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May 2002 • Vol 2, No. 5 •

Argentine Crisis Deepens,
Workers Seize Failing Firms

By Leslie Moore

Demonstration in Buenos Aires

It’s a takeover toasted by Argentina’s activists and media: A heroic story of seamstresses’ trumping the bosses by seizing the factory floor after their demands went unmet.

In the fading garment district of Barrio Once, about 35 workers have staged a sit-in, refusing to budge until they get back wages they say they deserve. Amid Argentina’s recent economic and political upheavals, the seamstresses have become poster women for worker defiance and a sign of the extremes taken to earn a livelihood at a time when the nation’s unemployment rate exceeds 20 percent.

Photos and footage of the seamstresses hugging and mugging for cameras and stooping over sewing machines have played from Buenos Aires to Patagonia, and the group has attracted attention from media outlets in Europe and North America. Activists around the country and world are latching onto the seamstresses’ cause as proof that worker resistance can blossom even in ravaged Argentina.

“If they win, all workers of Argentina win,” said Ana Dossantos, a member of the communist-influenced Workers’ Party. “It’s an answer to the crisis in Argentina.”

A six-member team of garment workers called the Commission of Internal Struggle makes management decisions. Seamstress leaders say they set—and live by—budgets, buy goods from suppliers, and deal directly with customers. Profits from the stock of men’s suits, leaders say, are shared equally between all workers. To ward off police who may try again to kick them out, as they did last month, the women sleep in shifts on factory floors.

Jacobo Brukman and his two brothers, Enrique and Mario, who own and operate the 51-year-old factory, once enjoyed licensing agreements with Christian Dior and Pierre Cardin. But in the 1990s, Argentina’s strong peso shrank the wholesaler’s export demand. And the country’s grinding four-year recession has cut domestic sales. By 2001 the company notified creditors that the company was on the edge of bankruptcy, said Jaime Muszkat, the brothers’ attorney. Creditors now partly manage the company.

 The owners have been banished

But Muszkat insisted that the factory is hostage to Argentina’s politics and a victim of media that prefer a story of heroics to truth-telling. He said the brothers have been banished from entering their property and have no idea how much merchandise remains.

“We have a business that has been hijacked,” said Jaime Muszkat. ‘‘The workers are staging a big show of tears, and it’s all a lie.”

On this the two sides agree: For two weeks straight last fall, the cash-poor company paid employees about $5 for a week’s work, adding to the poor labor relations at the factory. By Dec. 18 a faction of outraged workers had had enough. When they went to confront the brothers in their first-floor offices, they and other office workers had vanished, protesting workers say. They believe the bosses disappeared to avoid a tussle over wages.

Muszkat insists that workers locked out the three owner-brothers and names other employees who have boycotted the sit-in. Government limits on bank withdrawals, known as the corralito, forced the brothers to pay workers less than they were owed because they had no access to cash, he said, not disputing the roughly $5 wages for five days of 9-hour shifts. The corralito, which began Dec. 5, capped weekly bank cash withdrawals at $250 per week.

‘‘No one had cash in the first two weeks of December,” he added. ‘‘This is exploitation of the owners. We’re talking about a political doctrine [from] groups of the extreme left. It’s absolutely crazy.”

Workers want the government to take over the company so long as it gives them a promise of lifelong job security. “There are 33 hospitals in Buenos Aires that need sheets. We can provide them,” said Celia Martinez Otozo, a catalyst behind the squatters’ movement.

“Before they said they had no money to pay, but now we see that the clothes were being sold and that there is money.” Martinez said workers have paid thousands of dollars in overdue utility and gas bills that management left unpaid.

Workers’ say their lives are better since they became their own bosses. They say they pocket about 10 times more money weekly. Lunch before was a cheese sandwich, eaten in 15 minutes at their sewing machines. Now they take an hour break and cook meals of lentil stew or polenta in the factory’s kitchen.

Some shoppers support the workers’ cause. “The situation here is a good reflection of what’s happening in the country,” says wedding and catering organizer Arturo Massat, fingering the lining of an alpaca wool coat. Workers at 11 other Argentine factories making anything from tractors to flour and steel have seized production and operation of their bankrupt companies, after owners disappeared or were kicked out.

Last week a kerchiefed member of the Plaza de Mayo mothers, who for decades have fought the government on behalf of their disappeared sons and daughters, dropped by to pose for pictures and give a pep talk.

“We mothers support your cause,” Hebe Bonafini told those on the factory floor rallied around her. “We’ll give you our solidarity.”

Activists from San Francisco to India who tout Karl Marx have expressed support over the Internet.

“It’s not clear who the enemy is,” said Ricardo Monner Sans, a lawyer and activist. “Is it the workers or the owners? People are looking for answers to problems that are new. The answers are not in any books.”


—Boston Globe





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