Letter from Argentina

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When workers occupied the Chilavert printshop in Buenos Aires it was threatened with closure. Ernesto Gonzalez, a Chilavert printer, describes running the factory under workers' control.

The economic situation was critical. Our printshop, Chilavert, was bankrupt, with workers owed a huge amount of wages.

The owner tried to sell key printing machines, so we occupied the factory to stop him. Then we began to think about permanently taking over production.

The emergence of the popular assemblies helped, and many people gave us strength and support. The most important example of this was back in March 2002 when we were nearly evicted. A huge police force, with riot cars and helicopters, was sent, but they didn't realise that we had very strong support from ordinary people.

The police were blocking the street, preventing us from getting out the book we were producing. A neighbour suggested we drill a hole in the wall to get the books out. It seemed like an Italian film or something - very crazy. That's how we managed to circumvent the blockade for the following seven months.

Then a new law was passed inhibiting the resale of worker controlled companies. This was a result of joint struggle alongside workers from other companies in the same situation.

We still had the problem of making it work - we had only our hands and our will. We had to learn to take decisions ourselves and organised meetings to decide our actions. The most important organ was the monthly assembly.

We obviously can't meet constantly, so we divided up tasks and responsibilities among all the workers who reported back to the assemblies. It was hard, but it certainly worked. We had never managed a factory before, so areas such as the accounts and specific technical procedures had to be learnt.

The factory changed dramatically without a boss. It had been like a pyramid, with the owner at the top, then a layer of bosses, then the workers who were simply obeying. All of a sudden there were no bosses and we had to make collective decisions.

One question was establishing discipline. There were a variety of mechanisms before we took control: if someone worked less or went for a nap in the bathroom your compañeros would cover for you. If you told the boss you were a traitor. Now it is the reverse - if you hide in the bathroom you are in danger of the collective of the workers.

Of course, if you are tired you may be told by other workers to go off and sleep, but if you do it every day then the workers' collective will need to talk to you about it. It is reasonable discipline. When we worked under the boss we would leave immediately when the clock struck to say work was over. We began to live when we left work. Now we stay to chat and socialise. You breathe a very different climate: it feels like your own. This is impossible to imagine in any factory, even if you have a very nice boss.

We declared Chilavert an open factory, opening a cultural centre in the factory for events, workshops and political meetings. We opened a library about the recovered factories and give guided visits for school kids. Instead of taking them to the museum or the zoo we take them through the process of making a book - then tell them about taking over the factory. We have also opened a school for adults.

Although this is a very interesting small experience there are many other pressures in today's world, and a lot of economic pressure. If we only dedicated ourselves to the struggle the company would go down, and that is what we and our families live off. This is a discussion we have when we decide what wages we receive every week.

At the beginning we managed to get only very little and we divided it equally, but soon there were problems. We now take into consideration workers' families, not a nonsensical hierarchy. If a compañero has kids we all take responsibility for them, and the same applies to health coverage. The agreement is for each member of the workers' families. Although it is not the same cost for each worker, we pay it just the same.

Someone once asked, "Don't you have a common box you can just take from when you need to?" In an ideal world we could do that, but in the real world you have to recognise the contradictions. The only way to get rid of those contradictions is to take over the world, obviously.


No Pasar, a book of photographs of worker-run factories in Argentina published by the Chilavert coop is available from Bookmarks for £10.