be organized, and all its members had to be involved in deciding each phase of production and how to defend it. They began with periodic assemblies, but since these did not result in everyone's participation, they created additional mechanisms, notably coordinadores de la producción. These bodies are elected in the general assembly and represent the different commissions corresponding to various sectors and tasks of the factory: purchases, sales, security, production, and media. In this way discussions about the organization of production (shifts, production levels, wages, expenses, sales) are linked with externally oriented political discussions. This new organization made possible the monthly planning of production and also discussion of how to integrate the new workers coming in from the piquetero movement or from community support organizations.9 The coordinadores report the problems of each commission to the general assembly, where they are discussed collectively and decisions are made. There are monthly Jornadas de Discusión in which for an entire day the workers of the factory's three shifts consider and discuss political and production-related problems, achievements, and challenges. To advance their awareness, the workers have also created a library of books and of audiovisual materials. Overall, these activities make for a radical contrast with the most alienating aspects of the daily work routine under capitalist administration.

This new organization created by the ceramists is similar to the factory committees or factory workers' councils that arose in Turin, Italy, in 1919. These Italian councils included all the workers of a factory – unionized or not – in a democratic organization to resolve problems outside as well as inside the factory.10 This is a form of democratic self-organization created by the workers when traditional union organization is no longer adequate to the class struggle. Whereas unions are set up to defend the specific demands and interests of a particular group of workers, the factory committees are bodies of self-determination which carry out tasks of management and planning. The worker control carried out by these committees is an aspect of dual power aimed at ending exploitation. It is direct administration by the workers, or what is known as workers' self-management.11 In this sense, for Ernest Mandel, “Every joint struggle of the workers that goes beyond immediate and narrowly corporate objectives raises the problem of the forms of organization of the struggle, which in turn constitutes an embryonic challenge to capitalist power" (Mandel 1974: 14).

Although the ceramists' struggles thus go beyond immediate trade-unionist objectives, they do not ignore union-type concerns. For this reason, the Zanón workers fought to take over the union with a class-conscious leadership which, in addition to uniting the workers of the region's four ceramics factories, would confront the bureaucratic leaders who maintain subordination of the unions to the state. Unfortunately, however, such takeovers remain exceptional. There remains an enormous fragmentation of the Argentine working class, between employed and unemployed, secure and contingent workers, natives and immigrants, accentuated by the neoliberal policies of the 1980s and '90s – policies supported by the traditional bureaucratic Peronist union leaderhip which was conveniently preserved even by the genocidal dictatorship of 1976-1983.12 Although the current situation of the working class does not point toward a heightening of class struggle, the experience of the SOECN ceramists is nonetheless an important development, growing directly out of factory production that shows the potential of workers' democracy for achieving the unity of the working class (Werner & Aguirre 2002).

Worker management

Sin capitalistas se puede producir; sin trabajadores, no. (You can produce without capitalists, but not without workers.) -– Andrés Blanco, coordinator of the commission on purchases.

It was not easy to begin production in the occupied factories, nor is it easy to continue it. But with democratic organization, the conviction of the majority, and the participation of all, the protagonists of this history were able to address – though not without discussions and contradictions – every one of the innumerable obstacles they have been faced with.

From the start-up of production in 2002, the ceramists were besieged by the market and by the state, which, in its commitment to private ownership, sought compensation for the former owners of the abandoned factories – whether from the workers or, as a last resort, from the state itself. The ceramists fought for expropriation without compensation, explaining that the workers should not be responsible for the owners' debts and affirming the priority of their right to a decent existence above the individual enrichment of a few.

In taking over management tasks, the workers show that bosses are not needed in order to produce. They thereby refute the dominant ideology of private ownership of the means of production. The actual function of such ownership, under capitalism, is to assure expropriation of the social product. Worker management, even of just a single factory, reveals how this expropriation has been cloaked behind the seemingly "natural" relation among the different factors of production (capital, labor, and machinery).

