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Michael Albert, "Argentine Self-Management"

Argentine Self Management

Michael Albert

This October I spent a week in Buenos Aires, Argentina learning about Argentina's workers movement to recuperate factories.

During the recent corporate globalization inspired economic downturns in Argentina, workers confronted disaster when their capitalist workplaces often went bankrupt. To preserve
income and avoid possible starvation, workers in failing plants in certain cases decided to recuperate their workplaces back into viable businesses despite the capitalist owner being unable to make a go of it.

Ignoring state opposition, aggressive competition, old equipment, and failed demand, workers in these instances took over roughly a hundred and ninety plants over the past five years. In each occupied workplace, we were told during our visit, not only did the capitalist owner leave the
operation, so too did prior professional and conceptual employees including managers and engineers. Where the privileged employees felt their prospects would be better served if they looked elsewhere rather than clinging to a failing operation, the unskilled and rote workers had to
recuperate their failing workplace or suffer unemployment. Thus to date the Argentine occupations, we were told by a highly conscious organizer in the movement, "have not been acts of ideology or followed a revolutionary plan." They have been, instead, "acts of desperate self defense." Yet most interestingly, provocatively, and inspirationally, after taking over a company, which usually required a struggle of many months to overcome political resistance from the state, and after then running the plants for a time, the recuperation projects have become increasingly
visionary.In addition to hearing about the overall situation of the "workplace recuperation movement," I visited an occupied hotel, ice cream plant, glass factory, and slaughterhouse, all recuperated by their prior manual, obedient, unskilled, and in most cases barely educated and sometimes even
illiterate work force.

In each of these plants, ranging in size from about 80 to about 500 employees, as in all other plants recuperated by worker actions, the workers quickly established a workers' council as the decision making body. In such councils, each worker gets one vote and majority rule establishes
overarching workplace policies. Workers call the process self management and each plant decides its own norms and relations.

Almost immediately, however, in most of the occupied plants, "workers leveled all salaries to the same hourly pay rate." Workplaces that varied from this egalitarianism tended to allow "slightly higher wages for those involved in the workplace longer and somewhat lower wages for those just coming aboard." Also, more recently, a discussion has begun about incentives. What type should they use, in what mix? Some workplaces have opted to pay more for conceptual and
managerial labor. Others have paid more for more demanding and debilitating work. Most have stuck with equal pay rates for all, however. All have begun wondering, how can they best have equity "but also have incentives to induce hard work?" Even where more onerous work wasn't paid more, which was most places, we were told there was much concern that people now stuck in rote positions should "have opportunities and be educated to do more interesting work" and that there was also a reduced tendency to refuse to share knowledge because everyone saw general advance as being in everyone's interest, not just in an owner's interest.

In all the recuperated plants, although we were told certain tasks having to do with specifically capitalist control have proved "no longer relevant," we were also told "many other organizational, managerial, and otherwise empowering tasks previously done by professionals have needed to be accomplished by the remaining workers." A subset of the workers have thus taken up doing new tasks, including sometimes having to become literate as a prerequisite.

When I asked organizers whether there was a division of labor in workplaces like that found in capitalist corporations, with about a fifth of employees doing mostly or even only empowering and more pleasant labor, and with four fifths doing mostly or even only rote, repetitive, and
more onerous labor, including the former dominating the latter by setting agendas, dominating debate, and otherwise establishing its will, the answers I got tended to agree that this difference between more empowered and more rote workers existed and then to talk about the need to induce workers to participate more not only in wage discussions, but in other discussions too. The answers didn't at first acknowledge that there was a structural impediment, not just old habits, interfering with participation. But then pressed further the organizers would agree that old divisions of labor countered egalitarian impulses though the only solution they offered was for more manual workers to learn to do managerial jobs. They failed to note or acknowledge that there wouldn't be enough such jobs to go around unless there was a change in the component tasks of jobs so that everyone had a share of empowering tasks.

