Ideas & Debates
Madygraf: Behind Every Worker is a Family
August 11, 2015
PH: Enfoque Rojo.
In late September, I was invited to Buenos Aires to speak about the recent Spanish translation of a book on the Bolshevik vision of women’s liberation that I first published in 1993, Women, the State, and Revolution: Soviet Family Policy and Social Life, 1917-1936. The book, translated and published by Pan y Rosas (Bread and Roses), a socialist women’s organization, received a new life when it was published in Spanish in Argentina, and then, in Portuguese by Boitempo in Brazil. Workers and students embraced the ideas that the Bolsheviks had put into practice almost a century ago. In Buenos Aires, I spoke to a crowded auditorium of 700 workers, students, and faculty. Workers came from the Lear plant, from the transportation sector, and from other factories. One of the most moving comments was made by an older domestic worker who came up to the stage. She explained that she spent her entire life cleaning the houses of wealthy people. “The Bolsheviks talked about the socialization of household labor,” she said. “Today, only women do this work. And if a woman is wealthy enough, she pays another women like me to do it.” One of the members of Pan y Rosas later told me that some of the women workers in the audience cried when they heard about the early socialist vision for transforming daily life and human relationships.
As part of my visit, Celeste Murillo and Andrea D’Atri, two committed members of Pan y Rosas and Partido de los Trabajadores Socialistas (Party of Socialist Workers), took me to the Donnelley printing factory, which had recently been taken over by workers. For me, the factory immediately conjured images of the early soviets in Russia in 1917. Russian workers, like their latter day comrades in Argentina, had also been propelled into unexpected action when foreign companies sought to close their plants and flee the country. In that historic year, the revolution unfolded rapidly, precipitated in no small measure by capital flight.
To reach the Donnelley plant, we drove north toward the outskirts of Buenos Aires on the Pan American Highway. Mile after mile, the road is lined with the factories of multinational corporations. The names of the plants – Ford, Toyota, Nestle — would be familiar to any unemployed worker in the United States. During the dictatorship in Argentina (1976-1983), the army maintained a detention center within the Ford plant where workers and trade unionists suspected of political dissidence were imprisoned, tortured, and killed. Many of the jobs we lost in the U.S. can now be found on this stretch of the Pan American Highway, transplanted to new production sites by corporations in the search for cheaper labor costs and greater profit margins. If any sight ever made mockery of the patriotic platitudes mouthed by U.S. corporations, this is it. Capital has no national feelings; its only predilection is for profit. As Argentinean workers now struggle for the same decent wages and conditions that American workers once won for themselves, the corporations seek new countries where labor is cowed, cheap, and unorganized: China, India, and Southeast Asia. Yet in every new country where corporations set up their factories, workers begin to organize. And in this way, capital itself, in its insistent drive for ever-greater profits, organizes the globe.
As we drove past the long low gray buildings of Ford plant, a strange sight came into view on the other side of the highway. Directly across from the Ford plant, divided by eight lanes of whizzing highway traffic, stood another large low building. Set squarely amid the vast sprawl of multinational capital, this building was flying red flags, and draped with banners. What was this improbable sight? “Look there!” Andrea and Celeste informed me excitedly, “It is the former RR Donnelley printing plant, now in the hands of its workers. It is being run by a democratically elected Workers’ Assembly and Women’s Commission.”
Workers Fight for their Jobs
RR Donnelley is an American corporation with its central headquarters in Chicago. It has printing plants in the United States as well as four other countries. The workers seized the factory on August 11, 2014 after the corporation decided to close the plant and reopen it somewhere outside of Argentina. The workers are committed to keeping their jobs and to maintaining the plant in production. A great banner, fluttering above the daycare center, newly established by the workers, reads: ”No More Families Thrown Out into the Streets.” The slogan of their movement: “Behind Every Worker is a Family,” or in Spanish, “Detrás de cada trabajador hay una familia.” The slogan has two meanings. One reminds us that when a worker loses his or her job, an entire family suffers. The other meaning, however, suggests a great hidden strength. Every worker is also supported by a family, and together, workers and their families represent multitudes.
