The Zanon tile factory in Neuquen is one of many “recovered’ factories in Argentina – factories taken over and run by the workers in the last five years, in the wake of capitalist economic collapse in the that country. Here the workers tell their story.
In 2000 when the Zanon company announced that it had operational and commercial difficulties. And in that year one of the workers, 22-year-old Daniel Ferrás, was taken ill while working in the plant. The company did not have the necessary health facilities and Daniel died on his way to hospital.
We workers took to the streets for the first time demanding adequate health facilities. A joint commission of workers and company representatives was set up in order to ensure that proper safety regulations were observed.
In March 2001 the government of the province of Neuquén bought US$450,000 worth of ceramics so that the company could pay back salaries. But in May the company was still in arrears — workers were owed three months’ wages.
After a 34-day strike, the provincial government stepped in to help the company pay the salaries and stop redundancies.
In September the government gave a further US$ 500,000 to pay salaries, but at the end of the month the company decided to lay off the workforce, arguing that there was a shortage of raw materials. It went on to cut transport and sickness benefits. Claiming that it could no longer afford to pay salaries, they turned the industrial ovens off. But the local court ruled the lock-out illegal. The court decided to seize 40% of the stock, to be sold in order to pay salaries.
There were five months of resistance during which we camped outside the factory gates.
“The stock of tiles lasted almost three months. We spent all of our time standing outside the factory selling it, but our problems hadn’t gone away. We looked at the factory and thought, if selling these tiles is profitable, why don’t we take over the factory and restart production? Let’s buy raw materials, produce tiles, and carry on selling them — after all, we have to make a living even if the situation is not resolved. What do we do when the stock runs out?”
In October the company decided to close down and sent us telegrams saying that we were sacked. We rejected the dismissals, burning them in front of the Provincial Government House. After a few days we started to discuss how to reactivate the factory.
We made our first donation of tiles to the local hospital. Unemployed workers from the MTD (Movement of Unemployed Workers) of Neuquén donated their labour to refurbish part of the hospital.
In January 2002 the company presented its own project to reactivate the factory, with only 62 workers, a reduction of salaries and a flexible workforce. We discussed the taking over of the factory under workers’ control. We resolved that every worker would receive the same salary and that there would be committees to deal with sales, administration, security, purchasing, production, planning, health and safety, and publicity.
On 2 March 2002, the workers restarted production, now under workers’ control. In April the first issue of Nuestra Lucha (Our Struggle) — a newspaper of the occupied factories and workers in struggle — was published. We then launched a radio programme and a website.
Also in that month the first production run of 20,000 square metres of ceramics was completed.
An agreement between the National University of Comahue (UNC) and the Zanon workers was signed, in which the University Council recognised and supported the project of nationalisation under workers’ control of the Zanon factory, and agreed to continue assisting in the process of restoring production, but under workers’ control, by giving technical advice and institutional support.
In June we presented our “Project for a Transitional Workers’ Administration” to the court. The judge did not contest it.
In August, the first genuine new posts — ten of them — were created, and given to members of unemployed workers’ organisations.
In October a bill (devised with UNC) calling for the expropriation and nationalisation of the Zanon factory was presented to the provincial parliament on our behalf.
In November delegates from the factory went on their first international tour — to Italy, France and Britain — financed by workers’ organisations in Europe. Future tours would include Brazil, Venezuela, Chile and Spain. We signed an agreement with the “People’s University” set up by the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo.
8th April was the date set for a new eviction attempt (the third). But when the auditors arrived in Neuquén they were prevented from entering the factory by a demonstration of more than 3,000 people. “Zanon belongs to the people” had become more than a mere slogan.
Fifty thousand signatures backing the bill calling for the expropriation and nationalisation of the Zanon factory were collected.
By June we were producing more than 120,000 square metres of ceramics per month. This was 15 per cent of the plant’s total capacity and 50 per cent of the output which had been achieved by the owners before they abandoned the factory.
On 25 November, police mounted a ferocious attack on the working class neighbourhood of San Lorenzo, injuring 30 people — nine of whom were hit by live ammunition. In the fusillade, Pepe Alvear, a Zanon worker and member of the unemployed movement, lost an eye.
We began to make quality controls. This is different to what had happened in the company previously. We have a value reference for each model and the objective is to maintain that in each stage of the process. It is a demanding control; if there is a problem we discuss it amongst all of us in order to find a solution because we are the workers who are in contact with the material and who know the operations of the machines.
We want to demonstrate that the worker can produce without an employer and therefore we are demanding with our product, which is our public face with the client. Before, all that mattered was to arrive at work, complete the labour required of us and receive our salary at the end of the month.
For the ceramic workers, the maintenance of the factory is crucial. During the last 8 years, no real maintenance was conducted due to the politics implemented by the Zanon family during the dismantling of the factory. We had to begin from zero in order to revive production. From 2004, the production improved considerably reaching sustained monthly production rates of 300,000 metres at the end of the year. This was possible thanks to work by coordinating workers combined with a group led by the economist Pablo Levin of the UBA, who addressed the issue of planning. Thanks to the effort of the workers and the community we have been able to invest nearly a million pesos per worker in the maintenance of the factory without having to reduce the salaries of the 450 employees.
