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Zanon and Madygraf: Workers’ Management as a Response to the Crisis

When the workers of Donnelley arrived at the plant on August 11, 2014 they found a note at the gates explaining that the company was shutting down its operations in the country and that it “regretted the inconvenience.”

Juan Cruz Ferre

May 26, 2015
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This has become a fairly familiar scene. A company shuts down its plant, in order to move operations abroad and take advantage of a cheaper and more docile labor force. Under capitalism, the capitalists are free to relocate their businesses when they are no longer profitable, even if this means leaving 400 families in the streets. The workers, on the other hand, are only free to choose by whom they will be exploited.

Faced with this desperate situation, the workers’ response might have been resignation, but this was not the case. The workers decided to open the gates of the factory, occupy the plant, and restart production. They showed that “no hierarchy is needed to run the production of the factory” in the words of Hugo Padua, a worker at the factory for the past 22 years.

The company’s declaration of bankruptcy was denounced by the attorney representing the workers and later rejected by the Ministry of Labor for the Province of Buenos Aires. The reasons that Donnelley offered to justify abandoning its factory in the country were determined to be invalid and the bankruptcy was declared fraudulent.

The workers did their part immediately. In less than a month, the workers of MadyGraf (the new name given to the factory by the workers) had finished a job worth $500,000. They enrolled in the national registry of cooperatives and obtained the authorization to function as such. However, a series of bureaucratic obstacles prevented them from receiving their salaries for 45 long days.

But the experience had shown the workers of MadyGraf that concessions do not come from the good will of the bosses or the government. They immediately mobilized to demand their salaries , and they formed links with other factories, the student movement, and political parties.

The Women’s Commission , formed in 2011, was and continues to play a fundamental role in this struggle. It participates in assemblies, it collects donations for a solidarity fund, and now, with the factory under workers’ control, the women decided to open a daycare to look aftertheir children during the workday.

The ‘recovered factories’ movement of the 1990s and 2000s

Toward the end of the 1990s, the advancement of neoliberal policies in Argentina caused the closure of several companies, some of which were occupied by the workers and put into production. After the economic and political crisis of 2001, the seizure of factories extended throughout the country at breakneck speed. Hundreds of companies declared bankruptcy or left the country. In many cases, the response of the workers was to occupy the factory and resume production under worker’ control, beginning a true movement of recovered factories across the country. Today, there are more than 311 recovered companies, employing over 13 thousand workers .

One can see two major tendencies within this movement. The first aims for the transfer of machinery and infrastructure of the factory to the worker’s hands, for them to become owners and create a cooperative. The other, more radical, position proposes as a final objective the expropriation of the factory and its nationalization, while maintaining workers’ control. In the latter strategy, the cooperative model is accepted only as a temporary stage.

The first, more moderate, option has the advantage of being more accessible. There is less resistance on the part of the politicians and the legal road is relatively clear cut. The reasons why this model is not resisted lie in its own limits. The seemingly radical measure of seizing a factory from its owners becomes a legal procedure whereby capital remains private and simply changes hands. Sure, the owners are now also the workers and they toil daily to assure production and their own salaries, which is generally distributed equitably. But this model exists within a system of capitalist production. And this brings us to the second limit of this strategy. The new company is bound by the rules of the free market, and will enter into unequal competition with larger, more productive, and more efficient companies. In this context, it is very likely that the workers of the cooperative will find it necessary to self-exploit in order to maintain a competitive price in the market.

The second route is primarily advanced by the parties of the revolutionary left who have inserted themselves into the workers movement. Although advocates of this model accept the cooperative as a temporary stage, the final objective is nationalization under workers’ control. This objective is both practical and ideological. On one hand, competition in the market ceases to be a concern. At worst, sustainability can be jeopardized by cutbacks in the state budget, but not due to lack of profitability. On the other hand, nationalization represents an all-out attack on private property: private property is not simply changing hands this time. It is the expropriation of the means of production for the benefit of the whole of society. It is a small example, though isolated and fatally insufficient, of what revolutionaries seek for the whole system.

A reference that inspires

The factory once known as Zanon (today called FaSinPat or Fábrica Sin Patrones “Factory Without Bosses”) is an example of this strategy. The workers of Zanon advanced the program of expropriation and nationalization under workers’ control. They resisted several attempts to have them evicted from the factory, and overcame a boycott from wholesalers, clients, and other companies which saw the example of Zanon as an unacceptable threat.

The workers of Zanon, knowing that they faced powerful enemies, created alliances with other oppressed sectors, for their mutual benefit. For example, when the provider of raw materials refused to continue selling clay to the worker-controlled factory, the workers approached a Mapuche community (an indigenous community in the south of Argentina and Chile) and reached an agreement whereby the community members would provide the workers clay and, in exchange, the workers produced a line of tiles with traditional illustrations made by Mapuche community members.

When the police attempted to evict the workers from the factory, popular mobilization was overwhelming. Students, social movements and state workers surrounded the factory in solidarity. The staff of Neuquén’s public hospitals declared that they would not provide medical treatment to the police if they were injured in the operation. The workers inside the factory were prepared to resist. There was ultimately no eviction.

