domingo, 7 de abril de 2013

Can Worker-Owners Run a Big Factory?

How Mexican Tire Workers Won Ownership of Their Plant With a Three-Year Strike and Are Now Running It Themselves
by Jane Slaughter
Part 1: Mexican Workers Win Ownership of Tire Plant With Three-Year Strike

"If the owners don't want it, let's run it ourselves." When a factory closes, the idea of turning it into a worker-owned co-operative sometimes comes up -- and usually dies.

The hurdles to buying a plant, even a failing plant, are huge, and once in business, the new worker-owners face all the pressures that helped the company go bankrupt in the first place. Most worker-owned co-ops are small, such as a taxi collective in Madison or a bakery in San Francisco.

But in Mexico a giant-sized worker cooperative has been building tires since 2005. The factory competes on the world market, employs 1,050 co-owners, and pays the best wages and pensions of any Mexican tire plant.

Aware that this unusual victory is virtually unknown in the U.S., friends in Guadalajara urged me to come down and see how the TRADOC cooperative is working.

Its president -- who was union president when the plant was owned by Continental Tire -- spoke in a workshop at the 2010 Labor Notes Conference. Jesus "Chuy" Torres is one of the more impressive unionists I've met -- though he's no longer officially a unionist. Still, "our class is the working class," he told me.

Far from indulging in a "we've got ours" mentality, the TRADOC workers are intent on maintaining solidarity with workers still cursed with a boss.

It's hard to decide which is more remarkable -- how the Continental workers turned a plant closing into worker ownership through a determined 1,141-day campaign, or how they've managed to survive and thrive since then.

In any case, we need to celebrate such victories. I'll tell the tale in two parts.

Opening the Factory's Closed Gates

Taking over their plant was not the workers' idea. Continental Tire proposed to sell it to them -- after the union backed management into a corner so tight the owners wanted nothing more to do with it.

But to get to that point workers had to wage a three-year strike and what we in the U.S. call a "comprehensive campaign." Workers say it was not just one tactic that won the day, but a combination of relentless pressures.

Continental Tire, based in Germany, is the fourth-largest tire manufacturer in the world. It bought a factory in El Salto, outside Guadalajara in western Mexico, in 1998, intending to produce mainly for the U.S. market. When it was first built by the Mexican company Euzkadi in 1970, this was the most advanced tire-making plant in Latin America. It was still the most modern in Mexico by the early 2000s.

But Mexican tire-making plants were dropping like flies at that time: Goodyear, Uniroyal. NAFTA had caused tire imports from abroad to triple between 1996 and 2000. At Firestone, the company-dominated union accepted a 25 percent pay cut, multi-tasking, and a seven-day week to try to prevent a closure.

Most unions in Mexico are unions in name only, government-affiliated labor bodies whose functions are to collect dues and control workers.

But the Continental plant had a different history. Workers had had an independent, "red" union since 1935, SNRTE (National Revolutionary Union of Euzkadi Workers). A history of the union proudly tells the story of when Fidel Velasquez, top official of the corrupt government union CTM, came to their assembly in 1959 and asked that contract bargaining be put in his hands. Velasquez was expelled from the meeting "for being unworthy to be present in a workers' assembly."

Workers elected Chuy Torres and the Red Slate, which ran on a platform of resisting Continental's demands, in 2001. Management had begun aggressively cutting costs the moment it bought the company, closing a sister factory in another state. It brought in a manager with experience in union-busting, José Neto Carvalho, who'd extracted huge concessions in Portugal.

Now Carvalho sent letters to all the workers' homes, demanding seven-day production and a 12-hour day, a pay cut, speedup, job cuts, no more seniority for job bidding, and an end to the company-paid vans that brought workers to the plant.

Salvador (Chava) Hernandez, now retired, remembered: "We saw one thing and the company said the opposite. We were making 14,000 tires a day. The company said they weren't selling, they were going bankrupt. The supervisors threatened us for months."

But members refused to alter their contract. They didn't believe management claims that their plant was unproductive, and they were well aware of the difference between their own salaries and those of Continental workers in Germany and the U.S.: a Mexican Continental worker made about $25 a day.

Closing Shock

The evening of December 16, 2001, boiler room workers came to the plant and found a notice on the front gate: Closed.

They called union leaders immediately. Guards were mounted to keep management from taking out the machinery. Two days later an assembly was called, with almost all the 940 workers in attendance.