Another revelation of worker management – despite the limitations implied by the scale of this one case – is the fact that the workers do not need to individually own the means of production in order to produce and reproduce their own lives. They use the means of production to perform their jobs and not to exploit others. The ceramists describe their struggle as being to produce for the community and not for individual gain. They recognize the difficulty of applying this approach within the larger capitalist economy, but they nonetheless show that the surplus of their production does not have to be taken by the owner. What they do not invest in production, they allocate toward public works serving the needs of the people. From the beginning, the Zanón workers donated tiles to first-aid facilities in one of the poorest barrios of Neuquén, as well as to schools and even for the reconstruction of a hospital in Santa Fe – more than 1,500 kilometers away – that had been devastated by a flood in 2003. They also promoted, together with unemployed workers, a program of public works under the slogan "jobs for all." They make monthly donations to soup-kitchens and hospitals. They are currently waging a campaign, together with teachers and high school students, for the construction of a sports center in the city's western barrios.

In the Jornadas de Discusión of the general assembly, as the achievements and setbacks of the production process are discussed, one can see the initiatives and the resourcefulness of the workers, who know their jobs better than anyone. Having to understand the totality of the production process gives full play to the creativity of each worker. New products have been made... This is thanks to the inventiveness of the compañeros in the laboratory, which is where they express their ideas, the pleasure they have in making things…. The creativity of the workers is a result of the freedom they have won. We invented a mathematical formula. It was impressive. Then we did a test in the laboratory…. Now we replace old formulas with new ones, and as we come out with each new model, we standardize it. For example, "the Worker" or "the Mapuche [Indian]" are models [of tiles] that were created under worker management. (interview with Eduardo, a laboratory worker).

The new constitution of the SOECN and class-conscious unionism

The experience of the Neuquén ceramics workers shines forth once again with the drafting and subsequent approval of the union's new constitution (Estatuto Social del SOECN) in July 2005. Following months of discussion in assemblies and a subsequent plenary of delegates, the workers of the four SOECN factories decided democratically, one article at a time, on this document – an expression of more than six years of uninterrupted struggle. The workers saw the constitution as "a tool of work and debate to start putting in place a new class-conscious tradition in the workers' movement that is awakening" (Nuestra Lucha 2005).13

The constitution crystallizes a political practice grounded in three basic principles. (1) Workers' democracy based on assemblies as the final authority. To broaden participation, it increases the number of delegates per sector, establishes proportionality in the executive bodies, and allows the participation of all class-conscious political tendencies. It also establishes revocability of leadership and wage-parity between leaders and the rest of the workers. Leaders on completing their terms return to their regular work-posts. (2) Class autonomy, keeping the union free of interference from the state and from all private management organizations. (3) Internationalism and anti-imperialism, expressed in the affirmation that "the working class has no borders" and in the solidarity of the ceramists with workers and poor people everywhere. The SOECN also opposes imperialist control over national resources and obstruction of national development (SOECN 2005: 1).

These affirmations are for the most part unprecedented in Argentine trade unionism. But what is most significant about the SOECN as a class-conscious union is that it breaks with the firmly established Peronist model, which had prevailed through the second half of the 20th century and which, as Daniel James (1999) explains, had subordinated the unions to a monolithic movement requiring them to act as agents of the state.

“An injury to one is an injury to all”14

From the beginning, the ceramists linked their demands with those of the Unemployed Workers' Movement of Neuquén (Movimiento de Trabajadores Desocupados, MTD) and with other organizations of the unemployed. The first resolution of the SOECN executive committee, in an open plenary, was to travel to Mosconi, in the province of Salta, to support the Unión de Trabajadores Desocupados (UTD), which had been repressed for demanding jobs.15 On December 2, 2001, together with the MTD and the education workers' union (Unión de Trabajadores de la Educación de Río Negro, UNTER), they convened in their factory a regional meeting of workers' and community organizations that laid the groundwork for a new umbrella organization, the Coordinadora del Alto Valle, which brought together more than 64 organizations and approximately 1,000 representatives for its first plenary – in the Zanón factory – in August 2002.16 Together with other social, political and cultural organizations, the SOECN also participated in the organization of the movement of recovered enterprises. It continuously carries out actions in solidarity with other recovered enterprises, both in Argentina and elsewhere.

