Fighting for Economic Democracy in Argentina

By Laura Hanson Schlachter (PhD in Sociology, UW-Madison)

“Our slogan is ‘occupy, resist, produce,’” said a representative from the UOM union. “We have to fight for each one, but now we have eighteen recuperadas in the region.”

It was October 2015, and we were gathered in the break room of a metalworking factory in Quilmes, an outlying suburb of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Workers told stories over empanadas and soda as we furiously scribbled notes, trying to piece together how their struggles for living wages and stable jobs had grown into a national movement for economic democracy.

Many countries are experiencing a surge of interest in worker cooperatives: businesses owned and democratically governed by workers according to the principle of one worker, one vote. Although these firms remain rare in the United States economy, Argentina’s movement for empresas recuperadas (or recuperadas for short) has inspired people around the world looking for models to reduce inequality, promote social justice, and create emancipatory economic alternatives for workers.

Recuperadas are businesses that workers have taken over (often, but not always, after a period of occupation) and converted to democratic worker ownership and control. They are a particular type of worker cooperative representing about one third of all registered cooperatives in Argentina. The vast majority of Argentina’s 352 recuperadas formed during and after the country’s 2001 economic crisis. As hundreds of owners abandoned bankrupt factories and left workers without back pay, thousands of workers decided to become their own bosses and run the factories themselves.

Thanks to support from a LACIS field research grant, I had the opportunity to travel to Argentina in the fall of 2015 to study the recuperada movement firsthand. The Quilmes visit was part of a weeklong research workshop hosted by the Instituto Gino Germani at the University of Buenos Aires. Participants included three of us from the UW-Madison Department of Sociology – Professor Erik Wright, alumnus Rodolfo Ebert, and myself – and worker cooperative experts from Argentina and around the world.

It was part of a series of several Pathways to a Cooperative Market Economy Research Workshops, which bring together academics and activists in places with vibrant worker cooperative sectors to learn what makes them tick – and what they can teach us about the potential role of worker cooperatives in the transformation of capitalism. The first Pathways Workshop was in Barcelona in March 2015 and focused on the Mondragon federation of 120 worker cooperatives in the Basque region of Spain. The third will take place in Johannesburg, South Africa in summer of 2016.

The workshop was particularly illuminating for my own master’s research, which examines efforts to bring together worker cooperative and organized labor in the U.S. For the past three years, I’ve been studying an initiative to develop unionized worker cooperatives in Cincinnati, Ohio. I was struck by the crucial role of union support – subsidies for unemployed workers, credit, training, health care, and much more – in several successful recuperadas struggles. The most vocal proponents of democratic worker ownership have been social movement trade unions like the UOM, which have seen recuperadas as a job protection strategy. I was also fascinated by how the movement has traveled to other countries, including the U.S. Workers at New Era Windows and Doors in Chicago, who occupied their bankrupt factory in 2008 and 2012 with support from the United Electrical Workers and reopened it as a worker cooperative in 2013, were directly inspired by the Argentine example.

Thanks to examples like the Quilmes metalworking factory, ‘occupy, resist, produce’ is now a cry heard round the world.

Laura Hanson Schlachter is a PhD student in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and 2015-16 Beyster Fellow with the Rutgers University School of Management and Labor Relations. Please join us for her lecture, “Argentine Pathways to a Cooperative Market Economy” on April 13th, 260 Bascom Hall.