Globe & Mail (Canada)
April 24, 2003

Argentina's Luddite Rulers

Workers in the occupied factories have a different vision: Smash the logic,
not the machines

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 gray 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 between.

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 and subtraction."

Brukman has come to represent a new kind of labor 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
paycheck away from having to beg and scavenge to survive. The specter
haunting Argentina's occupied factories is not communism, but indigence.

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 logic.
Naomi Klein is the author of No Logo and Fences and Windows.