As we entered the plant, a small group of workers greeted us warmly. I brought a children’s notebook to take notes about the plant and the workers. The workers have been reading Women, the State, and Revolution, and discussing it in the Women’s Commission. As we tour the plant, I ask them endless questions, beginning with, “When did you take over the plant?” Rene Cordoba, tall worker with flashing dimples and a shock of black straight hair, explained the history.
Early on the morning of August 11, just as the sun was coming up, over 300 men on the first shift arrived at the plant to begin the workday. They found a brief notice on the locked gates. It read: “We are closed. If you have any questions, please call this number: 1- 800-.” In two sentences, the workers learned that their lives and the lives of their families had been summarily upended. Donnelley was leaving Argentina. Although the closing notice was a rude shock, it did not come as a complete surprise. Indeed the workers were thoroughly prepared to take action. The gates were locked and management had fled. Only three private security guards were left on the premises. Faced with a great crowd of workers, they quickly opened the gates. The long corridor running through the main building between the shops was lined with video security cameras monitored by the company’s main headquarters in Chicago. A small, designated detail of masked workers entered the factory first and swiftly disabled the cameras by turning them toward the ceiling. At 7 a.m., in disciplined accord, the first shift of workers entered the factory. They turned on the presses, took their positions at the machines, and began to work.
The workers have been producing steadily ever since, meeting their existing printing contracts and negotiating new ones. Unfortunately, the money they receive from the existing printing jobs they completed and the new contracts they concluded is being placed in an escrow account under the control of the courts. The workers are not getting paid. The corporation and the workers now await a ruling from a judge: will the Donnelley plant be dismembered and sold off to pay investors or will the workers be legally permitted to run the factory?
Bankrupt? The Struggle in the Factory and the Courts
The entrance to the main building of the plant opens into a large area with a security desk and management offices. Past the offices and the nurse’s station, a long hallway bisects the shops. To the right and to the left, massive machines and computers stand behind plate glass windows. Before Donnelley closed the plant, it employed 450 production workers, mainly men, along with a staff of about 100 white-collar managers and foremen. The plant, which includes a vast parking lot, loading areas, and warehouses, sits on acres of land owned by Donnelley. The machinery, buildings, and land are worth hundreds of millions of pesos, dollars, or whatever currency Donnelley and its investors claim as their own.
In early August, one week before Donnelley closed the plant, the company filed for bankruptcy in Argentina. The company claimed that it was too broke to pay its debts. The bankruptcy itself, however, quickly became a highly politicized issue. Donnelley’s claim that it was in financial crisis was strongly contested by a team of lawyers for the workers. Financial records revealed that Donnelley had been making regular payments on its debts. The company was not only solvent but was profitable.
The Labor Department in Argentina supported the workers, ruling that the company’s claim was fraudulent, merely a ploy to allow it to close and sell off the physical plant. Rene Cordoba explained that the main reason for closing the plant is not the company’s solvency, but rather the growing power of the workers. Donnelley’s continuing attempts to increase its profitability through layoffs were undercut by the protests of a united workforce. The workers were represented not only by their union, but a smaller Internal Commission operating within the factory as well. These Internal Commissions, directly elected by the workers on an annual basis and beholden only to them, are increasingly popular in Argentina’s factories. More militant than the unions, closely linked to the workers through democratic elections, and intimately aware of the problems within their factories, they take bold stands against any management attempts to cut pay, increase the work pace, or reduce occupational and safety. Many of the most radical and thoughtful workers elected to the Internal Commissions belong to the Partido de los Trabajadores Socialistas. The Party now wields growing impact at the national and provincial levels as well, as part of the Left and Workers’ Front which has won 3 seats in the National Congress, and many seats in the provincial legislatures, including Buenos Aires, Mendoza, Neuquén and Salta.