After two months of debates and assemblies, we voted in favour of modifying the statute of the tiles trade union. The modifications were made according to the militant practice of this struggle: to shorten the time unionists could be in position, to promote a rotation of tasks and responsibilities, and to increase the number of delegates per factory, amongst others.
Thanks to the modification of the statute, we vindicate our trade union as a working class one, independent from the owners, the trade union’s bureaucracy and the state. We are also reinforcing our working method based on direct democracy, which we practice in the workers’ assemblies.
We started the trade union in 2000 and it has had hard struggles in its four tile factories: Cerámicas Zanon; Cerámica del Valle; Cerámica Stefani de Cutral Co; recently Cerámica Neuquen.
The members of the Lista Marrón (Brown List), who initiated this militant force that was born in Zanon and then spread it to the other factories, voted in open assembly for the workers on a new Steering Group. Within our political programme, we suggested the rotation of tasks until each of the leaders returns to his/her workplace. In different assemblies the workers chose the same leaders and, at the same time, the rotation of other posts to incorporate new workers.
The posts of the members of the Steering Group are for three years.
During 2004, workers of Zanon, in agreement with the neighbours, built a Health Centre in the neighbourhood called Nueva España, eight kilometres from the capital Neuquén. 400 families live there; for the last 40 years they have demanded the provincial government provide primary care.
FaSinPat means factory without owners. This means that the entire process and all the decisions are in the hands of the workers. We decide what to buy, how to sell, what and how to produce. Behind the term FaSinPat lies the struggle of dozens of families of the ex-Zanon workers. This struggle began much earlier than the takeover of the factory in March 2002, when we started producing.
We understand that this factory is a cog, where each of us contributes a little, where there are no hierarchies and where the commitment and responsibility with the job determine the quality of the product and the future of the factory.
In order to accomplish a workers’ management, we have been enduring threats and hardships for years; but during the first months in 2005 violence has escalated to the point of reaching physical violence: now they attack our families.
Without a political strategy from the government, the sectors of power and the businessmen don’t give up so easily, and they use the same mechanisms used by the dictatorship to try to break us. They are playing dirty. The political responsibility of what is happening to us today, to our families, belongs to the government of Neuquen.
We say the ceramic factory works. This is our way to make justice: beginning with work and redistribution. However, the justice system works with other laws, and these laws are not made by the people. The successive modifications of the bankruptcy law allow businessmen — like those of Zanon — to have access to the factory again, to buy it and then close it a month or a year later. It also makes the workers pay the debts that the former owners didn’t pay, because they took the money out of the country.
We say that the solution for Zanon is political. There are many, many interests at stake; it is a constant “up and down” because of certain political decisions. As with health, education, the justice system... solutions are found according to particular sets of priorities and interests: Whom do we want to offer answers? Whom do we want to treat favourably? Which are more valuable? And according to whom?
Hence, when we talk about politics, we talk about struggle: these are our weapons and these are our concrete actions and proposals. We have seen many times how the justice system and police defend those hiding behind the “right to private property” and who at the same time bankrupt companies, cheat the state, and play with the futures of hundreds of families.
This is why we are not alone, because there are so many people who do not obtain any satisfactory answers, and there are so many things that don’t work because of negligence and particular interests of a small minority. The links between different organisations make us stronger along the road, pointing us in the right direction.
Our enterprise has been in operation now for more than three years, and yet, we have not been given any solution. It is important that our cooperative FaSinPat is recognized. We are convinced that every day that passes without a solution to the workers’ demands, this is time the provincial government uses to threaten the workers’ enterprise: intimidation, telephone threats ... Violence is constant; that is their way of doing politics.
Until now, the backing from the wider community has been crucial to stop us, the workers, from being evicted from the factory, thus enabling us to continue to produce.
We, the workers, have offered solutions to this conflict; such as the creation of the cooperative or the proposal for nationalisation. Each such proposal was always debated and passed by vote in assembly.
People came from different parts of the world to get to know the factory without bosses. The experience is taken on board by other sectors in struggle, as the community recognizes, supports and trusts the workers’ undertaking. We have worked very hard to strengthen the links and relations with the wider community.
Every month we receive in the factory hundreds of requests from the community to help with concrete necessities. Hospitals, schools, community food kitchens, libraries, families below the poverty line, health centres, leisure centres; from diverse corners of the province people look to the workers’ enterprise. For us, this is one of the ways in which we build community support.
The last three years of managerial running of the company were compared with the years of workers’ control. There were some 300 accidents per year (half of which were severe) and on average one fatality per year; since workers’ control of the factory, only 33 accidents were registered (none severe) and there have been no fatalities.
Last November we sat up a tent in Buenos Aires (Capital of Argentina). We camped outside the Congress house for nine days and presented a Project of Expropriation for all workers’ run factories in the country.
Each week, students and teachers from schools and colleges in Neuquén, Centenario y Plottier, amongst others, come to the factory to learn how we advance with the workers’ control.
We have a radio program, a newspaper, and website. In November 2002 we set up a radio program called “Nuestra Lucha” (Our Struggle). The newspaper Nuestra Lucha (Our Struggle) is published nationally and initially it was jointly produced with the comrades from the MTD Neuquén (Unemployed Workers Movement).
The objective is to inform other workers (employed and unemployed) in the country about our experience of our struggle against exploitation and unemployment.
Yet another tool of communication with the community is through our website: Zanon