A Predatory Model
A New Type of Movement
Creating New Linkages

Taking It to the Market



Factories “recovered” by their workers are a response to two decades of neoliberalism and deindustrialization. In a movement unprecedented in Latin America, workers have taken direct control of production and operation without bosses–and sometimes even without foremen, technicians, or specialists–in about 200 factories and workplaces in Argentina, some 100 in Brazil, and more than 20 in Uruguay.

The workers acted not as a result of ideological debates but out of urgent need. The massive closure of factories and companies supplying the domestic market prompted a handful of workers to prevent at least some of these plants from becoming abandoned warehouses.

Though this new workers’ movement is heterogeneous, many of the problems it faces are common to a broad range of factories in different productive sectors. These include legal issues to gain recognition of the factory’s ownership, assuring supplies of raw materials, the lack of working capital, product marketing, and technical difficulties stemming from obsolete machinery or the exodus of technicians and managers. Such problems have been addressed and have often been resolved by the workers themselves.


A Predatory Model

Challenges to the Movement

  • Legal issues pertaining to factory ownership.
  • Difficulties assuring adequate supplies of raw materials.
  • A shortage of working capital.
  • Obstacles to marketing products.
  • Technical difficulties arising from obsolete or abandoned machinery.
  • Lack of access to financing and favorable credit terms.

The demise of military dictatorships (1983 in Argentina, 1985 in Uruguay and Brazil) gave birth to democratic regimes, but these governments were tightly constrained from the outset by the economic, political, and social structures inherited from the authoritarian period. That legacy–characterized by huge foreign debts–led these governments to accede to the recommendations promoted by the “Washington Consensus.” These changes included rolling back economic regulations and dismantling the feeble welfare states that had been built in most of the countries of the region.

Beginning in 1990, financial and economic deregulation, privatization and the shedding of protective tariffs, caused many factories to close. These policies led to unemployment for many workers and more precarious working conditions for those who still had their jobs. When import restrictions were lifted, it opened the floodgates to imported products, and local industries often could not compete. Hardest hit were small and medium-sized enterprises that supplied the domestic market.

The massive closure of these companies was but one aspect of the deep restructuring of production undertaken in the 1990s. Meanwhile, leading industrial sectors became highly concentrated. This aggravated unemployment and it soon became a permanent structural feature of the economy.

The process of deindustrialization in Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil was followed by renewed growth based on the simplification of production strategies and transforming the technical and social organization of labor. Restructuring not only raised unemployment rates–to above 10% of the economically active population in nearly every Latin America country and above 20% toward the end of the decade in Argentina . It also prevented most former workers from being rehired at the modernized automated or robotized plants, since they lacked the training necessary for the new positions created in these plants. Moreover, this type of modernization exacerbated the trends toward social exclusion and the isolation of the poor.

For many workers, the closure of the companies where they worked condemned them to a lifetime of exclusion. This was especially true for workers over 40, who had very little chance of re-entering the formal labor market. Unemployment meant not only a loss of income but also the forfeiture of benefits such as health insurance, retirement pensions, and housing. This explains why some workers chose to fight to recover their source of employment; that is, to keep their factories operating even without the owners.


A New Type of Movement


  • Recuperate the source of employment by keeping the factories running without owners.
  • Promote self-help measures, collective ownership of the means of production, democratic participation, and autonomy, so that decisionmaking and operational control are in the hands of the workers.
  • Create horizontal links with other recuperated factories and with neighborhood assemblies.
  • Maintain active mobilization, rebuild social ties, and forge links on the basis of shared territory.
  • Strengthen the productive links among worker-run factories, piqueteros (unemployed workers), small farmers, and neighborhood assemblies (Argentina).
  • Open up direct marketing channels for products on “fair trade” terms.

In Brazil, the movement to recover factories preceded similar efforts in Argentina and Uruguay. In 1991, Calzados Makerly in São Paulo closed its doors, eliminating 482 direct jobs. With the support of the Footwear Workers Union, the Interunion Department of Studies and Statistics, and grassroots activists, Calzados workers spearheaded a process toward worker-managed production.

In 1994, the Asociação Nacional dos Trabalhadores em Empresas de Autogestão (National Association of Worker-Managed Enterprises, ANTEAG) was formed to coordinate the creative responses s that emerged in the wake of the industrial crisis. ANTEAG currently has offices in six states and seeks to support worker-management projects by linking them to initiatives by nongovernmental organizations and state and municipal governments.

