We translated this article by Andrés Ruggeri because it’s a fairly honest assessment of the last 20 and more years of the ‘worker recuperated enterprises’ (WRE) movement in Argentina. We’ve touched on this before, as it’s probably the most recent set of politicised experiments in workers’ control/self-management at much scale (the word ‘autogestión’ doesn’t have an exact English equivalent). Most interesting is what the writer says about the interactions of the WREs with state forces, the law, Argentine unions, the piqueteros (street pickets, mostly by unemployed workers) and neighbourhood assemblies at different points before and after the 2000-2001 political rupture; as well as the difficulties facing WRE workers, then and now.
Ruggeri believes collective self-management belongs in the ‘toolbox’ for working class emancipation, and even that the legal right to self-manage is a working class win, like the 8-hour day or the ‘right’ to unionise. For a more detailed, if pretty academic, study of the RWEs there’s this by Marcelo Vieta. To counterbalance the cheerleading tendency, you could have a look at this uncompromising political critique of autogestión by the group Cuadernos de Negación. That’s written by people who say they were involved in the movement back in the day, but unfortunately they don’t describe their own journey from participation to denunciation. Actually, what’s missing is much reflection from workers themselves on the experience of trying to use ‘autogestión’ – although this pretty awesome 2006 article and set of worker interviews helps fill some of the gaps.
The year 2001 called attention for the first time to a phenomenon that had been leading sectors of the workers’ movement for at least ten years before the outbreak: the struggle for the recovery and self-management of various factories and productive units, a process later known as the worker-recovered enterprises (WREs). In this text we propose a critical assessment of the limitations and potentialities of this important Argentine experience.
It is quite common that, in order to refer to the movement of recuperated enterprises in Argentina, a relation is established with the events of 2001 or, directly, it is identified as having arisen at that time. The recovered factories, together with the piqueteros and the popular assemblies, appeared as the new social movements that represented a rupture with everything previous, born out of the rebellion of December 19 and 20.
This relationship appears in all kinds of narratives and imaginaries, both in militancy and in the media, and even in academic works. And although it is not strictly true, since the process of recovery of companies has numerous antecedents in previous decades and a development that can be traced back to the late 80’s, there is a clear moment of irruption of these experiences in the political and social life of our people that cannot be separated from the crisis that caused the fall of Fernando De la Rúa’s government and opened a new stage in the recent history of Argentina. And this is so because 2001 gave a notorious visibility to a phenomenon previously existing but circumscribed to the micro-space of the factory (a handful of them) and turned it into a reference for the struggle of broad sectors in a conjuncture of enormous social mobilization.
This visibility was not only circumstantial or mediatized, but gave impetus to a movement that rescued from oblivion the very idea of self-management of labour – widely spread among the “new left” of the 60s and 70s and fallen into disuse by the 2000s – and gave it a power that otherwise would have been difficult to achieve. This force had an impact even on state institutions, which were obliged to respond to a demand that was far from being massive: the “occupied” companies – there was also a conceptual and political dispute over the denomination of the process – numbered around a hundred and involved only a few thousand workers, at a time when the unemployed movements were mobilizing hundreds of thousands and a quarter of the population had lost their jobs. How was it that a movement of such small dimensions came to occupy such an important place in the imaginary of a gigantic crisis, which made the economic system crumble and called into question the very state institutionality of the country? Why did it impact so strongly on the symbolism of one of the biggest crises of the neoliberal model in the world before the global crisis of 2008? What did (we saw) thousands of popular militants who enthusiastically supported the process and how does this relate to the relative tolerance of the political system and the repressive forces against situations that in other historical moments (past and, perhaps, future) would have been fiercely and swiftly dismantled.