The Zanón workers also promoted – together with other organizations like delegates of the Buenos Aires subway workers – a national organization of anti-bureaucratic sectors (Encuentro Obrero), which held its first meeting on April 2, 2005. At the end of that year, they set up a tent for one week across from the National Congress in Buenos Aires, demanding recognition of “FaSinPat” worker-management and a definitive national law on expropriation.

This effort to unify workers' struggles has been a constant in the whole experience of the ceramists. Their activism goes beyond the limits of the factory, breaking with narrow trade unionism and the divisions that the system foments among workers. The ceramists have played an important role in the struggle of the Neuquén teachers. Together with the Asociación de Trabajadores de la Educación de Neuquén (ATEN) and with the unions of the Central de los Trabajadores Argentinos (CTA), they spearheaded the campaign to demand judgment and punishment for the April 2007 assassination of the teacher Carlos Fuentealba.17 Another example of their solidarity work has been their support of workers in various enterprises struggling against bureaucracy. Examples include the former Jabón Federal (soap factory) in the western zone of Greater Buenos Aires; the Mafissa textile factory near La Plata, the Casino Flotante (floating casino) of Buenos Aires, and the Bauen hotel in the center of Buenos Aires.18

In face of the March 2008 conflict between rural landowners and the government of Cristina Fernández over new taxes, the SOECN proposed an independent solution to the confrontation, based on the demands of urban as well as rural workers. The SOECN continually resists governmental and trade-union attacks on anti-bureaucratic delegates and organizations, and in July 2008 launched a convocation under the slogan Basta de ataques a los luchadores obreros (No more attacks on working-class militants).

Consolidating victories without losing sight of the long-range goal

The ceramists strive to maintain a link between transitory successes and long-range solutions, keeping in mind the problems of all workers and conveying the idea that they share the same interests. The constant tension between worker-management and capitalist social relations requires careful attention to the correlation of class forces at each moment. We can see this logic in the ceramists' response to many concrete problems – for example, in their having almost doubled the number of jobs in the factory. This has been worked out taking into account the requirements of the unemployed while at the same time maintaining equality within the enterprise and promoting eventual nationalization (estatización) and a plan of public works.

Correspondingly, while the workers struggle for definitive expropriation in order to maintain worker-control, they uphold the cooperative as a transitional arrangement. The cooperative form, in which they must compete in the capitalist market, implies a form of "self-exploitation" which has been imposed on them. Their long-range goal is nationalization under democratic workers' administration. In this connection, a key issue is the debt left behind by the bosses, which under current Argentine law must be assumed by the cooperatives. Another point of conflict arises from the decisions of tribunals prohibiting cooperatives from taking on new workers. In the face of this tension between their own goals and the requirements of existing law, the ceramists maintain their democratic assemblies as the final decision-making authority, in marked contrast to the hierarchical form of leadership provided for by the existing law on cooperatives.19

The current situation

The ceramists are still fighting for the definitive expropriation of the factory. At the end of 2008, through mobilization and with national and international solidarity, they succeeded in postponing the forfeiture of FaSinPat to the Zanón family’s creditors, which include the provincial government and the World Bank. Backed by a massive petition campaign, the workers presented the provincial legislature of Neuquén with a bill (proyecto de ley) of expropriation which, as of July 2009, is in the final phase of debate. Through marches and cultural events, the SinPat workers are spearheading a broadly supported campaign for definitive expropriation.20 A similar campaign is being waged at the national level, led by some 15,000 workers at approximately 200 enterprises under worker control, calling for a National Law on Expropriations.

Notes *An earlier version of this article appeared (in Spanish) in Revista OSAL (Observatorio Social Latinoamericano), vol. 9, no. 24 (Oct, 2008). English translation by Victor Wallis.

1. Line from a popular song from 2002, sung since then by workers, neighbors, youth, and students in Neuquén during demonstrations in support of the Zanón workers.