Although many have tried to portray FaSinPat’s struggle and achievements as a spontaneous occurrence or even as the product of autonomist ideologies , a conscious, militant and patient effort was central to the task of organizing the workers at the factory. The work of Raul Godoy, a long-time Trotskyist, along with Alejandro Lopez, an independent leftist, and other politically active workers was crucial in the years previous to the take-over. Recovering the comisión interna (shop floor commission) from the hands of the union bureaucracy was a major win after years of underground organizing. It was at the same time a stronghold that enabled leaders to advance the organization and the consciousness of the whole factory. When the owner Luiggi Zanon decided to lock out and the plant was taken, a lot of work had been done.

Today they have reached 13 years of worker-controlled operation. In 3 months they built a health center that the community had asked of the government for 20 years, and they created jobs for more than 200 unemployed workers.

Eduardo Ayala describes the relationship between FasinPat and Madygraf clearly: “From the beginning we took the experience of Zanon as the basis our organization. As soon as the first comrades joined with us to form a group in the factory, with a program, convinced that we would change everything –as Raul said, the first thing we did was travel to Neuquén to get to know Zanon.”

In response to the crisis and the attack of transnational corporations

RR Donnelley is a multinational corporation based in Chicago, with factories in four countries in addition to the US. One week before the factory was to be closed, they announced that 123 workers would be laid off. The comisión interna (shop floor commission) stood firm: they rejected the layoffs with the slogan ‘No More Families Left in The Streets’, and they prepared to fight. For several years the combative comisión interna had fought against layoffs and furloughs within the factory. It is an example of a phenomenon that is spreading in the industrial zone of Greater Buenos Aires, known as sindicalismo de bas (grassroots unionism), or sindicalismo de izquierda (left-wing unionism).

An article published in June 2014 by the center-right newspaper ´Clarin´ voiced the growing concern of companies about the spread of leftist caucuses at the front of the comisiones internas in several factories: such as “Mondelez, Felfort, Pepsico, the Coca Cola bottling plant, the meat-packing company Frigorifico RioplatenseFate, the Lear auto parts plant and Worldcolor graphics, Printpack and RR Donnelley itself, among many others. “Even though they don’t yet control the shopfloor commission, the PTS also has shop stewards in Procter & Gamble and in the agribusiness Ledesma.” In 2012, a left-wing slate reached 40% of the votes in the Buenos Aires regional elections of the major Food Workers Union. The Partido Obrero, one of the other Trotskyist parties within the Left Front (FIT), has also won some important positions in the union structures over the last decade.

Since 2001, keeping pace with the economic recovery, there has been a growth of this grassroots unionism (‘sindicalismo de base’) characterized by democratic organizing in the workplace, militant activism and opposition to union bureaucracy , usually at the head of the regional or national union offices.

The comision interna –a shopfloor commission with large autonomy from the union’s higher levels – is a distinctive trait of unionism in Argentina and historically one of the strongholds of workers’ power and democracy. This type of workplace organizations played a key role during the labor uprising of 1970s, and their strong militancy earned them the toughest persecution from the repressive dictatorship in the late 70s and early 80s. Mercedez Benz’s entire commisión interna was ‘disappeared’ .

Donnelley’s comisión interna was taken back from the hands of the union bureaucracy in 2005. Since then, a militant and democratic activism has taken place, where the assembly is the highest authority and delegates return to the production line after serving a term, to prevent the establishment of a caste in the leadership. Along with the comisiones internas of Mondélez (exKraft), Pepsico and Lear, they laid the foundations of the left-wing unionism in northern Buenos Aires.

The comisión interna showed its class solidarity on several occasions: fighting for the permanent hiring of contracted and outsourced workers of the plant, actively supporting the struggles in companies in the area (Kraft, Lear), effectively supporting the occupation of the parque indoamericano in 2010, and joining in the campaign for the acquittal of the oil companies of Las Heras .

Along with workers from other graphic plants of the area, they formed an anti-bureaucratic caucus within the graphic union. The Bordo and Naranja slates combined to challenge the leadership of the union, and obtained 30% of the votes at national level, and 40% in the Zona Norte of Buenos Aires.

The high degree of organization within the factory was a determining factor in the bosses’ decision to close the plant. At the same time, this very element allowed the rapid response from the workers. Although the closure was still a surprise and a hard blow to take, they were prepared to face it.

In August, Christian Castillo the legislator representing the PTS (part of the Frente de Izquierda, FIT –Left and Workers’ Front) in the legislature of the Province of Buenos Aires introduced a bill for the expropriation of the company under workers’ control. The law already has preliminary approval of the Lower House, but still needs to be approved by the Senate. Today the challenge is to get the expropriation campaign on the national agenda with the support of students, political parties and trade unions, united behind the bill, but flexing their muscle in the streets.

The self-management of the workers, the operation of the factory as a cooperative, and the preservation of jobs are all tremendous achievements. However, the workers in MadyGraf are striving for more. Today the goal is the expropriation and nationalization of the company for the benefit of all.

As Eduardo Ayala explains, “From the first meeting we held after bankruptcy was declared, the decision voted in the assembly was expropriation and nationalization under worker management to put this factory at the service of the neediest, so that the manuals and books we can print reach the humblest children in the poorest neighborhoods.”

There is no class divide within MadyGraf. Its struggle and achievements, like those of FaSinPat, are an example and a beacon for the international labor movement. Far from being a goal in itself, these gains should encourage and motivate the revolutionary militants to continue the long struggle for a classless society.

Translation by Emma Vignola and Robert Belano.

* This article was originally published on Counterpunch.

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