- Argentina's Luddite Rulers
by Naomi Klein
In 1812, bands of British weavers and knitters raided textile
mills and smashed industrial machines with their hammers. According
to the Luddites, the new mechanized looms had eliminated thousands
of jobs, broken communities and deserved to be destroyed. The
British government disagreed and called in 14,000 soldiers to
brutally repress the worker revolt and protect the machines.
Fast-forward two centuries to another textile factory, this one
in Buenos Aires. At Brukman, which has been producing men's suits
for 50 years, it's the riot police who smash the sewing machines
and the 58 workers who risk their lives to protect them.
On Monday, the Brukman factory was the site of the worst repression
Buenos Aires has seen in almost a year. Police had evicted the
workers in the middle of the night and turned the entire block
into a military zone guarded by machine guns and attack dogs.
Unable to get into the factory and complete an order for 3,000
pairs of dress trousers, the workers gathered a huge crowd of
supporters and announced it was time to go back to work. At 5
p.m., 50 middle-aged seamstresses in no-nonsense haircuts, sensible
shoes and blue smocks walked up to the police fence. Someone
pushed, the fence fell, and the Brukman women, unarmed and arm
in arm, slowly walked through.
They had only taken a few steps when the police began shooting:
tear gas, water cannons, rubber bullets, then lead. The police
even charged the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, in their white
headscarves embroidered with the names of their "disappeared"
children. Dozens of demonstrators were injured. This is a snapshot
of Argentina less than a week before its presidential election.
Each of the five major candidates is promising to put this crisis-ravaged
country back to work. Yet Brukman's workers are treated as if
sewing a grey suit were a capital crime.
Why this state Luddism, this rage at machines? Well, Brukman
isn't just any factory; it's a fabrica ocupada, one of almost
200 factories across the country that have been taken over and
run by their workers in the past 18 months. For many, the factories,
employing more than 10,000 nationwide and producing everything
from tractors to ice cream, are seen not just as an economic
alternative, but as a political one as well. "They are afraid
of us because we have shown that, if we can manage a factory,
we can also manage a country," Brukman worker Celia Martinez
said on Monday night. "That's why this government decided
to repress us."
At first glance, Brukman looks like every other garment factory
in the world. As in Mexico's hypermodern maquiladoras and Toronto's
crumbling coat factories, Brukman is filled with women hunched
over sewing machines, their eyes straining and fingers flying
over fabric and thread. What makes Brukman different are the
sounds. Along with the familiar roar of machines and hiss of
steam is the Bolivian folk music, coming from a small tape deck
at the back of the room, and softly spoken voices, as older workers
show younger ones new stitches. "They wouldn't let us do
that before," Ms. Martinez says. "They wouldn't let
us get up from our workspaces or listen to music. But why not
listen to music, to lift the spirits a bit?"
In Buenos Aires, every week brings news of a new occupation:
a four-star hotel now run by its cleaning staff, a supermarket
taken over by its clerks, a regional airline about to be turned
into a co-operative by the pilots and attendants. In small Trotskyist
journals around the world, Argentina's occupied factories, where
the workers have seized the means of production, are giddily
hailed as the dawn of a socialist utopia. In large business magazines
such as The Economist, they are ominously described as a threat
to the sacred principle of private property. The truth lies in
At Brukman, for instance, the means of production weren't seized
-- they were simply picked up after they had been abandoned by
their legal owners. The factory had been in decline for several
years, and debts to utility companies were piling up. The seamstresses
had seen their salaries slashed from 100 pesos a week to two
pesos -- not enough for bus fare.
On Dec. 18, the workers decided it was time to demand a travel
allowance. The owners, pleading poverty, told the workers to
wait at the factory while they looked for the money. "We
waited until night," Ms. Martinez says. "No one came."
After getting the keys from the doorman, Ms. Martinez and the
other workers slept at the factory. They have been running it
every since. They have paid the outstanding bills, attracted
new clients and, without profits and management salaries to worry
about, paid themselves steady salaries. All these decisions have
been made by vote in open assemblies. "I don't know why
the owners had such a hard time," Ms. Martinez says. "I
don't know much about accounting, but for me it's easy: addition
Brukman has come to represent a new kind of labour movement in
Argentina, one that is not based on the power to stop working
(the traditional union tactic) but on the dogged determination
to keep working no matter what. It's a demand that is not driven
by dogmatism but by realism: In a country where 58 per cent of
the population is living in poverty, workers know they are a
paycheque away from having to beg and scavenge to survive. The
spectre haunting Argentina's occupied factories is not communism,
But isn't it simple theft? After all, these workers didn't buy
the machines, the owners did -- if they want to sell them or
move them to another country, surely that's their right. As the
federal judge wrote in Brukman's eviction order, "Life and
physical integrity have no supremacy over economic interests."
Perhaps unintentionally, he has summed up the naked logic of
deregulated globalization: Capital must be free to seek out the
lowest wages and most generous incentives, regardless of the
toll that process takes on people.
The workers in Argentina's occupied factories have a different
vision. Their lawyers argue that the owners of these factories
have already violated basic market principles by failing to pay
their employees and their creditors, even while collecting huge
subsidies from the state. Why can't the state now insist that
the indebted companies' remaining assets continue to serve the
public with steady jobs? Dozens of workers' co-operatives have
already been awarded legal expropriation. Brukman is still fighting.
Come to think of it, the Luddites made a similar argument in
1812. The new textile mills put profits for a few before an entire
way of life. Those textile workers tried to fight that destructive
logic by smashing the machines. The Brukman workers have a much
better plan: They want to protect the machines and smash the
Naomi Klein is the author of No Logo and Fences and Windows.
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