2. [Ed. Note: As of 2005, 15,000 workers recovered about 200 enterprises after declaring bankruptcy or confronting eviction, and turned them into cooperatives. “Recovered” enterprises include textile, tile and chocolate factories, slaughterhouses, and a fashionable hotel in downtown Buenos Aires.]

3. Such as Eduardo Galeano, Osvaldo Bayer and James Petras.

4. “The Zanón struggle is on two fronts: economic, against the bosses, and for leadership of the workers, against the union bureaucracy.” Rebón 2007

5. The CGT (Confederación General del Trabajo), founded in 1930, is the oldest federation. It is Peronist, is recognized by the state, and includes the major industrial and service unions. The CTA (Central de los Trabajadores Argentinos) is an alternative federation founded in 1991 without state recognition, and includes teachers and government workers. Its political orientation oscillates between the social doctrine of the Church and social-democratic tendencies. See Cotarelo, 2007.

6. De la Rúa was elected in 1999; his regressive economic policies unleashed a popular revolt. Since the election of Néstor Kirchner in May 2003, and coinciding with national and international economic recovery, there has been a significant process of cooptation and institutionalization of many social, political, and human rights organizations.

7. [Ed. note: In the context of massive unemployment, high prices, and meager federal public assistance following the privatization of Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales – the state oil enterprise that is also the biggest employer in the region – the inhabitants of Cutral-Có and the neighboring city of Huincul rebelled twice, in June 1996 and April 1997. These uprisings, considered to be the starting point of a broader national mobilization, popularized roadblocks and pickets as basic methods of organization and struggle.]

8. For a detailed explanation of this process, see Aiziczon 2007.

9. Piquetero, derived from piquete (picket-line), is used to name the brigades of strikers blockading highways through the cortes de ruta. See note 7.

10. For Gramsci these workers’ councils were a manifestation, at the factory level, of “dual power.” Gramsci, 1998: 16. See also Werner & Aguirre, 2002: 67.

11. “The primordial importance of the committee resides, however, in the fact that it becomes the general staff for the entry into combat of sectors of the working class that the unions are habitually incapable of mobilizing.... From the moment that the committee appears, a condition of de facto dual power is established in the factory. It is a quintessential situation of transition, because it harbors two irreconcilable regimes, the capitalist and the proletarian” (Trotsky, 2008: 73).

12. This theme is developed in depth in Gilly 1986.

13. The newspaper Nuestra Lucha was another one of the extraordinary initiatives of this union. Its aim was to bring the movement for recovered factories together with all the anti-bureaucratic internal commissions and bodies of delegates. The publication drew support from intellectuals and journalists of varied political perspectives.

14. This slogan – “Si tocan a uno, nos tocan a todos” – emerged during the first Conference (Encuentro) of Recovered Factories, in opposition to the “sálvese quien pueda” attitude (“look out for number one”) of the dominant neoliberal ideology.

15. This solidarity would come up again and again, as when the ceramists made a plaque in honor of piqueteros Maximiliano Kosteki y Darío Santillán, who had been murdered by the police.

16. This coordinadora included ceramists, unemployed workers, health workers, teachers, construction workers, human rights and student organizations, and prominent local personalities, as well as left parties.

17. Schoolteacher and union activist killed on April 2007 by a severe head wound from a tear gas canister launched by a Neuquén province police officer against the car carrying striking teachers back to the city after their eviction from a failed corte de ruta. Under pressure, both the CGT and the CTA enacted a 24-hour general strike demanding justice and the resignation of Neuquén’s governor. In Neuquén the teachers carried on a strike of more than fifty days.

18. This active support by the ceramists can be seen both in donations to the fondo de lucha (struggle fund) and in their constant political activity of solidarity and encouraging coordination.

19. This theme is developed in Meyer 2006.

20. The campaign extends to small communities in the interior of Neuquén province, such as Cutral Có and Chos Malal, among others. In the city of Neuquén itself, a major event takes place almost every week, with demonstrations at government buildings. During the 23rd National Conference of women, which was held in August 2008 in Neuquén, an event inside the factory was organized by the conference, in support of workers’ control and of the rights of women workers.


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