A first answer to these questions is precisely the link that was quickly made between crisis and recovery. The workers occupying factories were identified as a break with the old stagnant and bureaucratized movements -starting with the unions-, incapable of offering resistance to neoliberalism, part of the great movement unleashed by 2001 together with the assemblies and the piqueteros. Their characteristics of resistance for a just cause -the defence of labour in a context of brutal economic crisis and massive unemployment-, their claims in workplaces, rarely blocking the streets or invading the territory of more affluent social sectors, aroused the sympathy of middle sectors that, except for the brief moments of “piquete y cacerola”, do not usually empathize with the struggles of those who presume to be below their own social status. On the other hand, the weakness of the political institutionality produced by the “que se vayan todos” (let them all go away) prompted public officials at all levels, including legislators and judges, to give in circumstantially to demands that would have been dismissed out of hand just a few months before, voting expropriation laws, granting judicial permits, giving subsidies, pledging support, etc. All these issues gave the movement an unthinkable strength and resulted in concrete advances in the resolution of conflicts. As a consequence, the average duration of the occupations, which before 2002 was almost one year, was reduced to less than five months in the following years, and more than one hundred expropriation laws were voted in the different provincial legislatures and even in the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires.
The bulk of the militancy saw in the companies and factories that were occupied and put back into production under self-management a phenomenon of enormous significance, for its symbolic power and political projection. After the scorched earth of neoliberalism of the 1990s, with unions mostly complicit or weakened – to such an extent that with few exceptions they had been reduced to a capacity of resistance almost equal to zero -, the sudden appearance of dozens of occupied factories and with workers willing to form cooperatives or, in the cases that the Trotskyist left parties had managed to lead, to fight for nationalization and workers’ control, represented a sort of resurrection of the working class. A little finer and projecting further, an unthinkable possibility of a self-managed future was glimpsed, an alternative that appeared almost miraculously to resume the anti-capitalist struggle. This idea fed back into the attention paid by the booming anti-globalization movement in the core countries, with a steady stream of activists coming to a suddenly cheap Argentina for those arriving with hard currency to see the laboratory of the future society on the ground. Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis’ documentary The Take made factories like Zanon, Brukman or Forja San Martin world famous. Another world was possible and the factories taken over proved it.
But, in fact, and beyond the alter-globalization dreams, something different was taking shape in the recuperated enterprises. Small groups of workers were wresting from the State the possibility of appropriating the means of production from the former bosses, forming work cooperatives that received, to a greater or lesser extent, government support for their operation, practicing, without manuals, a collective and assembly management that replaced the capitalist management of the work process. In some cases, with the utmost awareness of what was being done, in others by simply letting themselves be carried along by events. In general, the unions watched and withdrew, in others they were just another part of the scheme of emptying and looting of the company’s assets, in some exceptions, such as the UOM Quilmes or the Federación Gráfica Bonaerense, they were an essential part and promoter of the processes. The self-management of labour, as an alternative process to traditional economic management, began to be incorporated into the working class toolbox to defend itself from unemployment and the abusive conditions of the bosses and, in this way, a key concept for any project for an economy and a society overcoming capitalist exploitation was rescued.
Unlike other phenomena closely linked to the 2001 crisis, which rapidly diminished until they almost disappeared or became residual processes as the country was recovering from the most traumatic aspects of the outbreak (such as the barter clubs or the assemblies); or were being reconverted into territorially based movements (such as the majority expressions of the piqueteros), or being absorbed by the political system, the recuperated enterprises continued to exist in forms not very different from their origin. Although some of them have been operating for more than two decades and have managed to consolidate themselves as productive units, continuing simultaneously as collectively managed workers’ organizations, in most cases the advances with respect to what was achieved in the months following the recovery have been few. The basic problems due to the limitations of a legislation that does not contemplate self-managed work as a real possibility of productive management, the unresolved disputes over ownership, the labour rights lost with respect to dependent work or the difficulties for a relatively even commitment of the workers to assume the management responsibilities that previously corresponded to the bosses, continue and are added to the typical structural problems of self-management in the framework of capitalism and, in the last years of Macrismo in government, to a state aggressiveness not seen before.
After the fascination for the novel movement of the workers who took over the factories abandoned by the bosses, the recuperated enterprises, twenty years later, show a panorama that implies old and new problems and numerous lessons that should be debated and addressed. Generally we leave these issues in a discreet background so as not to affect the defense of a movement that we love and vindicate, but a critical balance should not overlook the challenges and limitations of a movement that, to do it justice, few of us imagined would not only survive twenty years later, but grow and multiply.
