The Take (2004)
Originally written for Everything2
Tue Mar 06 2007 at 7:47:21

"Jobs are coming back - jobs are being taken back."
A documentary about the occupied factories of Argentina.

AFI Film Festival: Grand Jury Prize
Cleveland International Film Festival: Best Documentary

Directed by Avi Lewis.
Written by Naomi Klein.
Official site: http://thetake.org

My first reaction while watching this film was that for a documentary about workplaces so much like what anarcho-syndicalists have been calling for, there is a surprising amount of respect for (or at least, fear of) the government. Warning: spoilers follow.

Background

Under Juan Perón, Argentina had the most prosperous middle class in Latin America. That was many decades ago. Then came the Carlos Menem years. Menem presided over what were at first boom years. He followed the U.S. approved IMF policy recommendations - like privatization and deregulation of big business.

Eventually, half the country fell below the poverty line and the currency collapsed. As a result, the government froze all bank accounts in the country. The people rioted. Banks were attacked. And history experienced "the largest sovereign debt default in world history."

Under these circumstances, one would expect if your company went under, that was the end of the story. Not so in Argentina. That was just the beginning.

As workers gathered outside one such closed business, they were saying forget the back wages they were owed, they should just take the factory. A representative from the National Movement of Recovered Factories arrived to lend his support and to give workers options.

Forja

Forja San Martin was a closed auto parts factory. Before it closed down, Freddy Espinosa and his wife got by. Now with just his wife's job, they can either afford to feed their daughters or pay their debts, but not both. So their debts piled up.

The former employees of Forja formed a cooperative. However, these weren't fired up anarchists, they were just family men, trying to make a living to support their wives and children. Instead of taking it upon themselves to assume ownership of the factory, they asked the bankruptcy court for permission to inspect the factory - evidence that the former owners sold factory contents gave them a legal case to take over the factory.

They would all be administrators. They decided they would have equal salaries and that they would work harder because their interests would now be much more in line with company goals. The former employees decided to guard the factory to prevent it from being emptied out.

Their goal was to be like other recovered factories, like Zanon.

Zanon

The sign for Zanon Ceramics had this description below it: "belongs to the workers". Zanon was one of the first businesses to be taken over by employees. It had been democratically run for 2 years at the time of filming (2004). One worker, one vote - it was run by employee assemblies. There were 300 employees total. Everyone had equal salaries.

At the time Zanon closed down, the employees argued the company belonged to the community, because of the debts it owed and the public subsidies it had received. The owner had claimed that it wasn't profitable, got government subsidies, and still ran up debts. The former owner has now returned, trying to get the government to give him back the factory.

Zanon is now under 24 hour guard by employees armed with slingshots. Their real weapon, however, is the support of the community. Says one community member, "There are many companies that should be in the hands of the workers. But it seems that this is not politically convenient. That's the real problem."

Zanon donates tiles to hospitals and schools. Employees, with massive help from supporters in the community, have fought off 6 eviction orders carried out by police - forcing the retreat of the government. Instead of using the word "stealing" they prefer another word: expropriation. However, unlike other nations where this happens from above because of government leaders, here it is happening from below.

More than 15,000 people work in occupied businesses (at the time of filming). The number of takeovers was doubling every year. They included a private school, a health clinic, a shipbuilder, an ice cream factory, and a suit factory.

The Wait

Meanwhile, back at Forja auto parts, the former employees elected Freddy as president. He describes how the legal process is taking much longer than expected and holds back tears. While watching this, I thought they were far too concerned with obeying the law, but with children who needed them, it probably wouldn't have done much good to risk going to jail.

Menem was running for re-election again. Says one worker in an occupied company of Menem: "Rich politicians, and the people dying of hunger." Néstor Kirchner was the alternative. The film shows the tension between a daughter Maty (just hired by Zanon) who won't vote for either and her mother Anna who is campaigning for Kirchner and says she's a Peronist.

Freddy, along with other representatives from Forja, goes to a worker owned tractor factory, Zanello. Here, not all employees earn the same salary. Like the model of decentralized democracy of anarchism, each occupied factory has its own rules. Forja and Zanello make a deal - Forja would supply them with parts. Freddy hopes to impress the judge with the deal they've struck. Unfortunately, the judge is not friendly, because they've occupied the factory before getting legal permission to take ownership.

Meanwhile, there is even a Menem supporter in the occupied factory - hoping for stability and jobs.

Representatives from the IMF are again in Argentina, meeting with the presidential candidates. It is calling for cuts to public programs and higher prices in privatized utilities, in return for loans to pay off the interest of other loans.

The Forja workers are forced to next go to politicians, having failed with the judge to get the legal right to manage the plant.

The results of the first round of the election came in: Menem won a plurality, with 24% to Kirchner's 21.7%. There would have to be a runoff.

Back at Forja, the employees are cleaning the factory, but not actually using it. They fear eviction. It's not long before they get the news that the Brukman suit factory has been evicted.

Brukman

Brukman was the factory that started it all. It was taken over by its seamstresses after it was abandoned by the owners. Says one employee, "There have always been bosses and workers. But we are fighting for worker control... I don't know if I'm getting ahead of myself here, but maybe we can run the country this way."

After letting the factory operate for years, the police were finally ordered to close it down. They have to weld shut the factory gate and build a tall security fence around the entire area. A large crowd gathered outside the police guarded Brukman - many elderly women among them, protesting. People started arriving from around the country to protest. Thousands arrived. The crowd attempted to enter Brukman but it was no match for the police's weapons. They fled.

Epilogue

There was good news for Forja, however, as police attacked the crowd outside Brukman. The expropriation law for Forja was passed.

There was also good news for workers in democratic workplaces that feared Menem would put an end to all their efforts. Menem dropped out of the runoff election, perhaps fearing he couldn't win.

Six months later, Forja was humming along. The Brukman employees won back their factory from the legislature. Unfortunately, Kirchner was no great alternative. He signed a deal with the IMF much like previous deals.


Overall, I would recommend this movie to anyone interested in workplace democracy. For the uninitiated, it may be inspirational. For me however, having already known about the situation in Argentina, it was merely preaching to the choir. I wish the employees depicted in this documentary as much fortune in their futures as possible in their dealings with the government and former owners.

I couldn't find this film in my local video store chain (not surpising considering its content), so I had to buy it from the film's website.

P.S. Spuunbenda and unperson tell me Netflix has this film. I know Blockbuster doesn't - neither in their stores nor in their online service (back when I was still subscribed). Might be a good reason to use Netflix instead.


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