Management urged workers to take their legally owed severance pay and go home. In fact, managers had recruited a group of workers to try to convince others, promising a bounty of 10,000 pesos ($1,100) for each worker they persuaded. This group was promised they would be rehired first when the plant opened again.

When this scheme became known, it confirmed union leaders' suspicion that Continental's real plan was to get rid of the union, not the factory. It was the only independent union in the industry.

Workers voted to fight the closing, which they deemed illegal because management had acted suddenly, without following legal notification procedures and without proving the company was unprofitable. Torres later said that he really saw no way they could get Continental executives to change their mind, but he was determined to "give them a fight like they'd never imagined."

The union officially began its strike -- against a shuttered factory -- a month later. Four thousand workers, families, and supporters marched nearly six miles from the El Salto city hall to hang red and black banners on the plant doors. Under Mexican law, these banners represent a strike, and nothing is allowed to be taken out of a plant during a strike. (This is one of several areas where Mexican labor law is superior to that in the U.S.)

A day earlier, Continental had brought a hundred trailers to the property, intending to remove the 70,000 tires inside. It posted armed guards on the roof, videotaping. Within a half hour 200 workers and family members came to the plant to block the way.

The slogan they painted on a banner outside was "Not a Single Screw Is Leaving." The workers' demand was simple: that Continental honor its contract and keep the plant running.

To the Capital

A week later, workers began a march to the national capital in Mexico City, taking a semi-circular route that led them nearly 500 miles (they used vans and buses most of the way) through seven states to locations where other workers were in struggle.

They held big public meetings with workers from GM, Nissan, General Tire, and Volkswagen, but the most emotional took place with campesinos in San Salvador Atenco, who were fighting (successfully) the government's attempt to build an airport on their ancestral land. The campesino leader presented Torres with a machete as a token of friendship.

Along the way, the union secured a meeting with President Vicente Fox, a businessman whose election in 2000 had encouraged corporations to crack down on their employees. The workers demanded that the government nationalize the tire plant, as it had recently done with a sugar mill. Fox offered to help workers get a good financial settlement out of the closing, but Torres replied that what they wanted was their jobs.

When the workers arrived in Mexico City, they had 10,000 supporters behind them in the historic Zócalo, the main square.

International Solidarity

Meanwhile, union leaders looked abroad for aid. The Continental local of the Steelworkers in Charlotte, North Carolina, offered no help; management threatened local leaders that if they did their plant would close. It closed anyway.

Torres said the only aid SNRTE got from the U.S. union was a slogan: that the union would last "one day longer" than Continental. In the U.S. this slogan has most often been a substitute for strategy, but in Mexico it resonated with workers who were coming at the company from so many angles.

The same happened with the German chemical workers union that represented Continental workers. The head of the Continental works council openly said that the term "international solidarity" didn't mean anything to him.

But SNRTE made other connections. Torres belonged to a socialist group with ties in Europe. Those connections helped SNRTE to meet with union leaders at tire plants and other factories in Spain. The European Parliament passed a resolution decrying human rights violations in Mexico by European multinationals, citing Continental. The union's small delegation secured a five-minute meeting with Continental's CEO, Manfred Wennemer -- in which Wennemer blamed Torres for the factory's closing.

The most exciting action was the workers' visit to the Continental shareholders' meeting. Through their leftist connections they met a group called "Critical Shareholders," which organized to protest environmental and worker rights violations at various companies. That group gave their passes into the meeting to the Mexican delegation.

"My legs were shaking when I got up to speak in front of more than a thousand shareholders," Torres said. But afterward Wennemer said he would tell his subordinates in Mexico to negotiate with the union. "It has to be in Mexico, though," Wennemer said, according to Torres. "There's no reason for you people to come here."

Those negotiations were fruitless, though, and the next year the Mexicans were back in Germany. This time Wennemer felt obligated to justify the El Salto closing to the shareholders, calling the workers unproductive, with 25 percent absenteeism. Torres rebutted him with figures showing the plant was the most productive tire plant in the country.

The German minister of the economy called a meeting between the two sides, including the Mexican ambassador. A distinguished Mexican attorney explained how the closing had not complied with the law. The meeting raised the conflict's international profile and demonstrated that Mexican authorities were not finding a solution.