A brief look at the history of the movement
As we pointed out at the beginning of this article, the movement of recuperated enterprises is preexistent to the 2001 crisis, despite having been repeatedly associated with it. One of the keys to see this background goes through the definition: a recovered company is a process in which a company goes from capitalist management to collective management by its workers. That is to say, from the capital company, vertically hierarchical, to self-management. With this relatively simple concept, we leave aside definitions of a normative type – whether it is a worker cooperative, whether it is expropriated, whether it has ownership of the plant, etc. – which are the majority way of identifying “recuperations” or of an ideological type – qualifying them in terms of an idea prior to the organization or assuming self-ascription as a criterion of reality, as they consider themselves to be. Both categories of analysis may be included in the concept depending on the case, but we prioritize a process and a definition based on the mode of social and economic organization.
From this point of view, the recovered enterprise is sometimes juxtaposed with the cooperative movement or with the “social economy”, understood as the sector of the economy neither public nor private, but of social management (and lately, solidarity), but from a process of transformation from a capitalist economic unit based on wage labour. There are not many antecedents but they do exist, there are even some “recovered” companies still operating (although nobody called them that) already in the 50s, such as the transport cooperative La Calera, in Córdoba, or the Cogtal graphic company, now in Avellaneda, province of Buenos Aires, which at the time was the workshop of the leader of the CGT de los Argentinos, Raimundo Ongaro.
But the current process started at the end of the 80’s with the first resistance to the closing down of companies, which was beginning to be the characteristic of the deindustrialization process that had started with the dictatorship and accelerated during the last years of the Alfonsín government, to become a brutal reconversion of the productive and industrial structure of Argentina during the government of Carlos Menem. It is then that the first cases began to emerge, some driven by the Quilmes section of the Unión Obrera Metalúrgica, led by the leader Francisco “Barba” Gutiérrez, such as the factories Adabor, Mosconi, Vélez Sarsfield or Polimec; in others, by the Federación Gráfica Bonaerense based on the example of Cogtal, as in the Campichuelo printing plant. In most of the other cases, in certain isolation, such as the Inimbó textile factory in Chaco, the Coceramic brick factory in Entre Ríos, the Santa Isabel meat packing plant in Santa Fe or the Yaguané meat packing plant in La Matanza. Some leaders and activists began to emerge and towards the end of the decade, some notorious cases were laying the foundations of what would later become the National Movement of Recovered Companies (MNER), such as the Zanello tractor factory in Las Varillas, Córdoba, the IMPA metallurgical plant in the city of Buenos Aires or Gip Metal in Avellaneda.
By the time the crisis broke out, several of these cases and currents had already linked up with each other and the role of December 19 and 20 acted as a catalyst for a budding movement, which was to find unexpected resonance in a boiling social and political climate. This first moment of organization, although weak, was key for the outbreak of December 2001 to act as a unifying force for the process and consolidate occupations and conflicts, most of them independent of each other, as a movement that considered the self-management of the closing companies and managed to generate a path towards what was already beginning to be called “the recovery”. A zigzagging path through the enormous problems that the situation posed, and not exempt of debates, such as the one that confronted the cooperative perspective with that of the nationalization under workers’ control proposed by the organizations of a sector of the left. Throughout 2002, with more than a hundred companies occupied and struggling to enter into self-managed production, the movement consolidated, became visible to Argentine society and the world, and formed an organization, the aforementioned MNER, which managed to bring together most of the WREs (some never did and others continued to be linked to other political options, such as Zanon and Brukman).
From fragmentation to movement: the recuperadas in 2001
The days of December 19 and 20, 2001 were a turning point in the recent history of our country, an enormous economic, political and social crisis that also implied the closure of thousands of companies and factories of all kinds. While savers were protesting at the banks because of the corralito, looting was spreading in the suburbs -and not so much- and the pots and pans were clanging in the rest of the city of Buenos Aires, there were also workers in various factories, workshops and companies who were losing their jobs and becoming unemployed from one day to the next. In some cases, they occupied the plants to defend their jobs, such as the Brukman textile workers who on December 18 found themselves alone in their factory, or the Zanon workers who had been in full occupation for months before. In others, like the workers of the Hotel Bauen, they resigned themselves to going home while they boarded up the entrance to the building which they would recover, with the support of the MNER, a year and a few months later.
The dramatic turn of events accelerated the process of rapprochement between these different cases and broke the relative isolation between them. If the whole country was mobilizing, the recuperated enterprises were not going to be the exception. The following months saw the emergence of the movement, which not only began to organize (with a center in the AMBA but also in provinces such as Santa Fe, Córdoba or Neuquén and with cases in almost all the provinces of the country) but also to create bonds of solidarity with the other movements and to articulate a coherent discourse towards the State.