Solving the movement’s serious funding problem is one of the association’s most important tasks. ANTEAG now works with 307 worker-managed cooperative projects that employ some 15,000 workers; of those, 52 are companies that were recovered by their workers. The worker-managed companies are found in all branches of industry from mineral extraction (Cooperminas, for example, has 381 workers) to textiles (scores of small companies, nearly all operated by women), to tourism services.

ANTEAG sees worker management as an organizational model that combines collective ownership of the means of production with democratic participation in management. The model also implies autonomy, which is why workers are responsible for decisionmaking and control of the companies. The autonomy model discourages the hiring of professional managers, and if professionals are hired, they must always be under the control of the collective.1

Argentina has traveled a different road to worker-run factories. There, the movement emerged at the peak of the economic crisis and progressed very rapidly. The creation of these enterprises in Argentina was linked to grassroots experiences within the resistance movement spawned by the crisis. The worker-run factory movement grew out of a combination of workers’ efforts to keep their jobs, organization among middle-class groups (professionals, employees, technicians) in neighborhood assemblies, and meetings of unemployed workers (piqueteros). All of these groups continue to promote their own demands and proposals. while building links with worker-run enterprises.

The vast majority of recovered factories in Argentina are small or medium-sized, and most of them were hurt by the economic liberalization imposed by Carlos Menem’s government in the 1990s. They cover a wide range of sectors: over 26% are in the metallurgical industry, 8% cold storage plants, 8% electrical appliance manufacturers, with printing presses, transportation, food processing, textiles, glass, and health companies each representing under 5% of the total. Half of the workplaces have operated for more than 40 years and, when reclaimed by their workers, had an average of 60 employees. Only 13% had more than 100 workers.

Some 71% of worker-run factories distribute income in an egalitarian manner (janitors earn the same as more highly skilled workers), and only 15% have maintained the wage policies that were in effect before they were occupied. Though the factory-recovery process began in the mid-1990s, two-thirds of the enterprises were taken over during the socially cataclysmic years of 2001 and 2002. This underscores the close ties between the grassroots resistance movements of the economic crisis and factory takeovers.

Seven of every ten factories were recovered only after fierce struggles–physical takeovers in nearly half the cases and “acampadas en la puerta” (prolonged sit-ins at factory gates) in 24% of the cases. In these cases, forced occupation lasted for an average of five months, which reveals the intensity of the conflict waged by workers before gaining control of the plants.

Surveys indicate that the factories where long, intense conflicts were waged are the most likely to have egalitarian distribution of earnings and to take part in neighborhood assemblies in middle-class neighborhoods. Only 21% of the recovered companies have maintained their former foremen, and only 44% have kept their administrative personnel. Thus, more than half of the reclaimed plants began to produce with only manual labor. Despite the intense and often exhausting battles fought to gain control of the factory, workplaces where highly combative struggles were waged have been the most successful–an average of 70% of the output capacity is being used in these factories compared with 36% in those with a low degree of conflict. Likewise, facilities abandoned by supervisors and managers use a higher degree of productive capacity than those where the supervisors and managers have remained (70% versus 40%).2


Creating New Linkages

A quick overview of specific experiences reveals one of the most interesting aspects of the Argentine movement–the close ties being forged between the workers in recovered companies, residents organized in neighborhood assemblies, and piquetero groups. Through many forms of close collaboration, workers have been able to extend their networks well beyond the factory doors.

Two recovered businesses–Chilavert (a graphics shop) and El Aguante (a bakery)–have survived thanks to the leading role played by neighborhood assemblies in taking over the facilities. In late May 2002, the management of Chilavert, located in the Pompeya neighborhood of Buenos Aires, called in the police to evict the workers who were occupying the plant. The Popular Assembly of Pompeya, as well as other assemblies and groups of residents, got involved by calling meetings to discuss the problem and then by communicating via phone or word of mouth to send in groups of neighbors to support the workers during the repeated eviction attempts.3 Similar situations arose in other factories. In many cases the alliance between workers and neighborhood residents proved crucial, whether the neighbors were organized in assemblies or not formally organized at all.

