(Based on dispatches by Marie Trigona)*
Argentina’s recuperated business movement held a festival September 28, 2007 in support of the Bauen, a hotel in downtown Buenos Aires run by its workforce as a cooperative since 2003. There was indeed something to celebrate: an order evicting the co-op from the hotel had been temporarily suspended. The fair-trade festival brought together worker-owned businesses.Deeply in debt, including to its own workforce, the Bauen’s former owners had fired all of their workers in December 2001 and closed the doors. They showed themselves to be indifferent to the hotel’s subsequent deterioration, and with it the possibility of jobs. Argentina was then in a deep economic crisis characterized by collapse of the Argentine peso, which virtually overnight lost over two-thirds of its value. Unemployment passed 25% as the crisis deepened throughout 2002BAUEN HOTEL’S WORKER-OWNERS CELEBRATE. An August legal break for this central Buenos Aires hotel lets the movement pursue a national law for co-ops.
Simply to retain their jobs workers re-opened the Bauen in March 2003. Their intention was not to join a movement of cooperatives in recuperated firms. They did not presume to change the world. They began floor-by-floor rehabilitation, admitting guests as floors became available.
Since its workers have restored the ruined hotel to profitability, receptionist Elena Cruz notes that the owners who had walked away from it now want it back. “All of a sudden they threw us out into the streets on December 28, 2001. Because of the poor administration of the businessmen we had to leave the hotel. Now that we re-opened a hotel that was closed they tell us we have to leave. If they do that 154 families are going to be kicked out of the hotel without jobs.”
On July 20, 2007, the Bauen Hotel co-op had received a 30-day eviction order from a federal court in response to a petition by the Mercoteles group. The court still recognizes Mercoteles as the property’s legal owner; nevertheless, it accepted an appeal on behalf of the Bauen cooperative that temporarily delays eviction. This is what the festival was celebrating.
The 19-story co-op hotel is situated in the equivalent of Buenos Aires’s Times Square. This makes it the most visible example of Argentina’s recuperated enterprise movement, made up of over 180 firms with histories similar to the Bauen’s. The co-op has been busy running a prominent and modern hotel, but it has not forgotten its roots. The hotel’s comfortable spaces have been a focus of political organizing by the movement that has rallied to its side.
“Occupy, Resist, Produce”
Before the peso collapse in December 2001, most big capital had already fled the country for tax havens. But when the middle class then went to their banks for their savings they found they were nearly destitute. The crisis could have led to class war. Instead the middle class, the working class and the truly poor came together behind the demand “they should all go,” referring to the politicians of all parties. More significantly, a large array of economic democracy experiments then flourished: community gardens and restaurants, local currencies, neighborhood assemblies, etc. The recuperated enterprise movement has alone endured. Its slogan is: “Occupy, resist, produce.” Pino Solanas, world renowned filmmaker, remarked that the Bauen’s resistance “proves that a non-capitalist form of management is viable in a society that has been in crisis.”
The coalition of cooperatives that the Bauen has helped to build now seeks a long-term legal solution for the 10,000 workers currently employed in such enterprises, many of which are being contested by previous owners. According to Bauen advocate Federico Tonarelli: “Taking advantage of the fact that the court has accepted our appeal, and that we now have more legal time, we have organized today’s [festival] activity to demand a National Expropriation Law before the National Congress, the place where the law needs to be passed. The recuperated enterprises don’t have a definitive legal framework. A national expropriation law would not only provide workers with the legal right to the buildings, but a framework for all the recuperated enterprises.”
The eviction order had come just as the Bauen Hotel co-op was spearheading a newly organized Federation of Self-Managed Worker Cooperatives so worker-run businesses could strategize on how to collectively overcome market challenges. “It’s difficult for a cooperative to become viable without capital resources and state subsidies,” said Fabio Resino, a legal advisor at the Bauen. According to Resino, the federation’s cooperatives – of which there are now 30 – are building a network for marketing goods produced under self-management to enhance their survival chances in a dog-eat-dog market.
The collapse of the Argentine peso bears comparison to the current crisis of the US dollar, which is daily losing its value. If the dollar collapses and a similar depression hits the US, with world-wide consequences, will the US public be able to invent an effective economy virtually without money, as the Argentines did? The question is haunting. Meanwhile, having weathered the economic crisis and kept the cooperative to date, the Bauen festival symbolizes the possibility of a positive resolution. Over 50 worker-owned businesses participated in the celebration with sales stands, street theater and live music. Can we envision a similar outcome to the present crisis gathering in the center of capitalism, and hence in the global economy?
*Bob Stone, a retired philosophy professor, is a Research Associate at the Center for Global Justice in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico (www.globaljusticecenter.org) and a member of the editorial board of Grassroots Economic Organizing (www.geo.coop).