Donnelley had a long history of conflict with the Internal Commission in its plant. In 2011, Donnelley sought to increase its profit margins by lowering its labor costs. The company fired nineteen regular production workers, all union members. The workers immediately protested, and forced the company to rehire the group they had dismissed. Shortly thereafter, the company made another effort to increase the work pace by firing twelve contract workers who worked under more insecure conditions for less pay. Again, the workers, led by the Internal Commission, protested sharply, compelling the company to rehire the group. When the company substituted a new and cheaper solvent for cleaning the presses and workers became sick from the poisonous fumes, the workers called a short wildcat strike in protest and shut down the presses. Rene noted with a quick smile, “Nothing gets the attention of the bosses faster than a shutdown.” The company was forced to go back to the less toxic but more expensive solvent. In 2012, the company tried again to reduce labor costs, this time attempting to fire 123 workers. The layoffs, Donnelley announced, were essential for the health of the company. Without the layoffs, the factory might seek to move. The workers, however, refused to be intimidated, and the Internal Commission vowed to fight if the 123 were dismissed. On August 5, in protest against the threatened layoffs, wives, girlfriends and children of the Donnelley workers demonstrated in front of the manager’s house. Their slogan: “Behind Every Worker is a Family.” At this point, the company began considering the possibility that it would be able to function more freely in a country where the workers had less power and solidarity. Less than a week later, Chicago headquarters shut down the plant.
From Production to Management
As the first shift marched into the plant on the morning of August 11, the workers immediately understood that they would be faced with new problems of management. The 100 managers and foremen had abandoned the factory, creating new job vacancies that had to be filled. The computer engineer had fled, and the Donnelley headquarters in Chicago had blocked the mainframe computer in the press shop. Without access to the computer, the workers could not create the mockups for the physical models that were affixed to the presses. They appealed for help to the computer students at the University of Buenos Aires, who unblocked the computer and allowed the workers to continue to create the mockups. Standing orders were filled, and a team of workers negotiated contracts for new work. The editors of “Para Ti” or “For You,” a popular women’s fashion magazine, stated publicly that they would be pleased to have the Donnelley workers continue to do their printing.
The main problem that the workers faced was that they were not getting paid. The money was tied up in the courts, and although they continued to work and produce, they got no wages. At this point, the Workers’ Assembly called a meeting. How could the workers go forward without any money to live on? How could they continue to support their families? Although many wives and girlfriends already worked, and others would take jobs as the struggle continued, a new strategy was needed. After much discussion, two contending ideas emerged. Some workers argued that they should simply concentrate on production. If they continued to work and run the plant in an efficient manner, they would eventually gain access to the money owed them. Others contended, however, that they needed to make the larger community aware of the Donnelley struggle. Although this would require political organizing outside the plant, it was necessary to a positive outcome. The Women’s Commission, composed of the wives and girlfriends of the workers, was particularly interested in creating a relief fund that could help the struggling families. It vowed to leave no family in isolation or need. One way or another, it would provide enough food for everyone to allow the workers to continue the fight. The desperate need for funds quickly decided the issue. The workers would have to bring the economic struggle to a new political level if they were to survive. Funds would have to be raised. Yet how?
The Workers’ Assembly and the Women’s Commission immediately thought about the power of print. They made the decision to print 20,000 children’s notebooks to be donated to the public schools. The first page of every notebook would explain what the workers at Donnelley’s had done and the struggles they faced. Radical teachers in the public schools would pass out the notebooks. The children, many in working-class families, would bring the notebooks home so their parents, including workers at other plants, could read about the struggle at Donnelley. Teams of workers fanned out to political meetings, universities, and the factories along the Pan American Highway to speak about the takeover. As the workers launched a variety of “solidarity activities”, many people contributed funds. Workers began receiving about one-third of their monthly wage of 12,000 pesos: about 4,000 pesos or $500 a month. The Women’s Commission made up daily food parcels for distribution.
With the success of the solidarity activities, workers began thinking about a broader plan. They filed the paperwork to become a cooperative, a legal move that will allow them to receive payment for the contracted jobs they do. They began to think about a new social role for the factory. It could print not only glossy fashion magazines but also print the publications of unions, progressive and leftwing organizations, and the state. (They printed the posters for my recent talk at the University of Buenos Aires about the Spanish edition of Women, the State and Revolution.) They will soon offer the state a contract to do its public printing on social needs, including pamphlets about health, education, and other subjects. The leftwing deputies in the provincial legislatures and National Congress support the offer.