On the workers' third trip to Europe, in 2004, a Mexican congressman and a university labor law specialist accompanied them. The congressman asked the shareholders for a negotiated solution and that Continental respect Mexican labor law. His presence showed the shareholders that political circles in Mexico were paying attention. As it happened, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Fox would soon be meeting at a biennial Europe-Latin America summit -- in Guadalajara, in the workers' backyard.

The Mexicans and their allies in European human rights groups (still no support from the unions) were also making noise about Continental's sponsorship of the upcoming World Cup in Germany. In downtown Hannover, site of Continental headquarters, the company had built a big monument with the World Cup symbol. The campaign demanded "fair play" in El Salto, promising to agitate at the World Cup itself if the conflict wasn't resolved. Some of SNRTE's 2004 delegation passed out flyers while others kicked a soccer ball around the monument.

Democracy Spreads

Meanwhile, workers at Continental's other factory in Mexico were restive. This General Tire plant was in San Luis Potosí, 200 miles from El Salto.

They'd had a company union that was pleased to cooperate with management's plan to get rid of the union contract. In a dramatic meeting in April 2003, members voted out their officers and voted in a leader who'd been fired for resisting the secret agreement.

In July, while Wennemer was visiting Mexico, the San Luis Potosí workers struck. Wennemer scolded the local government for not using the police against them. But he fired his director general in Mexico.

And in January 2004, two years into the El Salto strike, the government finally declared the strike legal -- making Continental liable for two years' worth of back wages (another facet of Mexican law), a figure that would only grow the longer the strike lasted.

"We estimated the plant was worth $80 million," Torres said. "And the back pay was $40 million." This was in addition to the severance pay owed, which 587 workers had still refused to accept.

The tide was turning in favor of the workers.


Workers who stuck with the struggle endured many hardships. Some went to the U.S. to work. Other families relied on wives' low wages. Local factory owners maintained a blacklist; even strikers' family members could not get jobs. A wives' group was fundamental to the struggle and spent much time locating different agencies and organizations that would donate food.

Conchita Velez de Hernandez was head of the women's group. Her family was the backbone of those who stood guard at the factory gate. When the police threatened their husbands, she says, the wives went to the secretary of public security to protest. And they invaded the factory owners' meeting to demand an end to the blacklist.

One of the more dramatic moments of the strike came in April 2002, during Holy Week, when management made one of two attempts to provoke violence by taking the tires and machinery out of the plant. The campesinos of Atenco, who were protecting their own boundaries, counseled sandbags. The campesinos journeyed to El Salto to help workers, wives, and supporters fill the bags with dirt and pile them in front of the plant.

During the whole length of the conflict, not a single screw was removed.


Germany is the second-biggest investor in Mexico, after the United States. Torres believes that, although the Mexican government was never an ally of their struggle, high-level politicians on both sides came to deem it better to get it over with.

In August 2004, less than three months after President Fox and Chancellor Schroeder met in Guadalajara, Wennemer made a serious offer. The company would sell the workers a half interest in the plant, in exchange for the back pay the company owed them.

Workers would still receive their severance pay, which totaled 230 million pesos for 587 workers, about $34,000 apiece. The plant would reopen in partnership with a Mexican company, a tire distributor, which would buy the other half from Continental. All the workers who'd held out would have their jobs back.

Torres seems as amazed by their victory as anyone. "The most important legacy of this struggle is to demonstrate to workers how a small union could beat a transnational of the capacity of Continental," he said.

On February 18, 2005, the plant, now named Corporación de Occidente, or Western Corp., was formally handed over to its new owners.

"They were betting that we would fail," Torres said.

But the workers didn't fail.

Part 2: Can Worker-Owners Make a Big Factory Run?

A tire is not just a piece of rubber with a hole in it. I learned this when I visited the workers' cooperative that makes Cooper tires in El Salto, Mexico. A tire is a sophisticated product that comes about through a chain of chemical processes, lots of machine pounding, and still the intervention of human hands.

A fervent inspection worker pointed out that every single tire is tested under road-like conditions: "If not, it could kill people," he noted. And, he added practically, "keeping the tires safe saves our jobs."

These workers went without jobs for three years during the strike that ultimately led to the founding of their co-op. They've been building tires as worker-owners since 2005, selling them in the U.S. and Mexico and now paying themselves the highest wage in the tire industry.

