In 2004, we made a documentary called "The Take" (thetake.org) about Argentina’s worker-run businesses. In the wake of the country’s dramatic economic collapse in 2001, thousands of workers walked into their shuttered factories and put them back into production, forming worker cooperatives. Abandoned by bosses and politicians, they regained unpaid wages and severance pay, while reclaiming their jobs in the process.
As we toured Europe and North America with the film, one question kept coming up: “That’s all very well in Argentina, but could that ever happen here?"
Well, with the world economy now looking remarkably like Argentina’s in 2001 (and for many of the same reasons) there is a new wave of direct action, this time among workers in rich countries. Co-ops are again emerging as a practical alternative to more layoffs. Workers in the U.S. and Europe are beginning to ask the same questions as their Latin American counterparts: Why do we have to get fired? Why can’t we fire the boss? Why is the bank allowed to drive our company under while getting billions of dollars of our money?
On May 15 at Cooper Union in New York City, we took part in a panel called "Fire the Boss: The Worker Control Solution from Buenos Aires to Chicago." We were joined by people from the movement in Argentina as well as workers from the Republic Windows and Doors struggle in Chicago.
It was a great way to hear directly from those who are trying to rebuild the economy from the ground up, and who need meaningful support from the public, as well as from policymakers at all levels of government. For those who couldn’t make it, here’s a quick roundup of recent developments in the world of worker control:
In Argentina, the source and direct inspiration for many current worker actions, there have been more takeovers in the last four months than the previous four years.
One example: Arrufat, a chocolate maker with a 70-year history, was abruptly abandoned by the owners in January. Thirty employees occupied the plant, and despite a huge utility debt left by the former owners, have been producing chocolates by the light of day, using generators. With a loan of less than $5,000 from The Working World (theworkingworld.org), a capital fund/NGO started by a fan of “The Take,” they were able to produce more than 10,000 Easter eggs—their biggest weekend of the year. They made a profit of $75,000, taking home $1,000 each and saving the rest for future production.
Visteon is an auto parts manufacturer that was spun off from Ford in 2000. In one of the plants, hundreds of workers were given six minutes’ notice that their workplace was closing. Two hundred workers in Belfast staged a sit-in on the roof of their factory, and another 200 in Enfield followed suit the next day.
Over the next few weeks, Visteon increased the severance package to up to 10 times their initial offer, but the company is refusing to put the money in the workers’ bank accounts until they leave the plants, and the workers are refusing to leave until they see the money.
Earlier this year, a factory where workers make legendary Waterford Crystal was occupied for seven weeks when parent company Waterford Wedgewood went into receivership after being taken over by a U.S. private equity firm.
The U.S. company has now put 10 million euros in a severance fund, and negotiations are ongoing to keep some of the jobs.
As the Big Three automakers collapse, the Canadian Auto Workers have occupied at least four auto parts plants and the offices of four provincial legislators.
In each case, factories were closing and workers were not getting compensation that was owed to them. They occupied the factories to stop the machines from being removed, using that as leverage to force the companies back to the table—precisely the same dynamic as the worker takeovers in Argentina.
In France, there’s been a new wave of "bossnappings" this year, in which angry employees have detained their bosses in factories that are facing closure. Companies targeted so far include Caterpillar, 3M, Sony and Hewlett Packard.
The 3M executive was brought a meal of moules et frites during his overnight ordeal.
A comedy hit in France this spring was a movie called "Louise-Michel," in which a group of women workers hires a hit man to kill their boss after he shuts down their factory with no warning.
A French union official said in March, "Those who sow misery reap fury. The violence is done by those who cut jobs, not by those who try to defend them."
And last month, 1,000 French and Belgian steelworkers disrupted the annual shareholders meeting of ArcelorMittal, the world’s largest steel company. They stormed the company’s headquarters in Luxembourg, smashing gates, breaking windows, and fighting with police.
Also last month, in southern Poland, at the largest coal coking producer in Europe, thousands of workers bricked up the entrance to the company’s headquarters, protesting wage cuts.
In Chicago last December, 260 workers at Republic Windows and Doors occupied their plant for six earth-shaking days. With the help of a savvy campaign against the company’s biggest creditor, Bank of America ("You got bailed out, we got sold out!") and massive international solidarity, they won the severance they were owed. The plant is reopening under new ownership, making energy-efficient windows. All the workers have been hired back at their old wages.
A trend is developing in Chicago. Hartmarx, also based there, is a 122-year-old company that makes business suits, including the navy blue number that Barack Obama wore on election night, and his inaugural tuxedo and topcoat. Hartmarx is in bankruptcy.
Its biggest creditor is Wells Fargo, recipient of 25 billion public dollars in bailout money. While two offers are on the table to buy the company and keep it operating, Wells Fargo wants to liquidate it. And 650 workers voted to occupy their Chicago factory if the bank goes ahead with liquidation.
Barack Obama won the election promising a bottom-up rather than top-down recovery. One test of that promise will be where he buys his next suit.