A group of five backpack-sporting teenagers, with bus tickets in hand paid for out of their own pockets, left Buenos Aires last July to see for themselves the labor of workers at a factory with no bosses or owner. They traveled 745 miles to the Patagonian province of Neuquén, the home of the Zanon ceramics factory, occupied and managed by its workers since 2001.
The teens, many already involved in activist projects in their own communities, arrived at Zanon to begin a two-week internship during their short winter break. Their hope was to forge a path so that other youths from around the country could start similar programs with the ceramists. Although the Zanon workers regularly host school tours to the factory, this group of teens was the first to organize an internship program.
The program may be largely symbolic at this point, but it sends a clear message to some 180 recuperated enterprises in the country: open your doors to young people so that they, too, can participate in creating new social relations. "I went to Zanon because I was curious to learn how worker self-management works," explains Alvaro, a high school senior who helps organize a meal program in the squatted barrio of Villa Fiorito. He adds, "I wanted to personally experience how they organize, and bring that back to Buenos Aires. I've never been in a factory, much less one that functions under worker control."
As they first walked through the factory, their expressions revealed they were impressed. Javier, a 15-year-old who studies at a public industrial school, first visited the plant in 2003 with his father at a documentary premiere about Zanon with the workers in their lunchroom. "I've studied the machinery," says Javier, "but I've never seen them producing." He adds that he was surprised by the size of the factory and the number of workers. Today, the plant employs 473 workers, more than 200 of whom were hired after the plant came under worker control.
During their two-week stay, the interns not only completed specific tasks but also shared in the daily routines of worker self-management. "I spent a long time in the tool and die shop, where they make replacement parts for the factory," says Javier. "They don't have to depend on businesses outside of Zanon to make sure the plant stays functioning." The Zanon ceramists happily shared mate (a popular tea-like drink) with the interns, chatted with them and showed them with pride how they operate each workstation.
Besides producing high-quality ceramic tiles, the factory has committed itself to projects like building an emergency health clinic in a neighboring barrio and donating ceramics to social centers. "The workers control what they produce. I've seen a lot of solidarity and compañerismo," explains Daniela, a 17-year-old student who is organizing in Villa Fiorito. When they first arrived, the youths were invited to introduce themselves in the workers' monthly general assembly, during which they listened to internal debates and saw for themselves how the production process can be democratized. Darío, a 14-year-old high school student, reflected on worker self-determination: "It's great to be in this huge factory and see workers carrying out production, and a community project, while everything is decided in assembly." Despite tremendous legal and market pressures, Zanon stands out as one of the most dynamic expressions of resistance against capitalism in Argentina. What's more, Zanon continues to look to the future by educating a new generation of workers and activists about the importance and viability of worker control. "I see the future worker self-managed. Even though we must survive in the capitalist market, in the future it will be different," hopes Maximiliano, a 22-year-old neighborhood assembly participant.
Whatever the future holds, worker self-management in Argentina is here to stay, and Zanon is helping plant the seeds so that future generations can reverse the logic of capitalism by producing for communities, not for profits; and empowering workers, not exploiting them.