Panificadora Cinco (as the El Aguante Cooperative was formerly known) shut down in October 2001, laying off 80 workers without severance pay. In April 2002, the Carapachay neighborhood assembly, seeking ways to obtain cheaper bread, linked up with a group of 20 workers who had been fired by the bakery. Following a joint meeting, neighbors and former workers took over the plant. For 45 days they resisted eviction attempts, as local residents camped out with workers in a tent outside the bakery in an aguante (the word means “endurance”).4 They finally succeeded in gaining ownership of the plant.

Neighborhood solidarity was decisive: assembly members, picketers, and leftist activists in charge of security patrols held three festivals, a march through the barrio, a public denouncement of the owner, a May Day ceremony, talks, debates, and cultural activities. Although exceptional, this case reveals how a social struggle can redraw territories, establishing linkages where indifference was once the norm.

In the case of the metallurgical company IMPA, the workers’ organization helped consolidate the local neighborhood group and cemented a stronger alliance between the two. The employee-run factory enjoyed the support of local residents even before its workers had organized assemblies in the zone. Then the workers decided to create a cultural center as a way of reaching out to the community and building solidarity with the neighborhood and social movements.5 The center was a success and paved the way for efforts now being undertaken by other recovered factories whose workers realize the importance of not remaining isolated within their plants and warehouses.

Similarly, in the midst of a conflict at a bread stick cooperative called New Hope , a group of neighborhood assembly members, psychologists linked to Topía magazine, and local artists brought a proposal before the workers’ assembly to create a arts and cultural center to garner the support of neighborhood residents and raise the cooperative’s social profile. Now the cultural center hosts daily workshops on music, theater, dance, puppetry, literature, and gardening; presents recitals and plays; features movies for both adults and children; and organizes conferences by prominent intellectuals.

These examples demonstrate one of the worker movement’s novel characteristics: an incipient but growing territorial rootedness. The link between worker-run enterprises and neighborhood assemblies points to society’s growing interest in committing to the success of these companies and to workers’ willingness to go beyond the factory gates and feel part of the broader social movement. In some cases, this is manifested by a factory’s commitment to hire unemployed neighborhood residents to fill job openings. Thus, by maintaining community activism, rebuilding social ties, and moving toward “territorialization” of the struggle, the job-recovery movement seeks to address one of the main problems it faces: the relationship of employee-managed operations to the local market.


Taking It to the Market


  • Coordinate the activities of worker-run factories: ANTEAG in Brazil groups 307 self-managed cooperatives, of which 52 were taken over by their workers, with some 15,000 employees.
  • Create an infrastructure to coordinate the efforts of diverse sectors of society to assure the success of worker-run factories through independent projects, initiatives by nongovernmental groups, and state and municipal government programs.
  • Create cultural centers that sponsor ongoing activities such as workshops, performances, recitals, movies, and conferences.
  • Establish “fair-trade fairs,” such as the weekly fair in Palermo, Argentina, and forms of direct distribution between producers, social groups, and consumers.

Solidarity begins when collaboration arises between neighbors (acting individually or through assemblies), worker-run factories, student groups, and piqueteros (unemployed workers). When a factory begins operating under worker-control, this solidarity usually takes one of two paths: it may become institutionalized through large, stable organizations such as ANTEAG in Brazil, or, as has occurred at many Argentine workplaces, horizontal linkages may be established with other initiatives, such as cultural centers in factories (about a half dozen operate mostly in urban areas) or initiatives to address the needs of the overall movement, particularly regarding its relationship with the market.

Brazil has developed a broad movement linked to economic solidarity, with an entire distribution network of products made by landless peasants and production cooperatives. In Argentina, these links had been bureaucratized are now re-emerging at the grassroots level. At the peak of the economic crisis, barter networks grew exponentially, at one point involving two to five million people. Although the barter movement later declined and fell into crisis, it contributed to the debate on how to trade outside of the monopolist market. New experiences being developed in Argentina seek to avoid the creation of large structures that exceed the control of the grassroots collectives and instead to favor “face-to-face” relationships.

