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Throwing Out the Boss

Bennett Baumer Aug 31, 2007

sinpatronSin Patrón
By the Lavaca Collective
Haymarket Books 2007

From the ashes of Argentina’s economic collapse in the late 1990s sprang forth a new world. Workers occupied factories and took control of the machines, eventually expropriating the entire operation from the bosses. Their movement’s mantra, “Occupy, Resist, Produce,” is perhaps the most enduring idea from the unrest after the collapse. Haymarket Books has released a translated compilation of ten stories of occupied factories called Sin Patrón, a uniquely written case study of how the factory occupations occurred.

In all, there were roughly 170 occupied companies with 10,000 workers. The ten “recovered companies” profiled in the book share a common narrative. Workers toiled for months with no paycheck or reduced earnings while the boss schemed to bankrupt the place or salvage whatever was left. Workers got pissed and refused to leave the shop floor, the exacerbated boss called the cops. Cops evicted the workers with brutal force; workers camped outside the company and reoccupied the site multiple times until winning the political and legal battle.

The book’s flow is not overly intellectual, though the translations can get clunky and social actors difficult to follow for those not well versed in Argentine politics. What is unique is how the story is told — through firsthand worker experiences compiled by the Argentine Lavaca Collective, itself a cooperative of writers and activists.

The collective gives workers a medium to retell their stories and debate in hindsight what worked and what did not — there’s chapter on the occupations that failed.

The whole Argentine economy shook at its foundations from 1999 to 2002. Facing inflation, recession and a slumping GDP, the wealthy elite began to liquidate the entire country, turning pesos into dollars. They then literally snuck the hard currency out of Argentina while the government froze regular Argentines’ bank accounts. Owners abandoned their businesses in the face of bankruptcy or attempted to sell anything of value not nailed down. Soon even middle-class Argentines took to the streets banging on pots and pans and vandalizing banks and businesses.

For a moment, Argentina seemed on the verge of revolution. Engineering students visited the occupied factories to share their technical skills; leftist parties awoke from sectarian slumber to fight the street battles shoulder to shoulder with workers.

The book wrestles with the ideological argument that led to black eyes and hurt feelings on the picket line, and addresses whether the occupations should have pushed for nationalization, as many leftists claim. It presents the criticism that the worker co-ops blend too easily into the recovered Argentine capitalist economy. This last critique is never fully explored, but Sin Patrón is nonetheless an excellent follow-up to The Take, a 2004 documentary on the same subject by Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein, who also wrote the book’s introduction.

Sin Patrón chronicles the confused state of Argentina’s trade union movement, many of whose workers just wanted the boss to return, pay them their due, and to return to work the next day—even months after the original occupation. But Argentine society questioned the capitalist system as it crumbled and many workers went further and took power in their shops and communities. Unfortunately in many cases, union officials along with the boss abandoned the workers. In one case — the Metallurgical Workers’ Union — workers believe the union used the appliance factory’s revenue as a slush fund for its political allies.

Facing a similar situation, American workers grapple with factories shuttering and the corporations leaving for the global South. American unions have responded in many cases with concessionary bargaining and instead when the factories close, not one union mentions the word “occupation.” —Bennett Baumer

Photo from TheTake.org