The Women’s Commission and Madygraf
After touring the plant, Celeste and Andrea brought me to a large room that had been turned over to the Women’s Commission. Previously a boardroom for management, the space had become a center for their activities. About twenty women, mostly young, many with small children, sat around a large table laden with cups of mate yerba and cakes. Maria Sol, a young woman with long brown hair, asked me if I would like to hear the first song the group wrote. Laughing, the women began to sing.
“I won’t shut up
I won’t stay home
We will end the system of exploitation!
To the Church
I say these words
I will take control of my own body!”
The Women’s Commission was created in 2011 with the help of Pan y Rosas. The group, the wives and girlfriends of men in the plant, helped to bridge the age-old divisions between male workers involved in strikes or politics and their families. The Women’s Commission understood that when men choose to strike or forego a paycheck, their partners carry the heavy burden of feeding the family, soothing hungry children, and worrying about money for rent, clothes, school supplies, and all the other budget items essential to the family’s survival. In the past, these burdens created resentments and even divisions within working-class families. Traditional union movements in turn castigated women for their political backwardness and limited horizons. The Women’s Commission in the Donnelley plant changed this age-old dynamic. In the words of one man, “The Women’s Commission changed my life.” When Donnelley ran the plant, the Women’s Commission was not allowed to enter the factory. Often the workers held their Assembly outside, close to the factory gates so that the women, standing on the other side, could participate. Now the Women’s Commission is welcome in the factory and participates fully in the Workers’ Assembly.
One of the key principles of the Women’s Commission is human solidarity: no worker and no family should be left to shoulder their burdens alone. This principle has dictated many of their actions, and it creates a strong feeling of security and well being among the families. At the urging of the Women’s Commission, one of the first actions of the workers was to change the name of the factory from Donnelley to Madygraf. Mady, now the teenaged daughter of one of the workers, had a bad accident as a child resulting in permanent disability. Yet neither the union nor the company offered the family any help. The workers all chipped in to buy a wheelchair for Mady and to help the family. In renaming the plant Madygraf or literally Mady graphic, the workers not only honored the child, but also the principle of collective support.
Using the communist dictum of Marx, “From each according to their ability to each according to their needs,” the Women’s Commission promulgates a sense of justice based on family need. After the workers took over the factory, they debated how to best distribute the relief fund. Should each male worker continue to receive a fraction of his wage, or should families be supported in accordance with their needs and the number of mouths they had to feed? The workers, in conjunction with the Women’s Commission, decided to follow a middle path: paying each worker a fraction of his former wage, but providing extra help to larger families. Women began putting together food packages for every family. They also launched a survey based on a questionnaire that asked each family about their needs. How many children did they have, how much was their rent, what health or medical issues did they have, did they need daycare? The results of the survey will form the basis for a new social program to be developed by the Women’s Commission.
With the sharp contraction of the wage, hard times set in. Some workers took on extra jobs. Wives and girlfriends went to work. Everyone began popularizing the struggle, attending meetings and speaking to the wider public. Yet who would take care of the infants and small children? The Women’s Commission is actively trying to eliminate the idea that women have a “natural place” in the home in service to men. It soon decided to open a daycare center in the plant where children could stay safely while their parents were busy at work or in political activities. The Worker’s Assembly voted to turn over several rooms once reserved for management meetings to the daycare center.
Even the children became involved in the struggle. Life for them has become harder. Families are living on very little; many purchases are no longer possible. The Women’s Commission realized that the children had to understand why they had to forego new shoes and clothes or even small treats like ice cream. They encouraged the children to organize their own Children’s Assembly, which was soon called “Little Ones Stand Up.” The children began organizing meetings and solidarity activities at school, even raising money for the relief fund. In using the children to distribute school notebooks and information, the workers activated a powerful network that runs from the factory through the neighborhoods and into the schools to reach other families with news about the takeover.
Other ideas have also emerged to help people develop their skills and capabilities. One of the few white-collar workers to remain in the plant was the company nurse, affectionately known as everyone’s mother. She noted that although the workers did not choose to slow the pace of production, the accident rate decreased after the takeover. Workers replaced shop floor supervisors with “coordinators,” or fellow workers who ensured the smooth flow of the production process. The skilled workers are now teaching the less skilled how to handle a variety of jobs. The workers are in charge of security and safety, and they make and post the rules governing life at the factory. Without the constant pressure of supervision, work has become easier and less stressful. The workers converted a manager’s meeting room into a study center where workers who did not finish high school can study for their diplomas. Volunteer teachers are needed. Every new action creates an opening for people to contribute. And with each new initiative, the workers build the factory not only as a site of production but as a newly imagined social world in which work is only one of many needs that can be met.