In the ice cream plant we visited, for example, there were only two women workers. One was the treasurer. Asked what her class was, she at first didn't understand the query wondering what we could possibly have in mind, but then realized what we meant and said "of course, I am a worker
like all others." To her this was obvious. My question was as ridiculous as if I had asked what gender she was. Beyond feeling like all the rest of the workers, being paid like all the rest of the workers, and having one vote like all the rest of the workers, it turned out, supporting her incredulity, that this treasurer also spent only half of each day dealing with finances and records. The other half of each day she worked on the assembly line. However, her situation was not typical. Questions repeatedly revealed that retaining some old work while doing some new more
empowering tasks wasn't the only or even always the most typical job pattern for getting managerial assignments done. Rather, there were often people who did more conceptual tasks as their whole job without spending any time in assembly or other rote work. More, most people in the recuperated factories continued to do only their old jobs without taking up any new empowering aspects. Most people, in other words, still spent hour upon hour doing deadening
repetitive labor, though now in a very new context.

Asked if she earned different pay than other workers, the treasurer/assembler said "no, I have the same pay rate, why would my pay be any different?" In further discussion this woman and others in the ice cream plant -- and in other plants we visited later too -- told us that "while workers
aren't docked for laziness or rewarded greater pay for greater effort, anyone who slacks off comes before the whole council and is set right." Likewise, we were also told that under the auspices of the whole council there had been firings for "alcoholism, violence, etc." In short, pretty much universally in the occupied plants workers had to measure up to their workmates' satisfaction, which in practice seemed to mean that people had to do their jobs competently and contributing effort commensurate to their capacities as these were understood by the whole council. In short, with workers in charge, you either carried your weight, in accord with your capacities, or you heard about it.

When asked whether she was somehow different than other workers or whether other workers could also do the financial work she was proud of handling, the treasurer said "sure others could do it." Everyone else we asked also said "yes, of course everyone could do financial tasks, or in any case everyone could do some tasks of a conceptual sort." But when asked why only she and two other people in her workplace did treasury work while most workers in her ice cream factory
still did only rote and repetitive tasks, neither the treasurer nor any other worker we queried thought this overall division was a failing, at least before being asked about it. "We are all workers," they said. "We are all friends. "We all share the joys and benefits of our shared
effort." As long as they worked hard, gave their all, and had equal income, they didn't seem to feel it made a major difference who did what work. But it is important to remember, while we talked to workers, it was without exception workers who were doing the more empowering jobs.

In longer interviews, activists involved in the movement who were carefully watching its evolution all agreed that a persistent division between more and less empowered workers
was problematic and something to overcome lest it undo other gains they believed in, but they offered no specific plan for how to accomplish such a change and generally indicated that a prior concern was being successful and keeping jobs.

In the slaughter house we visited, beyond the subset of workers who did empowered labor we were told that the full council of just under 500 workers elected an eight person board serving for daily administration. We met with these eight employees who were all former rote/repetitive workers but were now doing conceptual tasks and also, beyond that, were voted to the board by the whole assembly. Their salary was unchanged by becoming board members, they reported to
us. It had also been unchanged by their earlier graduating to doing more conceptual and empowering work.

We watched, squeamishly, the slaughter house assembly line dismantling cows, with each worker on the line doing a single cutting motion over and over, the sum total being the cutting of the cow into parts for later treatment. The workers council had changed workplace conditions to the point where such assembly workers got much time off, spread through the day, to alleviate the stress and strain of their constant repetitive motions. The council hadn't, however, redesigned the slaughter house technology to change the actual tasks to be less repetitive and debilitating, nor had it even thought about doing so, as best we could determine from our discussions.

The glass factory we visited also had equal wages for all and a governing council of employees who saw themselves as workers even while doing entirely managerial and planning functions. We watched rote workers tending furnaces and carrying hot glass from station to station and learned that they got a half hour off for each hour spent scurrying in the heat to match the speed of assembly. This was a big change from the capitalist past, as was, of course, the equalization of all pay rates and presence of previously rote workers doing conceptual and empowered tasks. When I asked in this glass factory whether the men and women carrying the glass and tending the furnaces could do more conceptual and less onerous work for a part of their day,
everyone said "of course they could, every effort was made
to permit people to change jobs, to learn new skills, etc.," especially "since we now know everyone is capable of it." And it was clearly true that this was their intent, at least
up to the limits of the roles imposed by the existing
division of labor.