How does a worker cooperative with 1,050 members function? It's hard enough for worker ownership to succeed at any size, because any company that competes in a market is subject to the same cost-cutting rat race as a capitalist firm. Workers are impelled to hammer themselves and cut their own pay or be driven out of business. And most workers here have just a middle-school education.

Yet the TRADOC co-op -- translation: Democratic Workers of the West -- is thriving. Enthusiastic worker-owners have modernized their plant, increasing productivity and quality through their skilled work. Those factors together with their admittedly low prices have made it possible for them to compete on the world market.

Reluctant Owners
The strikers of Continental Tire, 2002-2005, were reluctant owners. When they fought the closing of their plant by the German multinational, all along they just asked for the owners to reopen it. At the end, Continental gave up and offered to sell half the company to the workers and half to its former distributor, Llanti Systems.

"We said to Llanti Systems: 'You buy the plant. Just hire us as workers and pay us our back pay,'" remembers Jesus Torres, who was then president of the striking union. "For us that would have been the biggest triumph, to reopen the plant and maintain our work. But they said, 'No, no, we're not crazy, we know what you guys are capable of. We're interested in you as owners, not as employees.' So we said, 'There's no other way out? Well, we have to try it.'"

Of the 940 workers on the payroll when Continental closed the plant in December 2001, 587 remained. The rest, driven by hardship, had accepted their severance pay.

The first one to enter the plant as an owner, in February 2005, was Salvador "Chava" Hernandez, who'd been a stalwart maintaining the union's guards at the struck factory's gate. He had goose bumps.

"It was our plant," he told me. "We had been three years with nothing."

There was no light inside, so workers cleaned away cobwebs in the dark, bumping into machines and avoiding snakes and owls. "It was a cadaver when we went in," Torres said.

Within five months, they had the machines running again and had built their first tire. "We all ran to get our picture taken with the first tire," Hernandez said. "It was a truck tire. And many, many people worked on that tire, each doing a little adjustment."

One problem the new co-op had at the beginning was too many workers on the payroll -- but they weren't about to lay anyone off. They also had a new brand name, Pneustone, which the public didn't know.

And the aid that Continental pledged never came. The company had said it would sell the co-op raw materials, buy the plant's production, and give technical advice for a year. None of these promises were kept. Continental said it could get the tires cheaper elsewhere.

"When the company signed the papers," said Rosendo Castillo, who's now on the co-op council, "they said, 'Here's the corpse.'"

For the first four years, the new company was in the red. The first tires were sold very cheap, at a loss, to Walmart.

Co-op leaders knew the key to survival was to obtain raw materials at a good price, something only a large company could guarantee, and that it would be much better if that company distributed tires in the U.S. So they sought a new, international partner.

In 2008 Cooper Tire, based in Findlay, Ohio, injected new capital; it now owns 58 percent of the Corporación de Occidente (COOCSA), or Western Corp., with the TRADOC cooperative owning 42 percent. Cooper has four members on the Administrative Council and TRADOC three; decisions can be made only if 75 percent agree, or 100 percent for important decisions such as investments or asset sales. In other words, all management decisions are made by agreement between the two entities.

Western Corp. buys raw materials from Cooper, and Cooper buys 95 percent of the factory's output, most of it for sale in the U.S.

Ironically -- since they had fought their own closing so hard -- the TRADOC workers were the beneficiaries of a Cooper closing in Georgia, when they bought that plant's machinery.

Building a Tire
Making a tire is like making a cake, Torres says. There are recipes -- it's really a chemical process. Different types of rubber come in from Malaysia, Guatemala, and Singapore, used for different parts of the tire: its walls, its floor. One of TRADOC's three mixers, where petroleum is added to molten rubber, is the largest in the world, two stories high.

Steel -- as in "steel-belted tires" -- and nylon are threaded in at a later stage. At every step, the consistency of the rubber mixture is tested by technicians, and at the end, a number of quality checks result in a discard rate of 1.8-2.5 percent.

The number of different computerized machines that knead or shape the rubber is staggering; the El Salto plant is more than half a mile long. And near the end, workers and machines work in tandem to pull the parts together. I watched a top-seniority tire-builder named Carlos, who because of his productivity makes one of the highest wages in the plant, move eye-blurringly fast to place and tug the strips of rubber, one tire at a time. This happens 15,000 times a day, 4.2 million times in 2012.