The Role of the State: Worker Citizens versus Multinational Capital
The workers have requested the government to stop the dismemberment of the factory by Donnelley’s investors. They are in the process of forming a cooperative, a legal entity composed of workers, which will run the plant democratically and distribute the income it generates. The workers hope to become employees of the state. Their aim is twofold: to manage the plant democratically and to create a new socially responsible role for the factory under the aegis of the government. They aim to print not only popular magazines, but also public pamphlets and leftwing publications. The workers have no possibility to raise the capital to buy out Donnelley. If the government chooses to nationalize the plant, it can either pay Donnelley a mutually agreed sum or take over the plant without compensation. The leftwing deputies in Congress strongly support nationalization, and many argue that Donnelley has already made a considerable profit and does not deserve further compensation.
The Donnelley workers hope to follow in the footsteps of their fellow workers at Zanon, a tile factory now under workers’ control. In 2002, the Zanon corporation tried to shut down the factory, a move which would have put hundreds of people out of work. The workers made the decision to resist: they would take over the property and continue to produce tile. With the help of their provincial government, they formed a cooperative and renamed the factory Fasinpat, an acronym for “Fábrica sin Patrones,” or “Factory without Bosses.” Fasinpat soon became a model for other workers facing plant closings. Indeed, soon after the Donnelley workers took over their plant, they made a short video showing one of their members dressed in white scurrying around the huge presses. “I am the ghost of Zanon,” he whispered. “The ghost, the ghost.”
The takeover of the Donnelley factory poses thorny questions for President Cristina Kirchner’s government. On the one hand, many workers throughout the country are angry and restive about the unfulfilled promises of the state to better the lives of working people. The Internal Commissions have become increasingly radicalized by plant closings, layoffs, and speedups within the factories. They have moved well to the left of the unions, which support the government and advocate a slower and more reformist approach to change. If the government allows the workers of Donnelley to run the plant along a cooperative model, it would demonstrate to workers that it is serious about protecting them and their jobs against the multinational corporations. This message, both socially progressive and nationalist, would also generate considerable support in future elections. On the other hand, the government is also under pressure from the multinational corporations that offer employment to so many of Argentina’s citizens. These corporations fled the United States and Europe in search of a cheap and docile labor force. If they face strikes and plant takeovers every time they choose to layoff workers, they will no longer find Argentina conducive to their interests. They will search for sites in other countries where labor is less organized and the government more supportive of their power to run the factories as they wish.
The Ghost of Zanon: Hopes for the Future
The Donnelley case is now pending in the courts, and the factory is under the control of a judge. Monies received from production are in an escrow account. The judge is expected to rule shortly on the property of the company and whether the workers will be allowed to continue production legally. On September 30, the court made a limited ruling to pay $ 4,000 pesos or about $470 to each worker for the labor they have performed since the plant closed on August 11.
When the workers first took over the Donnelley plant, many doubted that it was possible for them to run it. Yet with each problem solved, they have grown more confident in their abilities. Many now believe that the only group not necessary to run a factory is the bosses! More than anything, the takeover of the Donnelley plant has given workers new hope for the future and confidence in their ability to lead. Whereas in the past, every problem was seen as individual, the takeover of the plant has created new opportunities for collective activity and collective solutions. Workers are energized by new ideas and possibilities. Convert the boardroom into a day care center! Debate the wage! Make food packages! Print our struggle in 20,000 children’s notebooks! Involve the children! Songs, laughter, debate, and new ideas resound in every corner of the factory. What is that sound? It is the sound of imagination unfettered, of women, men and children taking control of their own lives. How does it sound? It is the sweetest and most intoxicating music in the world.
Wendy Z. Goldman is a Professor in the Department of History at Carnegie Mellon University.
This article was originally published on Counterpunch.