Sitting with board members of the glass factory, I asked
what would happen if they went to the whole council and said
they wanted higher pay due to their carrying heavy
responsibilities or having more knowledge. They laughed and
said "we would be removed from our positions, and back on
the line." I said, "okay, but what if you do more conceptual and skilled work for the next five years, might you not then
get higher wages for being more critical to daily
operations, more knowledgeable, providing more leadership at
council meetings, etc.?" The council president laughed and
said, "well, yes, that might happen and it would be nice
wouldn't it." In longer interviews we discovered that indeed at council meetings the workers who were doing the
empowering tasks, those who were the treasurers, etc., did
set the agendas, chair the sessions, and provide nearly all
critical information -- over and over.

Perhaps the most surprising and in some ways most troubling
interchange was with the elected president of the glass
factory and a couple of other workers who were present as
well. I asked whether they thought workers in other more
successful plants that were still under the auspices of
owners would emulate the recuperation movement's
accomplishments and seek to take over and run their
profitable plants too, seeking to self manage them and to
thereby make them dignified as well as to share their
rewards equitably. With no hesitation at all, the workers
said no.

They explained that workers in successful plants would fear
that to occupy and run their workplaces would diminish
rather than improve their conditions, in addition to fearing
being fired or repressed if their uprising failed. They said
that prior to actually fighting for and winning control over
their work lives they didn't realize what a difference it
would make to their fulfillment to not have profit-seeking
bosses. They were quite adamant that their current
commitment to the new way of operating depended for its
origin and its power on their having had to fight for the
plant and then to run it in order to survive, but that their
commitment didn't exist before that.

I asked, "if I tomorrow opened a plant down the road and
offered to hire you to work there at twice the pay you are
getting here, but also told you that you would have to work
for me and my managers, would you do it?" They laughed and
told me "you would need to shoot us, literally, to get us to leave our self managed glass plant to work at a capitalist
plant of any kind, at any pay rate." So "why couldn't they convey that lesson to their friends working elsewhere and
thereby motivate them to seek change too," I asked. They
shrugged. They didn't see it as likely. Worse, it wasn't on
their agenda.

Overall, the most striking and inspiring thing about these
factories was the workers' spirit. These harsh workplaces,
having collapsed under capitalist tutelage and often
utilizing outdated or failed technologies were recuperated
into success, and the workers were proud of that
achievement. The new success that the former owner couldn't
attain clearly rested in part on diminishing costs by
eliminating inflated managerial and professional salaries,
but no doubt also on increased worker effort due to workers
no longer resisting control from above but, instead, feeling
the workplace was theirs. Workers were clearly enjoying not
only good wages but improved conditions and status, and,
above all, they were operating with a degree of dignity and
pride as well as with a level of mutual concern and
solidarity that to my experience is simply unknown in
capitalist workplaces. This spiritual gain was palpable
everywhere we visited. But so, regrettably, was the
disinclination to try for more.

Among the plants, we heard that there were even collective
funds established to aid newly recuperated firm's initial
efforts by transferring start up aid from more established
firms to initially struggling ones. We were told there was
also the beginning of attention to trying to transact with
one another beyond market competition, guided instead by
social values and solidarity. But when queried further,
workers in the occupied plants also reported that whether
they liked it or not they had to compete for market share.
At first this was horribly difficult, they said, as other
firms buying their intermediate goods shied away. But in
time they were able to "keep costs down, provide quality
output, and go out and get customers." It was clear in
discussing all this, however, that market competition had
powerful influence over the scope of decisions the self
managing could undertake. Workers councils couldn't initiate
too much improvement in conditions lest other firms, with
managers to inflict speed-up and to cut costs, out compete
them. This deadening effect of markets hadn't yet reversed
the workers' humane inclinations, but it was clearly a brake
on their enlargement and was already slowing down humane

I don't see how anyone, no matter what prior expectations
and orderings they might bring with them, could look at
these Argentine occupied plants and deny the chief lessons
they teach. Capitalist society horribly under-utilizes most
people by providing them only rote and repetitive labor and
stifling their confidence, creativity, and initiative until
they feel that repetitive obedient labor is all they should
or could be doing. This is called education, but it is
really degradation.