"The fact that a tire is so hard to build makes it even more impressive that we're doing this," says Torres immodestly. Worldwide, tire-building is continually modernizing and requires steady investment.

New younger members, the "black belts," are looking at how to improve the process. For example, they'd like to cut down on the use of solvents and thereby avoid skin problems. They will figure out a new product and how much it would cost for the whole plant, and make a presentation.

Structure of the Co-op
One of the simplest gains under the new system was to do away with foremen. "It was easy," Torres said. "Each worker knows his job, knows the quota. They don't have to be watched." Quotas are set low enough that many workers finish a couple hours early and relax till quitting time. Nor is there a janitorial department; workers clean their own areas.

TRADOC holds a general assembly only twice a year, but that assembly holds veto power over important decisions such as selling assets, making investments, and buying machinery. For example, partnering with Cooper was approved by the assembly after an intense debate, but with an overwhelming majority. Meetings feature much debate, with successful proposals coming from the floor, not only from the leadership.

In the day-to-day running of the plant, the Administrative Council makes decisions. A plant manager who is not part of the co-op oversees all activities, but of course can't make unilateral decisions. "And so far, this structure has worked almost perfectly," Torres says.

TRADOC has its own internal Surveillance Council to review co-op finances; its members can also take part in company decisions that could affect the cooperative.

TRADOC is in charge of hiring -- actually, recruiting new co-op members. A member can be fired only with TRADOC's agreement, which has happened only in extreme cases.

The joint venture hasn't hesitated to rehire technicians, engineers, and specialists who worked for years under the old management.

One is Gonzalo, a chemist who heads the laboratory; he was summarily fired when the plant closed.

He came back to train production workers in his skills. At the outset, he worked without pay. The TRADOC members promoted from the shop floor to take on technical jobs learned fast, he says, and he likes his job better now because he can work cooperatively with people who have their eyes on the future. "Before, you had to make reports, give out punishments," he told me. "Now that they have responsibilities they know how to work."

There's no question that the cooperative is all about "working smarter." For a person who preached the evils of the "team concept" and labor-management cooperation programs throughout the 1980s and 1990s, it was jarring to see some familiar slogans resurrected under a different ownership structure.

The hallmarks of the team concept are workers monitoring each other and competing to come up with labor-saving suggestions. When one worker said, "Now we pressure each other to do it right the first time," I had to remind myself where I was. But isn't this what team members ought to do, when we're all on the same side? Isn't the number of sides -- one or two -- the nub of the matter?

The team concept claims to produce worker dignity and satisfaction by soliciting workers' ideas to increase someone else's profits. When the profits are yours and your fellow workers', the dignity and satisfaction can be real. A bulletin board notice congratulated member Joel Gutierrez for his idea that saved 12-25 tires per day from the scrap heap. It's the type of notice that could be found in any plant, but here with different implications.

"Though some slogans may be similar," Torres said, "in TRADOC, collective interest prevails." And the collective can choose how to balance its different goals -- note the high salaries and early quitting times. Rosendo Castillo of the co-op council says members want to invest in machinery that will save them from heavy labor -- even though this presumably means fewer jobs in the short term.

Though it's risky to extrapolate too much from one plant tour, I found an atmosphere where no one seemed stressed, a feeling of quiet competence (though Carlos was moving mighty fast). I asked one lab tech whether he felt pressure from his co-workers to ignore bad test results in order to keep production moving. "Ignore them never," he said solemnly. "Responsibility is a way of life."

Pay, Benefits, Conditions
The co-op began with equal salaries for all. This led to problems, Torres explained. "Some said, 'Why should I work harder if at the end of the day, I make the same money as the rest of you?'" When leaders proposed a salary scale, the assembly was nearly unanimous in favor.

Now there are seven pay levels, 2 to 8, with most workers at the 5-7 rates and very few at 2 or 3, which are mostly for new hires. Under the precept "equal work, equal pay," the monthly salary is determined by physical effort and responsibility. Seniority determines who can transfer to an open job.

In the industrial corridor where the plant is located, usual factory pay is $192-$384 a month. In TRADOC workers in the 5-7 range make $240-$375 a week. Members of the administrative council get the same as the highest-paid worker.

The plant operates under the same schedule as before the strike: three eight-hour shifts per day (including lunch), six days per week. Workers rotate through morning, evening, and midnight shifts every three weeks, and their days off rotate as well, a different day each week. This means they are only off two days in a row a third of the time (Sunday is always free). There is some overtime, though the goal is to reduce it.

