In 2004 we made a documentary called The Take about Argentina's movement of worker-run businesses. In the wake of the country's dramatic economic collapse in 2001, thousands of workers walked into their shuttered factories and put them back into production as worker cooperatives. Abandoned by bosses and politicians, they regained unpaid wages and severance while reclaiming their jobs.
As we toured Europe and North America with the film, every Q&A ended up with the question, That's all very well in Argentina, but could that ever happen here?
Well, with the world economy now looking remarkably like Argentina's in 2001 (for many of the same reasons), there is a new wave of direct action among workers in rich countries. Co-ops are once again emerging as a practical alternative to more layoffs. Workers in the United States and Europe are beginning to ask the same questions as their Latin American counterparts: Why do we have to get fired? Why can't we fire the boss? Why is the bank allowed to drive our company under while getting billions of dollars of our money?
On May 15 at Cooper Union in New York City, we're taking part in a panel that looks at this phenomenon, called Fire the Boss: The Worker Control Solution From Buenos Aires to Chicago. We'll be joined by people from the movement in Argentina as well as workers from the famous Republic Windows & Doors struggle in Chicago.
It's a great way to hear directly from those who are trying to rebuild the economy from the ground up, and who need meaningful support from the public, as well as policy-makers at all levels of government. For those who can't make it out to Cooper Union, here's a quick roundup of recent developments in the world of worker control.
In Argentina, the direct inspiration for many current worker actions, there have been more takeovers in the past four months than in the previous four years.
Arrufat, a chocolate maker with a fifty-year history, was abruptly closed late last year. Thirty employees occupied the plant and, despite a huge utility debt left by the former owners, have been producing chocolates by the light of day, using generators.
With a loan of less than $5,000 from The Working World, a capital fund/NGO started by a fan of The Take, they were able to produce 17,000 Easter eggs for their biggest weekend of the year. They made a profit of $75,000, taking home $1,000 each and saving the rest for future production.
The United Kingdom
Visteon is an auto-parts manufacturer that was spun off from Ford in 2000. Hundreds of workers were given six minutes' notice that their workplaces were closing. Two hundred workers in Belfast staged a sit-in on the roof of their factory; another 200 in Enfield followed suit the next day.
In the next few weeks, Visteon increased the severance package to as much as ten times its initial offer. But the company is refusing to put the money in the workers' bank accounts until they leave the plants; and the workers are refusing to leave until they see the money.
A factory where workers make legendary Waterford Crystal was occupied for seven weeks this year when parent company Waterford Wedgewood went into receivership after being taken over by a US private equity firm.
The US company has now put 10 million euros in a severance fund, and negotiations are ongoing to keep some of the jobs.
As the Big Three automakers collapse, there have been four occupations by Canadian Auto Workers so far this year. In each case, factories were closing and workers were not getting compensation that was owed to them. The workers occupied the factories to stop the machines from being removed, using that as leverage to force the companies back to the table -- the same dynamic that worker takeovers in Argentina have followed.
In France there's been a wave of "boss-nappings" this year, in which angry employees have detained their bosses in factories that are facing closure. Companies targeted so far include Caterpillar, 3M, Sony and Hewlett-Packard.
The 3M executive was brought a meal of moules et frites during his overnight ordeal.
A comedy hit in France this spring was the movie Louise-Michel, in which a group of women workers hire a hitman to kill their boss after he shuts down their factory with no warning.
A French union official said in March, "Those who sow misery reap fury. The violence is done by those who cut jobs, not by those who try to defend them."
And this week 1,000 steelworkers disrupted the annual shareholders' meeting of ArcelorMittal, the world's largest steel company. They stormed the company's headquarters in Luxembourg, smashing gates, breaking windows and fighting with police.
Also this week, in southern Poland, at the largest coal-coking producer in Europe, thousands of workers bricked up the entrance to the company's headquarters, protesting wage cuts.
The United States
And then there's the famous Republic Windows & Doors story: 260 workers occupied their plant for six world-shaking days in Chicago this past December. With a savvy campaign against the company's biggest creditor, Bank of America ("You got bailed out; we got sold out!") and massive international solidarity, they won the severance they were owed. And more -- the plant is reopening under new ownership, making energy-efficient windows with all the workers hired back at their old wages.
And this week, Chicago is making it a trend. Hartmarx is a 122-year-old company that makes business suits, including the navy blue number that Barack Obama wore on election night and his inaugural tuxedo and topcoat.
Hartmarx is in bankruptcy. Its biggest creditor is Wells Fargo, recipient of $25 billion in bailout money from the public. While there are two offers on the table to buy the company and keep it operating, Wells Fargo wants to liquidate it. On Monday 650 workers voted to occupy their Chicago factory if the bank goes ahead with liquidation.
To be continued...
Naomi Klein is an award-winning journalist, syndicated columnist and author of the New York Times and #1 international bestseller, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. This column first appeared in The Nation.
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