In the worn out meeting room of worker-run Cerámica de Cuyo, Manuel Rojas runs a rough hand over his face. The mechanic recalls forming the cooperative after the company boss fired the workers in 2000: "We didn’t have any choice. If we didn’t take over the factory we would all be in the streets. The need to work pushed us to action."
After working at the ceramic brick and tile factory for nearly 35 years, Rojas joined the other two dozen workers at Cerámica de Cuyo and began to organize into a cooperative. These workers were part of national movement at a time when Argentina was in an economic crisis. Across the country, hundreds of factories, businesses and hotels shut their doors and sent their employees packing. Many workers, like those at Cerámica de Cuyo, decided to take matters into their own hands. As the stories of these workers illustrate, the cooperative road hasn’t been an easy one.
Cerámica de Cuyo is surrounded by vineyards and artists' homes in the bohemian community of Bermejo, Argentina, right outside Mendoza. Dust blows around the sun burnt factory yard as I sit down with Rojas and his co-worker Francisco Avila. Rojas wears a weathered blue plaid shirt while Avila has a baseball cap resting on a head of gray hair. We’re in the Cerámica de Cuyo meeting room. The ancient chairs have crumbling foam cushions. Phone numbers and Che Guevara slogans are scrawled on the walls. It’s easy to sense the wear and tear that lifetimes of labor have had on the place.
In August of 1999, the Cerámica de Cuyo owner cut wages. Though he promised it was only temporary, the lack of money pushed many employees to search for work elsewhere. Some left the country in desperation. "The boss kept promising money, so we waited," Rojas says. "We worked on weekends, waiting and waiting, but no paychecks arrived. We had to support our families, pay the bills and everything." In February 2000, all the workers were fired. A year later they decided to form a cooperative and run the factory themselves.
While organizing the cooperative, they had to guard the factory to prevent the robbery of expensive equipment and machinery. Neighbors helped the workers out at this critical time, providing food, firewood and blankets. "Workers from other cooperatives came to the factory with classes, informing us how to organize a cooperative," Avila says. "This kind of solidarity is common."
Cerámica de Cuyo produces roofing tiles and bricks, and now employs around 32 people. Before the formation of the cooperative, the pay scales were typical, with the owner earning a lot more than the workers. Now everyone is paid the same amount and all workers have one week of vacation. Regular assemblies are organized to discuss administrative and financial topics, or to hire a new employee. Since the formation of the cooperative, they have also been able to buy newer machines.
"Before, the boss wouldn’t let us into the main administrative office. Now it’s ours," Rojas says. "We go in there anytime to check on orders and be involved with that side of the business."
We walk outside into the now scorching sun. One truck dumps off a load of dirt while clay is formed into bricks and tiles and sent inside a massive kiln. Rojas works as an all around mechanic, fixing everything from fork lifts to conveyor belts. When we enter the main factory room, he is called from three directions at once with questions to answer and problems to fix. Steam rises from the hot, wet, recently cut bricks. The whole place smells like a potter’s kiln.
While Rojas works on a control panel for the conveyor belt, Avila takes me upstairs to his work area at the top of the kiln. Here the temperature rises by about 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Though it feels like a sauna, Avila is comfortable and turns up the radio to a popular cumbia song. It’s a dangerous job: "Sometimes when the electricity is shut down, and the gas keeps going, there can be an explosion, so I have to pay attention."
"It hasn’t been easy," Avila says. "Before, we were workers. Now we have to be lawyers, accountants and everything. Before, we didn’t worry about the machines. Now they're all ours, so we care more about them. Now when a machine breaks down we have to wait for money and parts."
Both admitted that one of the hardest things about working in a cooperative was that all workers, young and old, received the same wages. Rojas says, "Some people who have no experience at all are making the same per hour as those working as mechanics with 35 years of technical experience."
Avila agrees. "Some workers want to earn more for working less. At the beginning it was all compañero this and compañero that, very glorious. But when we started working more, a lot of the conflicts broke out about salaries."
Back in the meeting room, Rojas explains that now, whenever there is a problem, they all discuss things in the open, in assemblies. "There are always conflicts, but what’s good about it now is that we solve it together, right here." He pounds his fist on the battered meeting table.
Benjamin Dangl is the author of The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia, (AK Press, March 2007). All photos by Dangl. This article was originally published in UpsideDownWorld.org, a website uncovering activism and politics in Latin America.