In the U.S., rotating shifts are considered brutal, hard on the body as well as family life. In union plants, those with higher seniority have the privilege of choosing their shift, and those with less suffer on midnights till they've been there a while. But Torres notes that members had been used to the rotation system and adds, "We are ruled by the criterion of equal effort."

In Mexico the government pension (the equivalent of Social Security) is based on what the employer pays into the system in one's last five years worked. So TRADOC pays in at a very high rate for those five years, enough to secure every worker $1,500 a month, nearly as much pay as when they were working. It's a muy digna retirement, very dignified, the highest in the state.

The absence of hard hats and ear plugs in the plant is noticeable. Castillo said, "The leaders have tried to tell them, but the workers say, 'I can take care of myself, I'm the owner.'"

Not surprisingly, everyone in El Salto would like to work at the tire factory. Workers have kept the openings for their family members, including 25 daughters, the first women to work in production. I spoke to a young mother with two children, whose father got her in. She plans to stay, she said.

The Future
When the workers took over, says Torres, "we knew how to make tires, but we didn't know how to sell them." That's why they needed a capitalist partner, and still do. But they know their arrangement with Cooper may not last forever.

Cooper is an anti-worker company, after all. In 2012 it locked out its U.S. workforce, seeking deep concessions, successfully. When TRADOC sent a letter of solidarity to the union (which was never answered), management was furious.

"We have a history we're not going to deny," Torres told the Cooper managers. "Our class is the working class. We are the co-op. We have the plant. You sell the tires."

But looking down the road, TRADOC wants to be prepared to take over sales -- which is where the most profits lie. The next general assembly will hear a plan to open a tire store in the nearby big city of Guadalajara.

The company has yet to pay dividends to the shareholder-workers, but it may be possible for the first time this year. If there are profits, though, leaders will be advising that some be kept back for investment.

In elections for the co-op council held every three years, there's always a right-wing and a left-wing slate. The right argues that members should pay attention only to their own plant and ignore workers' struggles elsewhere. They also want higher pay, for the "management" positions they're seeking. Thus far the left has won handily.

So the co-op has a solidarity fund, a couple of dollars a week from each worker's pay. They publish a bimonthly paper of labor news, the Workers' Gazette, and help support locked out electrical workers and miners, fired Honda workers, campesinos imprisoned for defending their land.

"This isn't new," explains Torres. "Our union was always very solidaristic. We sent money to the Spanish Civil War" in the 1930s.

What can we learn from this ongoing story? It made a big difference that the leaders of this struggle were socialists, disinclined to sell out or give in, and mindful of the need to look for international allies. Without that leadership, this plant closing would have ended as so many others have.

But once the co-op started: it's a pleasure to relate that workers really do run a factory better than the bosses. Not only do they control the plant floor, with no need for overseers, they come up with ideas to improve production in both senses: more and better tires, less scrap -- but also fewer backbreaking jobs.

With about the same workforce, the plant is producing 50 percent more tires than before it was closed. Workers have introduced new machinery to boost productivity, but so do most enterprises. Corporations also use speed-up, pay cuts, and a total disregard for the environment. Those things won't happen at this co-op.

TRADOC leaders are now in contact with Goodyear tire workers in France who also want to take over their plant as a cooperative. They are eager to share their ideas and experiences with any workers who are considering a cooperative as an option in an industrial conflict. Email Jesus Torres at

Jane Slaughter is Editor of Labor Notes. This article was first published in Labor Notes as a two-part series on 2 April 2013 and 3 April 2013.

sexta-feira, 5 de abril de 2013

Fábrica cerrada, fábrica tomada

La toma de grandes fábricas como necesaria (re)organización de la clase obrera
“Fábrica cerrada, fábrica tomada”

Manuel Almisas Albéndiz

Cuando se presencian las luchas de los obreros de grandes empresas con una
tradición de lucha incuestionable, a la par que el optimismo y el orgullo,
la duda que nos asalta es ¿cuál es el siguiente paso a la protesta
resuelta y decidida?, ¿cómo complementar esta combatividad y darle una
salida para hacer avanzar al movimiento por la transformación radical de
la sociedad capitalista?