The attraction generated by each conflict in a mobilized society was in many of these cases the key that made it possible to turn an unfavorable correlation of forces. An exemplary case in this regard was the Chilavert printing plant, which came from a typical process of emptying that had left only eight workers in a moribund workshop and which the police would have evicted without any doubt if a very broad network of solidarity had not been generated: the IMPA factory contributed its experience and a truck that blocked the door, and thousands of people called by the Pompeya assembly formed a human cordon that dissuaded the police from provoking a confrontation that was politically inconducive in that context. A few months later, the Buenos Aires Legislature voted unanimously to expropriate Chilavert. Even companies with weakly determined workers’ collectives benefited from this momentum, obtaining their expropriations under the umbrella of the movement and with legislators willing to get the problem out of their hands as soon as possible. Such a force, as the political crisis receded, weakened and led to less expeditious and inconclusive processes in the years that followed.
Having control of the plants and machinery is a solution to part of the problem, but it is far from being everything. Self-management, even more so in an economy in deep crisis, implies solving complex issues, for which it is not enough simply for “the workers to lead”. A predominant view at the time was the romanticization of the occupation, which led (and in part still does) to overvalue this stage of the process. It is obvious that it is a foundational moment, which means the so desired “appropriation of the means of production”, but starting from the unavoidable fact that it was the capitalists who made the decision to abandon the enterprise and, rather than being appropriated by the class offensive, they abandoned means of production largely unserviceable or unusable. It soon became clear that the “occupied factory” without a collective of workers organized to put it into production, without capital, without solidarity and support networks around it, and without an economic framework to build or rebuild, can be a beautiful cultural center but if it fails to generate decent sources of work, it will not fulfill the objective for which it was taken. The recovery of work is, from the perspective of the protagonists, the main goal, the floor without which everything else is meaningless. But, at the same time, there is the paradox that, if the process remains in that primary objective -even if economic “success” is achieved- without transcending it in a social and politically broader framework, it is a matter of time before the transformation potential of the recovered company is reduced to a minimum.
This essential problem for all the processes of self-management of labour was something that could be glimpsed in those first months and years but that the urgency to solve the most acute stage of the conflicts postponed for more stable moments. The debate centered on the alternatives of nationalization with workers’ control or expropriation and the formation of cooperatives. The practice was in charge of settling it: no occupied factory was nationalized , and much less under workers’ control, in a broken State without direction, at least until the inauguration of Néstor Kirchner in 2003. And subsequently, this was not the option taken by the government either. Instead, the more sinuous path tried by the rest of the recovered companies proved its effectiveness, which was based on tactical flexibility and experience.
The relationship with the State and, in that sense, access to support programs and political tools for conflict resolution was the next source of debates and differences between leaders and organizations, as well as disputes over the leadership of a movement with wide public visibility. The unity of the MNER was short-lived: a lawyer who specialized in the recuperadas, Luis Caro – an ambitious character far removed from any revolutionary approach, but effective in dealing with the courts – fractured the movement as early as January 2003. Subsequently, different sectors separated and, as time went by, the WREs, broke up into several organizations and federations. Their basic problems, however, remained very similar.
The subsequent evolution, once the country’s situation stabilized, saw the consolidation of a process which, unlike other social movements, needed to settle economically and concentrate on resolving their particular situations in each case. It was not territory or permanent mobilization, not even access to state resources, that guaranteed survival, but rather production and income generation. This implied the reinsertion of previously bankrupt enterprises or those abandoned by their bosses into the market. State support, as important as it was, did not and could not ensure -unless the hypothetical “nationalization with workers’ control” had taken place- the flow of income that would pay salaries, cover costs and investments. This had to be done through insertion in the market, which obliged, inevitably, to supplant the bosses and the managerial structure that carried out this function without departing from collective management or, otherwise, it would gradually turn into a factory in which self-management would be replaced by a vertical structure. Reality took care of showing that this struggle, much less showy and alien to the mobilizations and heroic moments of the takeover, was going to be the great challenge to overcome.
