Imagine a factory with workers and no boss

It’s all well and good to talk about thinking differently – if alternatives exist, why not suggest them?

That is a perfectly legitimate question and was asked of me following last week’s column that maintained that the present economic system will not cope with the consequences of the digital revolution.

And the immediate thought that came to mind was Argentina and Fabrique Sin Patron (FaSinPat), which started out as Zanon Ceramics in 1980, and was backed by government loans and the World Bank. The name of the company in English is Factory Without a Boss.

That was when then US secretary of state Henry Kissinger was praising the then Argentine military dictatorship for the investment friendly stability its “dirty war” had established.

It was also when PW Botha and the military had effectively taken control in South Africa. Botha and his generals sought advice from the Argentinian military that “disappeared” hundreds of pro-democracy activists.

The Argentinians complied and provided specialist lecturers, among them the known torturer Lieutenant Alfredo Ignacio Astiz and one of the Argentinian navy’s death squad killers, Jorge Enrique Perrén.

Economically, the two countries, although not in parallel, also followed a path away from state control – in Argentina under the populist president Juan Perón, this included worker co-operatives – and adopted what is now known as neoliberalism.

This persisted as Argentina became a liberal parliamentary democracy and, in 2000, a severe economic crisis struck.

Cost-cutting became the order of the day and that meant – as it invariably does – job losses.

And when workers went on strike, there were lockouts and factory closures.

However, there is a tradition of “recovered factories” in Argentina and in many other parts of Latin America. This is when factories are taken over by workers and continue to operate.

In 2001, hundreds of factories throughout Argentina saw “sit-ins” that evolved into the workers seizing control.

Many could not make it for want of raw materials or withheld transport. Others were crushed by legal and extra legal means.

Some – and others taken over in subsequent years – continue to survive, the most notable being FaSinPat in the southern Patagonian province of Neuquen.

One of the largest ceramics factories in Latin America and situated in the impoverished Nueva Espana neighbourhood, it has been under the democratic control of a worker co-operative for 17 years.

However, it took eight years for the provincial government to accept this reality and legalise the takeover – but even this only happened after workers were kidnapped and threatened with death.

Thousands of supporters poured in to surround and protect the factory in 2003 when it became obvious that FaSinPat was succeeding and police were sent in to evict the workers.

The police withdrew.

One of the major reasons for its success, apart from the resolve of the workers and support from the local community and workers from other areas, was the fact that the factory’s essential supplies of clay were – and remain – under the control of the indigenous Mapuche (People of the Land) community. They provide the raw materials needed, and they and the entire neighbourhood benefit.

FaSinPat workers directly support their 450 families and profits – FaSinPat/Zanon exports tiles to more than 25 countries – are ploughed back into the community.

In 2005, for example, the workers and their supporters built a clinic the community had been asking government to provide for the previous 20 years.

It has been a difficult road for FaSinPat and others who have, to one degree or other, made a success of “recovered factories”.

In so doing, they have provided evidence of an alternative that should, at the very least, be debated, if not emulated.

* Terry Bell is on leave and will return next month.

* SUBSCRIBE FOR FREE UPDATE: Get Fin24's top morning business news and opinions in your inbox.

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