Magazine article New Internationalist

If the Clothes Fit, Wear Them

Magazine article New Internationalist

If the Clothes Fit, Wear Them

Article excerpt

Argentine workers have found a much better way of taking control of their factories than going on strike... going to work. Ivan Briscoe describes a revolution in the making.

As recession slashes through Buenos Aires' textile district, one factory continues resolutely to roll out clothing for the wealthy. Window displays at the front of the factory - where headless dummies sport doublebreasted jackets, tweed blazers and camel-hair coats - belie what is happening inside. Here at the Brukman factory, blue-coated seamstresses and tailors are in control. Their bosses left their desks nearly a year ago. When it comes to deciding who does what, this suit factory is now suit-free.

Despite police raids, government suspicion and persistent judicial harassment, 53 workers in Brukman - one of the Argentine capital's largest clothing factories refuse to give in. Their 12-month occupation, they say, is not ideological. Losing a job in Argentina at the moment is akin to contracting a terminal disease. Unemployment stands at 22 per cent, while over 6 million people have fallen beneath the poverty line so far this year.

Until late last year, the nonunionized and mostly female workforce swallowed each fresh wage cut or slight from their superiors without complaint. `We thought that with the country as it was, everyone was in the same position. We were thankful for the job,' recalls worker Elisa Diaz.

By December 2001, a three-year slump, unpayable debt and an overvalued currency had incited a stampede of capital from Argentina - and a freeze on bank withdrawals. The Brukman family, with its penchant for cutting wages, whittled weekly pay in its 12-year-old factory down to 5 pesos (then equal to 5 dollars); a week later it became 2. On 18 December, none of the owners appeared in the factory.

`If we hadn't taken the factory then, the bosses would have closed it,' remarks Mathilde Adorno, a veteran seamstress. She now chuckles at the memory: `We held meetings all morning; we were all very nervous. When the bosses didn't turn up, we decided to wait. That evening we held our first assembly and 23 people stayed locked in all night. When I got here the next morning the others had put up protest banners all over the factory. We'd taken a decision without knowing what we were up against.'

The next evening was the first of the workers' formal occupation. `We were all inside, laid down on the floor out of fear,' continues Adorno. `We'd put cardboard over the windows so nobody could see us and switched off the lights. Then we felt a noise swelling up from outside. We thought it was the police. It was coming from all sides. We didn't know where to run to. Then someone opened a window and saw what it was - a cacerolazo!'

Armed with spoons, saucepans and tureens rather than guns, the people of Buenos Aires had spontaneously taken to the streets that very night to demand an end to President Fernando de la Rua's administration. The crisis that followed marked an economic nadir, but the jolt to Argentina's grassroots has lasted. Neighbourhood assemblies, picket groups, unemployed workers' unions and collective enterprises have flourished while discredited government institutions and trade unions stagger on. `All is quiet, then someone throws a stone and out of nowhere a million follow,' observes Osvaldo Bayer, the chief chronicler of Argentina's labour history.

In the confines of Brukman, staff at first did not dare produce without an overlord. `We thought the equipment was sacred,' remarks Adorno. …

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