Lessons from twenty years of workers’ self-management
The nearly one hundred recuperated enterprises that expressed themselves in the first MNER, arising directly from the days of 2001 and 2002, became more than 400 that, going through the macrismo and the pandemic, continue to operate up to the time of writing these lines. More than 15,000 workers make up a movement that, although they have many things in common, has not achieved a minimum organic unity for a long time, with generally weak groups that respond to leaderships that exhibit as credentials their capacity for dialogue with different public bodies and government officials. Some smaller and more compact organizations show more unity and, in some cases, certain organizational constants and criteria that can be taken as differentiated models. But, taken as a whole, the movement survives despite these fragilities.
Twenty years after the key moment for the constitution of an identity as recovered enterprises, differentiated from other cooperatives or other more ephemeral or fluctuating movements, and some thirty years after the first cases that took the initial steps, we can outline a series of elements of analysis that can provide the basis for a critical balance of this experience of workers’ self-management in Argentina. In a general aspect, from the point of view of alternative construction, we can make an outline of the main potentialities and achievements of the self-management experience led in our country by the WREs.
In the first place, the experience of Argentina’s recovered enterprises shows, once again, that self-management is an economic, social and political process that can have an impact on the restitution and generation of employment devastated by neoliberal economic policies. Although the conditions are quite particular, since they presuppose the existence of a previous enterprise that was abandoned or bankrupted by the bosses, the WREs demonstrate that workers who know their trade and are capable of organizing themselves to resume and maintain productive activity can also generate effective management mechanisms.
These management mechanisms are nothing other than the democratization of the social relations of production, albeit within the framework of a delimited productive space limited to a particular productive unit. However, they show the potential of the working class to dispense with the bosses’ structures. As Marx already affirmed more than a century and a half ago, in the cooperative factories (in this case, our WREs), the direct exploitation of labour by capital is abolished, although the workers do not manage to become independent of indirect exploitation through the market.
In turn, as an economic phenomenon, self-management of labour is a tool so far little developed by the popular movement to dispute the distribution of wealth. The popular economy, in general, does not manage to reproduce -in groups of more than a few thousand people and in very specific spaces- the operating conditions achieved in the WREs and in other cooperative processes with the capacity for capital investment; even in a very limited way. This is mainly due to two founding elements of the recuperated enterprises that are not found in most of the experiences of the popular economy: the existence of a previously structured collective with labour experience and discipline (what is sometimes called “work culture”) and a capital preserved from previous employer failure in the form of facilities, machinery and sometimes value networks. Both conditions are no guarantee, as we have seen, of success, but they are a starting point that popular economy organizations do not usually have, and usually do not propose to have.
As a social phenomenon, the self-managed enterprise is a powerful binder of social networks and solidarity, a collective organizer that is little exploited. The difference with other organizations is its economic rather than territorial base. But at the same time, the enterprise, especially the WREs, have underutilized or idle spaces that can serve as a base for other popular initiatives and its very nature as a labour organization can function as a concentrator of a network of social relations that strengthens the surrounding community. However, there are few cases in which this has been achieved, or has been done on the basis of a strategy of building popular power.
In this last sense, the potential of the political process of the WREs has been little explored, which could become, based on the previous points, an interesting exercise of popular power. The tendency of cooperatives in general and recovered enterprises in particular to close in on themselves, a tendency sustained by the imperious need to sustain income through economic activity in the market and by the shallowness of the organizational fabric achieved, limits the scope of experiences in this direction.
These general considerations should be complemented with others related to the difficulties and limitations of the experience, directly linked to the process of these years in the WREs. The first thing in this sense is that the consolidation of self-managed enterprises must have a correlate at the state level in support programs and legislation that ensure the rights and achievements of self-management. The movement of recuperated and self-managed enterprises, in all its variants, has so far shown itself ineffective in generating the conditions to advance in this matter after the achievements of the first years. The reform of the bankruptcy law of 2011 was the last advance in this sense, and with many limitations. This does not have to be detrimental to their autonomy, it is about the consolidation of rights achieved by the strength and struggle of a movement that has been fighting for decades, as in its time were the eight-hour working day, the legalization of trade unions or the right to social security. The working class that performs in self-management is in a dead angle of the legislation: they are recognized as associations for work, but not as a labour subject. They must comply with the tax and administrative formalities of economic societies, but they cannot receive credits and are systematically left out of public policies (some of this has begun to be reversed in recent times, but there is still a long way to go). Achieving a floor of labour and economic rights could be an enormous boost for the consolidation and expansion of self-management.