Argentina's recuperated factory movement shows that in a
matter of months even after being slogged and flailed their
whole lives through, even when they are barely literate or
are illiterate, working people can take up tasks supposedly
beyond their ken and accomplish them honorably and
effectively. Likewise, Argentina's occupied factories
display the powerful spontaneous desire of people who
haven't been socialized into elitist mindsets to earn
equitably and to apportion power fairly rather than dominate
or be dominated.

Beyond those key lessons, however, different people will
likely see different things when viewing Argentina's
occupied factories. I saw, for example, that without
changing the division of labor so that all workers equally
share conceptual and empowering tasks, even the profoundly
egalitarian and participatory impulses of these factories
would tend to decline and be overcome. If a relatively few
employees, even originating from the shop floor of each
workplace, even if they were freely voted to their higher
positions, rose to do all the empowering tasks while the
rest of the workers stayed mired in only repetitive tasks as
earlier, in time the few doing empowered labor would
dominate council discussions, set meeting agendas, impose
their will regarding policies, and finally reward themselves
greater salaries and benefits as well.

In short, despite almost universal egalitarian intentions,
employees set off from other workers by a division of labor
that gives a few more status, knowledge, skill, and
confidence than those left doing only rote labor would
become what they had sincerely sought to eliminate, a new
dominant class, this time, however, not of owners, but of
empowered employees or what I call coordinators, in any
event again ruling workers from above.

Argentina's defensive workplace projects, growing in number
each month, each start with no owners and no "coordinator
class" of empowered workers. They also start with a
tremendous desire not only to succeed as businesses but to
share the benefits of success equitably via equitable pay
rates, improved conditions, democratic decision making, and
recallable officials. But, if the old corporate division of
labor persists in these recuperated plants, it seemed clear
that all the desirable innovations would in time depend on
good will and humane aspirations that would continually buck
up against and be relentlessly eroded by the structural
difference between the few doing empowering work and the
many doing only rote work. On the other hand, it also seemed
evident that if the workers became as self conscious about
everyone doing a fair share of the empowering labor as they
were about equalizing pay rates, then their aspirations for
classlessness would not only reside in their hearts, but
would also be structurally propelled by a new division of
labor which would facilitate and advance rather than erode
their gains.

The problem of the market and broader economy would still
remain, even in that more hopeful case, however.
Understanding the market's debilitating implications for
each workplace and seeing what kinds of changes would reduce
those ills and in time finally auger in new allocation
relations in place of markets would also need to become a
priority for a movement that would transcend present
relations. Beginning to counter market pressures would also
be key to reversing what seemed to us the least admirable
feature of the Argentine movement, its insularity in each
firm and the workers' seeming lack of desire to address non
recuperated firms by demanding changes in them too.

Finally, it was disturbing to hear workers describe how if
they had been employed in successful plants they would not
have sought to run them as they would in that case not have
been pushed by necessity and would also not have understood
the debits of their position and the possibilities of
liberation. It sounded like evidence someone might offer on
behalf of vanguard organizing by an enlightened few who
would drag along the unenlightened many even against their
lack of awareness and inclination. The only rebuttal, I
think, would be not to deny the facts offered by the
workers, but to argue that we should simply reject the
elitist "solution" as being contrary to our broader goals and require, instead, that movements figure out how to
inspire and support action in successful firms as well as in
collapsed ones, and how to do this not via a top down
process that would lead in ways preserving class division,
but by a sideways growth in ways generating activism
consistent with classlessness. We have to not only beat
capitalists, we have to attain for whole economies true and
full self management.