Radical media, politics and culture.

Benjamin Dangl, "Cerámica de Cuyo: A Profile of Worker Control in Argentina"

Cerámica de Cuyo: A Profile of Worker Control in Argentina

Benjamin Dangl

From Upside Down World

In the worn out meeting room of worker-run Cerámica de Cuyo, Manuel
Rojas runs a rough hand over his face. The mechanic recalls forming the
cooperative after the company boss fired the workers in 2000: "We didn’t
have any choice. If we didn’t take over the factory we would all be in
the streets. The need to work pushed us to action."

After working at the ceramic brick and tile factory for nearly 35 years,
Rojas joined the other two dozen workers at Cerámica de Cuyo and began
to organize into a cooperative. These workers were part of national
movement at a time when Argentina was in an economic crisis. Across the
country, hundreds of factories, businesses and hotels shut their doors
and sent their employees packing. Many workers, like those at Cerámica
de Cuyo, decided to take matters into their own hands. As the stories of
these workers illustrate, the cooperatively-run road hasn’t been easy.

Cerámica de Cuyo is surrounded by vineyards and artists' homes in the
bohemian community of Bermejo, Argentina, right outside Mendoza. Dust
blows around the sun burnt factory yard as I sit down with Rojas and his
co-worker Francisco Avila. Rojas wears a weathered blue plaid shirt
while Avila has a baseball cap resting on a head of gray hair. We’re in
the Cerámica de Cuyo meeting room. The ancient chairs have crumbling
foam cushions. Phone numbers and Che Guevara slogans are scrawled on the
walls. It’s easy to sense the wear and tear that lifetimes of labor have
had on the place.In August of 1999, the Cerámica de Cuyo owner cut wages. Though he
promised it was only temporary, the lack of money pushed many employees
to search for work elsewhere. Some left the country in desperation. "The
boss kept promising money, so we waited," Rojas says. "We worked on
weekends, waiting and waiting, but no paychecks arrived. We had to
support our families, pay the bills and everything." In February, 2000,
all the workers were fired. A year later they decided to form a
cooperative and run the factory themselves.

While organizing the cooperative, they had to guard the factory to
prevent the robbery of expensive equipment and machinery. Neighbors
helped the workers out at this critical time, providing food, firewood
and blankets. "Workers from other cooperatives came to the factory with
classes, informing us how to organize a cooperative," Avila says. "This
kind of solidarity is common."

Cerámica de Cuyo produces roofing tiles and bricks, and now employs
around 32 people. Before the formation of the cooperative, the pay
scales were typical, with the owner earning a lot more than the workers.
Now everyone is paid the same amount and all workers have one week of
vacation. Regular assemblies are organized to discuss administrative and
financial topics, or to hire a new employee. Since the formation of the
cooperative, they have also been able to buy newer machines.

"Before, the boss wouldn’t let us into the main administrative office.
Now it’s ours," Rojas says. "We go in there anytime to check on orders
and be involved with that side of the business."

We walk outside into the now scorching sun. One truck dumps off a
load of dirt while clay is formed into bricks and tiles and sent inside
to a massive kiln. Rojas works as an all around mechanic, fixing
everything from fork lifts to conveyor belts. When we enter the main
factory room, he is called from three directions at once with questions
to answer and problems to fix. Steam rises from the hot, wet, recently
cut bricks. The whole place smells like a potter’s kiln.

While Rojas works on a control panel for the conveyor belt, Avila takes
me upstairs to his work area at the top of the kiln. Here the
temperature rises by about 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Though it feels like a
sauna, Avila is comfortable and turns up the radio to a popular cumbia
song. It’s a dangerous job: "Sometimes when the electricity is shut
down, and the gas keeps going, there can be an explosion, so I have to
pay attention."

"It hasn’t been easy," Avila says. "Before, we were workers. Now we have
to be lawyers, accountants and everything. Before, we didn’t worry about
the machines. Now they're all ours, so we care more about them. Now when
a machine breaks down we have to wait for money and parts."

Both admitted that one of the hardest things about working in a
cooperative was that all workers, young and old, received the same
wages. Rojas says, "Some people who have no experience at all are making
the same per hour as those working as mechanics with 35 years of
technical experience."

Avila agrees. "Some workers want to earn more for working less. At the
beginning it was all compañero this and compañero that, very glorious.
But when we started working more, a lot of the conflicts broke out about

Back in the meeting room, Rojas explains that now, whenever there is a
problem, they all discuss things in the open, in assemblies. "There are
always conflicts, but what’s good about it now is that we solve it
together, right here." He pounds his fist on the battered meeting table.