Following the mass protests of December 19 and 20, 2001 that led to the fall of Argentine President Fernando de la Rúa, production links between recovered factories, piqueteros, peasants, and neighborhood assemblies have multiplied. A common trait of these social sectors and movements is that they tend to produce for their own needs. Groups of piqueteros plant crops, bake bread, and produce other articles, and some are setting up hog and rabbit farms or fish hatcheries. A few neighborhood assemblies bake bread, cook meals, concoct cleaning and cosmetics products, or collaborate with cartoneros (cardboard scavengers).6

Some neighborhood assemblies are doing interesting work that blurs the division between producers and consumers. There are 67 assemblies in Buenos Aires and well over half are autonomous and coordinated at the territorial level. This sector actively promotes fair trade and solidarity though conscientious consumption. Some commercial activity has also fostered efforts cross-sector: rural producers, piqueteros, assembly members, and recovered-factory workers are beginning to weave direct ties without the mediation of the market. In a sense, these experimental endeavors are recuperating the original nature of the market, described by Fernando Braudel and Immanuel Wallerstein as characterized by transparency, modest profits, controlled competition, freedom, and, above all, the domain of “common people.”7

Several experiences demonstrate these principles at work: Palermo , a suburb of Buenos Aires , holds a fair-trade fair two days a week with more than 100 stalls. The fair only sells products made by the neighborhood assemblies (e.g., bags made of waste material, cleaning articles, bread, diapers, recycled computers and paper, homemade pastas, handcrafts, marmalades), piquetero groups, and recovered factories.8

In another instance, workers and residents collaborate in the production and distribution of a brand of yerba maté (green tea) known as Titrayjú (the acronym for Tierra, Trabajo, y Justicia or Land, Work and Justice). The tea is produced by the Agrarian Missions Movement, an organization of small rural producers in northern Argentina. To avoid exploitation by intermediaries, for the last year 30 neighborhood assemblies have sold and distributed the tea directly in Buenos Aires, assisted by piqueteros and other grassroots organizations.

Utilizing the creative space opened by the protests against Argentina’s economic crisis, the Assembly Cooperative (Cooperativa Asamblearia) was founded in 2004 by assemblies in the middle- and upper-income neighborhoods of Nuñez and Saavedra. The assemblies first began with community purchasing, then organized a cooperative that distributes products from five recovered factories, an agrarian cooperative, and several other neighborhood assemblies. Something similar is being done by the former employees of El Tigre, a worker-managed supermarket in Rosario that sells products from recovered factories throughout the country as well as from community gardens and small growers.

Although the Argentine movement is in its early stages, it has already invented new forms of marketing that go far beyond the early barter arrangements. The purpose of bartering was to create a currency that could facilitate a massive alternative economic system. The new efforts, on the other hand, prioritize ethical and political criteria related to how goods are produced and marketed, and they seek to close the gap between producers and consumers by promoting direct, face-to-face relationships. The Assembly Cooperative, for example, seeks to “promote the production, distribution, marketing, and consumption of goods and services from worker-managed factories, that is, products that are the fruit of the labor and the collective property of workers,” according to a brochure introducing the cooperative.9 Three basic principles guide the group’s actions: worker-managed production, responsible consumption, and fair trade. These principles form part of the solidarity economy that worker-run enterprises and neighborhood organizations are trying to build to break their dependence on the dominant market.


  1. For more information, see <http://www.anteag.org.br/>.
  2. All statistics were taken from a study coordinated by Gabriel Fajn, Fábricas y empresas recuperadas (Buenos Aires: Centro Cultural de la Cooperación, 2003.
  3. Cafardo, Analía and Paula Domínguez, Autogestión obrera en el siglo XXI, Cuaderno de Trabajo No. 27 (Buenos Aires: Centro Cultural de la Cooperación, 2003).
  4. Aguante literally means “endurance” or “resistance,” but in recent years it has been used in the grassroots movement to refer to active solidarity in critical situations.
  5. IMPACTO newspaper, published by IMPA workers.
  6. Cartoneros are jobless residents of large cities who salvage cardboard and sell it to wholesalers.
  7. Immanuel Wallerstein, “Braudel y el capitalismo o todo al revés,” in Wallerstein Pensar las ciencias sociales (Mexico: Siglo XXI, 1998), p. 231.
  8. Muracciole, Jorge, “Economía asamblearia en acción,” Proyectos, vol. 19/20, no. 4, May-June 2003.
  9. For more information, see <http://www.asamblearia.com.ar/>.