Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Follow LeftTurn:

Special Offer from PM Press

Now more than ever there is a vital need for radical ideas. In the four years since its founding - and on a mere shoestring - PM Press has risen to the formidable challenge of publishing and distributing knowledge and entertainment for the struggles ahead. With over 200 releases to date, they have published an impressive and stimulating array of literature, art, music, politics, and culture.

PM Press is offering readers of Left Turn a 10% discount on every purchase. In addition, they'll donate 10% of each purchase back to Left Turn to support the crucial voices of independent journalism. Simply enter the coupon code: Left Turn when shopping online or mention it when ordering by phone or email.

Click here for their online catalog.

Recuperating Jobs and Dignity: Occupied Factories in Latin America

Marie Trigona
Date Published: 
June 01, 2006
    Latin America’s occupied factories and enterprises represent the development of one of the most advanced strategies in defense of the working class and resistance against capitalism and neoliberalism. The experiences of worker self-management and organization have directly challenged the structures of capitalism by questioning private property, taking back workers’ knowledge, and organizing production for objectives other than profits.

This new phenomenon, which is catching hold throughout Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, and Venezuela, continues to grow despite market challenges. More than 30,000 Latin American workers are employed at cooperatively run businesses. In almost all cases, workers took over businesses that had been abandoned or closed by their owners during financial crises. In Argentina alone, thousands of factories have closed and millions of jobs have been lost in recent years. Brazilian and Uruguayan workers also lived through crises in neoliberalism in the late 1990s. Growing unemployment, financial meltdowns, and the break-up of industry formed the backdrop for factory takeovers.

Worker-controlled factories have sprung up in Latin America before: in the 1970s, Chile’s Yayur textile plant and Argentina’s Campo Herrera sugar refinery were both run cooperatively. However, these experiences of worker control were short-lived. Military regimes in Argentina and Chile placed socialized workplaces back into the hands of private owners and disappeared many workers.

Many worker-controlled factories today face hostility and violence from the state, particularly in Argentina and Brazil. Workers have had to organize to protect themselves from violent eviction attempts and other acts of state violence. This affects the workers and the enterprises—employees must leave the workplace, invest energy in a legal battle, and fight for laws that favor worker-recuperated businesses.

Take the example of the BAUEN Hotel, worker-managed since 2003. Last December, employees rallied to pressure the Buenos Aires city government to veto a law that would have put the hotel back into the hands of its former owner. The city government refused to veto the law. If the BAUEN cooperative does not succeed in pushing through a more favorable law, the workers risk losing their hotel.

Market challenges

Beyond legal attacks, Latin America’s recuperated enterprises have had to strategize to overcome market challenges with no capital support from the state. In Uruguay, about 30 worker-controlled recuperated businesses are up and running. While the government hasn’t put up many legal roadblocks to worker-run businesses, it also hasn’t provided any financial support.

In 1999, workers and the community organized to halt the sale of the Molino Santa Rosa flour mill, which has been the primary employer in Santa Rosa, Uruguay for over 80 years. Workers successfully formed a cooperative and took out a loan to buy the mill. The state-run bank charges them a higher interest rate than normal borrowers. On top of this, the cooperative is struggling to get credit to upgrade equipment that is over 40 years old. Yet center-left President Tabaré Vazquez has no active policy toward Uruguay’s recuperated enterprises.

Last October, representatives from worker-controlled factories and businesses from Argentina, Uruguay, Venezuela, and Brazil organized a Congress on Recuperated Enterprises to create coordinated strategies against state attacks and dog-eat-dog markets. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez inaugurated the event, which drew more than 1,000 self-managed workers who are putting into practice the slogan "Occupy, Resist, and Produce."

At the opening of the Congress, Chavez told workers that they were building a historic road for a new future. "I don’t think that Latin America has ever seen an event like this, workers from recuperated factories and enterprises. I think they’re signs of the arrival of a new era, a new opportunity," he said.

Late last year, the Venezuelan government passed a number of legal decrees expropriating abandoned factories for workers to start up production. During the Congress, Chavez signed a decree for the expropriation of two factories.

New relationships

Elvio Sallao, a worker from the state-run CBE-Alcaza Aluminum plant in the interior of Venezuela, says that the nation is taking back its sovereignty by recuperating factories. "We are in the process of negotiating and concentrating on how to change the relations of production. For 16 years, transnational corporations controlled the plant's management. Latin American workers and people have no other option than to unite as workers, not only to recuperate our businesses but to achieve the goal of building new social relations."

Many of the employee-run companies expected to sign trade agreements and technological exchange accords during the Congress. President Chavez promised to provide support to recuperated enterprises, in the form of low-interest loans and bilateral cooperative agreements. However, much of this government support is symbolic. Months after the Congress, many of the state-supported accords have been delayed or forgotten.

Raul Arebalo, from the recuperated Vicental Leather Company in Montevideo, Uruguay, says that his cooperative is independently negotiating accords with other worker-run businesses. "Right now we are signing a macro-trade agreement between three recuperated enterprises in Uruguay—between the FUNSA rubber and tire industrial factory, the Uruguayan Crystal plant, and ourselves. We signed the agreement to exchange technological knowledge, raw materials, and to accompany the Venezuelan workers who will later visit our country."

The accords made between recuperated enterprises have had the most concrete impact. Even in the case of Venezuela, Latin America’s recuperated factories have learned that workers can’t rely on the state to move a business forward. Building a network of support among the recuperated enterprises, autonomous from the state and the market, is the biggest challenge facing worker-run businesses.

According to Serge Coulart, a representative from the Coordinator of Occupied Factories in Brazil, the most important outcome of the Congress is the workers' determination to defend their factories and jobs. "The fellow workers were able to discuss different political opinions freely and democratically, but while trying to reach solutions. We are trying to find a common thread in defense of our factories and jobs. We are leaving with the organized objective of protesting in every country against any government that persecutes a worker or threatens to shut down a recuperated factory."

The occupied factories and enterprises participating in the Congress are developing strategies in defense of Latin American workers facing to factory closures and poor working conditions. Worker self-management is here to stay in Latin America, helping plant the seeds so that future generations can reverse the logic of capitalism by producing for communities, not for profits—empowering workers, not exploiting them.


Marie Trigona is a member of Grupo Alavío, a direct action and video collective. She can be reached at [email protected]. Grupo Alavío has produced a number of films about Latin America’s recuperated enterprises: Zanon: Building Resistance, BAUEN: Work and Struggle, [email protected] en Lucha: the Brukman Struggle, La Foresta Belongs to the Workers, Chilavert Recupera, and Recuperating Our Work: Del Valle Ceramics.