Recuperated Companies: Stop Crisis, Self-Organization
Argentina experienced a crisis at the turn of the century that in some ways mirrors the current situation in Spain. Many companies went bankrupt and, given the widespread unemployment, left their employees without hope of finding another position. Employees that had worked for the same company for decades found themselves in dire straits, futureless.
The entrance to IMPA
Within this context, traditional union organizing tactics were exhausted. The employee-employer confrontation was useless: “[…] you would go to confront management and they would tell you, ‘Well, if we do this for you, we’ll have to close up shop and leave.’ And we never got any kind of resolution” (1). Employees of IMPA, an aluminum plant, were the first to resort to a new strategy – the seizure of the company – that was subsequently repeated throughout Argentina.
IMPA employees occupied the factory in 1998, when it became clear that the assets were being stripped. This is a situation that has been replicated numerous times. The employers want to sell all the machines and furniture – they would sometimes buy them themselves via a shell company — in order to then bankrupt the company. Employees are not a top priority during the liquidation process, and months of unpaid wages and compensation often accumulate and are left unpaid.
The entrance to the BAUEN Hotel in Buenos Aires
In 1998, a group of 40 IMPA employees started to notice that demand continued to fall and that wages were not being paid, and they decided to occupy the plant. With the support of the community and other sectors, they have managed to overcome the threat of eviction and have been producing for 15 years now, moving the plant forward as a self-organizing company. Everything is decided democratically, and everyone is paid the same wage.
The BAUEN Hotel is another recovered company with great symbolic importance. This 21-floor hotel, which was opened in preparation for the 1978 World Cup, went bankrupt in 2001. This piece of real estate is characterized by all kinds of peculiarities in its ownership: the initial owner defaulted on the debt and sold the hotel to another businessman, who also defaulted, and now, following the bankruptcy, it appears that the hotel belongs to the state. In the meantime, the employees have organized themselves, and the hotel has continued operating since 2004.
The third company that I visited during my time in Buenos Aires was the Chilavert print shop. The company had failed to pay its employees their wages for quite some time, and one day a mechanic came to disassemble the machines. They realized that the owner was stripping the company, was carrying out a planned bankruptcy, so they occupied the print shop to stop the machinery being removed. Over the course of eight months, eight employees, many of whom had worked at Chilavert for 20 to 30 years, occupied the print shop. Two years ago they won definitive expropriation; that is, their right to produce as a cooperative in that location and with those machines, was recognized.
Each of these events enjoyed strong public approval, including the approval of the national government. Argentinians recognize that these are not usurpers that wish to take possession of something that isn’t theirs, but rather employees that have dedicated their lives to a company and whose only hope is to defend their positions. The business owners that leave employees in this really desperate situation often plan their companies’ bankruptcy. It is an exercise in speculation in production whereby plants and other businesses that don’t necessarily operate at a deficit but are less lucrative than the greedy owner would like are made bankrupt. Because these are limited liability corporations, the business owner gets out of paying what he owes employees and creditors, despite the size of his personal assets, and simply continues on with his investment activities in other companies.
The self-organized employees of the more than 300 recuperated Argentinian companies, who lack a corporate hierarchy and a priori experience in business administration, accounting, or law, have demonstrated that the insolvent companies were indeed viable. Not only have they maintained their original employees, but the majority have created new positions. Sometimes, above all at the beginning, wages fall, but now they work for themselves and this, as the IMPA doorman told me, is “incredibly important.”
Marcelo tells us about his experience at IMPA
What other differences are there between these companies and a typical company, beyond the fact that the employees have organized themselves and operate without the need for an owner or a boss or any other authority figure forcing the employees to work? For starters, they open to the community. IMPA is a full-blown cultural center, and numerous artistic and cultural initiatives are housed in the same building where aluminum tubes are formed. There are even educational opportunities for employees. Popular high school diploma programs such as Chilavert’s are available at many companies, where those that didn’t have the opportunity to study before can do so now. BAUEN also gives back to the community that supported it, opening spaces to various social organizations for functions.
The Movimiento Nacional de Empresas Recuperadas [National Movement of Recuperated Businesses] took off in 2000, that is, practically from the beginning. From the start, the recuperated businesses were not considered isolated incidents but rather as part of a larger movement. The companies helped each other through the process – from advice to support in instances of eviction. In addition, some are clients of the other companies and, particularly at first, they would broker exchanges between them. Together, they comprised a political advocacy group and they have obtained, among other things, the approval of a new bankruptcy law in which the right of the employees to organize themselves as a cooperative in order to maintain operationmaintain operation of the plant or enterprise is recognized.
We will leave you with a selection of videos about Chilavert and IMPA (link available in Spanish, only), compliments of Barricada TV, so that you can meet some of these stories’ protagonists:
Translated by Elaine Jordan and E. Reta