Another pending issue is the scarce political and even professional training, specific to management processes, of their workers, which is almost exclusively the responsibility of the organizations. The workers of the WREs are halfway between the unionized worker and the popular economy worker: they wait for solutions from an absent employer (sometimes replaced by the leadership of the organization itself) or from the State. This situation, which speaks of the difficulty in generating a collective management of production, is transformed in most cases into a delay or even a failure in the construction of a truly collective organization of the economy.
In turn, self-management does not succeed – and it is logically very difficult in such an unfavorable context – in overcoming the conditioning factors of the market, to a much lesser extent than the obstacles offered by the State. But in order to advance in autonomy vis-à-vis the market (that is, to achieve the capacity to define in part its own rules and conditions of production), it must have economic tools that give it the necessary “backing” to do so, that is, capital and the capacity to generate productive innovation, as well as social innovation (which is generally related to the investment that can be made). And here appears one of the main strategic challenges of self-management in the framework of capitalism: how to generate capital without exploitation and without a broad social and political support network that provides what productive activity itself delays or cannot generate. This network can include the active support of the State, which requires a government willing to do so; and on the other hand, a social asset that bets on this and that is strengthened by the success of these attempts.
In this sense, the experience of the recovered enterprises differs little from the majority of the historical paths in our region and in other latitudes, especially in the cooperative movement. It is the challenge that the Polish economist Jaroslav Vanek synthesized in “the danger of usurpation of self-management by worker-owners”, which underlies the development of a self-managed, self-centered and self-financed organization without links to larger structures that give it meaning. The paradox is that economic success results in a loss of the self-management process, while politicization without achieving objectives in the generation of a decent income for all members of the organization runs the risk of not being able to ensure its survival. The answer to this challenge may involve, we believe, the expansion of the networks that contain self-management, the diversification of sources of financing and capitalization, and the existence of a political structure for the formation and management of the process.
The latter is especially valid in factories and companies of certain dimensions, which cannot generate the conditions for the reproduction of their economic circuit in the medium term or investment to ensure the long term, something that usually appears with the need for the renewal of capital goods and technological updating. Legal precariousness is a key element in this limitation, since few companies have title deeds and can access bank loans, and to make matters worse, in Argentina there are few financing alternatives so far. But even if there were, large capitalist enterprises have been basing their expansion on credit, state support, financial investment and valorization in large concentrated conglomerates with the capacity to offer resources for the business unit that requires it, and to close down without further ado the one that does not fit into the scheme. The isolation of self-managed companies makes it almost impossible to overcome these situations.
Finally, and returning to what was stated above, the growth of these experiences is fundamental for the development of alternatives for the popular economy that manage, on the one hand, to overcome the single resource of the dispute for resources from the State and, on the other hand, the hyper-exploitation through their subordination to the productive chains of concentrated capital.
In synthesis, twenty years of self-management provide a good basis for overcoming some of the limitations pointed out, if we can discuss them without fear of weakening the movement or offering weak flanks to the powerful enemy which is, without a doubt, capital, generally faithfully accompanied by the State. As a whole, and in spite of these limitations, the recuperated enterprises are nothing more than the revitalization of the self-management process as a tool for the economic and social construction of the working class, an instrument abandoned in the historical process by unions and political organizations. An idea forgotten in the corners of historical memory, but that lives and resurfaces in every experience of collective economic organization as are, undoubtedly, the companies recovered by their workers. The popular rebellion of December 19 and 20, 2001 contributed decisively to make this possible.
 Now Felipe Vallese Worker Cooperative.
 Now Pauny, one of the few cases in which the recovery did not result in a cooperative but in a tripartite corporation that includes the participation of the workers’ cooperative.
 Current Cooperativa Unión y Fuerza.
 The only documented case was the Medrano clinic nationalized by the Buenos Aires legislature in 2004. The result was the closure of the establishment and the absorption of the employees by the Health area of the GCBA.
 Data from the Facultad Abierta program of the UBA and the National Registry of Recovered Companies of INAES.
 In Chapter 27 of Volume III of Capital..