International – Argentinean workers

Argentinean workers “take over” ailing factories Outsourcing, unemployment, poverty and IMF prescriptions spurred Argentinian trade union federation, CTA, into setting up co-operatives that took over factories and labour brokers. Woody Aroun and Jenny Grice report on a talk by visiting Argentinian trade unionists Jose and Christian.

The last few decades of political rule in Argentina have brought social and economic turmoil to its people. In 1983 the country transformed itself from a military dictatorship to democratic rule.

During that time workers were involved “in different stages of struggle” right up to the ‘90s. “Restructuring of the labour force at plant level forced workers into casual and outsourced forms of employment”, says Jose of CTA.By 2000, 40% of the population was living in poverty, 25% were unemployed.

Just a year later, it was the turn of employed workers to be affected. Government imposed a US$1 000 per month limit on bank withdrawals and shaved off 13% of public sector worker wages.

Workers erupted in general strikes and protests. Employers abandoned their factories.The government had implemented these measures in response to the International Monetary Fund's (IMF) refusal to grant it part of an aid and loan package previously agreed.

The IMF accused the Argentinian government of not sufficiently cutting back on its expenditure. In one textile factory, 300 workers developed a co-operative business plan to run an abandoned factory.

They took the fight to the courts. A year later the court ruled that they could take it over. In the newly-established co-operative, former managers remained as managers but under supervision of the workers instead of shareholders.

With trade union support, at least 10 000 jobs were saved because of initiatives like this one.In labour intensive areas like the ports, trade unions faced other challenges.

These workplaces shed thousands of jobs and labour brokers moved into the void to supply these workers.

But they paid "horrible wages and bad conditions". They offered no protective clothing and paid very little attention to the health and safety of workers. Trade unions opposed these labour brokers.

Instead they supported the formation of democratically controlled cooperatives to employ these outsourced workers.

Through these co-ops Christian believes that workers could at least reclaim their “dignity … define ourselves as workers”, without necessarily having to work under the supervision of individual owners interested only in maximizing profits.

The co-op workers also achieved "better wages than if they were employed through a labour broker and at higher rates than the agreement in the construction industry," said Christian.

Profits that the labour broker would have made were redistributed amongst the members of the co-operative.

According to Christian, "Co-operatives have now become an alternative to prevent outsourcing and casualisation of labour" .

Many co-operatives organise along the lines of “collective action and collective responsibility like the 25th May cooperative and the 7th May cooperative that believe in worker control, participation and collective ownership of the cooperative," said Christian.
But not all co-ops have a good story to tell. "A big number don’t look or function like a cooperative… they are degenerating into ordinary businesses eg private security," said Christian.

How does Christian's co-operative work in practice?

We rely on general meetings to resolve all fundamental issues – there is an obligation on leaders to create spaces for debate and decision making.

Every leader is elected through a direct vote once a year. A leader that strays away from his/her base loses his/her function.

Everyday I am there as president of the co-op to facilitate co-operation with other co-operatives.I support unionization of members of the co-operative.

The members pay subscriptions and get benefits like any other member.In our co-operative there is no notion of a salary.

We get advances on profits we will make at the end of the year. All members of the co-operative decide how to redistribute the money generated by the co-operative and whether to re-invest it.

In 2003 we had to fire three managers of the co-operative because they were trying to take the co-operative away from collective work.

We spent many months occupying those factories. It was a joint effort. That history is the glue that keeps us together. We fought very hard to have this, we are not prepared to give it up!"Christian, president of a worker co-operative

CTA – where does it stand? The CTA, the trade union federation that Jose and Christian are affiliated to, listens to the “voice” of marginalized workers and takes up issues of health, housing and education affecting workers, the unemployed, the aged and children.

The federation has an “active relationship with social movements, for example like those involved in fighting for land” and helps take their struggle to the “streets”, says Jose.

It publicly distances itself from attempts by the state to privatize its assets while rival, long-established federation, CGT, supports the government’s policy of privatisation.

The workers' trade union is also independent from the state and political parties. It does not align itself with religious or other secular institutions that pose a threat to workers.

Although the CTA is not legally recognized by the Argentinean government, it has made inroads in reducing the levels of unemployment from about 25% to around 10%.

CTA fought hard to get to where it is at the moment, and believes that commitment is a necessary component that binds the union in unity and action – we will not give up our struggle”, Christian.

Christian and Jose were addressing a Cosatu group on their experiences.


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