Lenin escribió que la clase obrera, por causas económicas objetivas, se
diferencia del resto de clases en las sociedades capitalistas por su mayor
capacidad de organización (1). Y aún pensando así, no cejaba de repetir la idea
de que había que aumentar la capacidad de organización del proletariado y otras
capas del pueblo ruso con potencial revolucionario. Es famosa su frase “…para
que los obreros y los campesinos pobres tomen el poder, para que se mantengan en
él y lo utilicen con acierto hace falta organización, organización y
organización” (2).
Pero el capitalismo también comprobó en sus propias carnes esta superioridad del
proletariado y le alarmó el hecho de que si ellos, la burguesía, habían tardado
más de tres siglos en derrotar a las castas feudales e imponer su sistema
socioeconómico, a los obreros y campesinos les bastó casi la mitad, para,
después de la experiencia de la Comuna de París, barrerlos del segundo país más
grande del planeta, la Rusia zarista. La revolución soviética de 1917 dio la voz
de alarma, y desde entonces, comenzando con la derrota de la revolución
consejista de 1918 en Alemania, el sistema capitalista no ha parado de
experimentar nuevas formas de debilitar la organización de la clase obrera. No
solo reprimiendo a sangre y fuego, y potenciando la proliferación y penetración
social y sindical de grupos reformistas y claudicadores, impidiendo con ello que
las experiencias de lucha revolucionaria de las masas obreras y campesinas
aumentaran la conciencia revolucionaria de clase. Sino también intentando
dividir y disgregar a los obreros más combativos de las principales ramas
productivas, en los que el taylorismo y el fordismo tuvieron mucho que ver. Hoy
día continúa con la deslocalización de las fábricas o con la división de las
mismas en pequeñas empresas disgregadas en polígonos o barrios separados unos de
otros por cientos de kilómetros. Y no ha sido menos importante la planificación
urbana de vaciar los barrios obreros y populares históricos del centro de las
grandes ciudades y sacarlos a las periferias, a ciudades dormitorios muy
separadas entre sí.
Las calles de San Petersburgo, París, Barcelona o Madrid ya no se cortarán con
barricadas defendidas por obreras y obreros. El sistema se ha encargado de
enviarlos fuera de sus centros de poder y de diseminarlos para restarles fuerza.
A lo sumo dejará que marchas de columnas obreras dirigidos oportunistamente por
sindicatos vendidos lleguen al centro de las ciudades, se manifiesten y los
manden de vuelta a casa. O a lo sumo dejará durante un tiempo que jóvenes de
clase media, intelectuales, y otros sectores indignados y preocupados por la
falta de “democracia” ocupen las principales plazas de las ciudades; hasta que
la mayor organización, la radicalización y el peligro de que la ideología
proletaria penetrase en el movimiento y les hicieron ver que el experimento
“ciudadano” había terminado. El espejismo de una auto-organización popular en el
centro mismo del enemigo se disipó con la represión pura y dura.
Se ha gritado mucho “el pueblo unido jamás será vencido”. Pero mejor sería decir
“el pueblo trabajador organizado y unido jamás será vencido”. Y mucho mejor
sería empezar a hacerlo buscando alternativas que avancen en esa dirección. La
ocupación de las fábricas es la solución. Hacer de los centros de trabajo
cerrados, abandonados o en vías de desaparición espacios de autogestión y
contra-poder obrero, zonas de asambleas permanentes que aumenten la organización
y el optimismo revolucionario. Son muchas las experiencias que avalan el método.
Solo falta el coraje de ponerlas en práctica y hacer propaganda escrita y oral
sobre la validez de las mismas.
Frente a la situación de haber perdido el trabajo por cierre patronal como en el
caso de Delphi en Puerto Real, cuyos obreros han sido engañados con
interminables cursos de formación, promesas de recolocaciones y otras medidas
disuasorias para limar su capacidad de lucha, la toma y recuperación de la
fábrica fue y sigue siendo una verdadera alternativa. Frente a la situación de
los astilleros de la Bahía de Cádiz (Navantia), en permanente disminución de sus
plantillas, de las cargas de trabajo y de la amenaza de reconversión y posible
cierre de algún centro de trabajo, la toma de las factorías es una alternativa
que debe ser tenida en cuenta antes de que la desmoralización y la disgregación
de las plantillas más combativas hagan mella en esos auténticos destacamentos
obreros de vanguardia a nivel andaluz.
Históricamente la toma y ocupación de las fábricas, o huelgas de brazos caídos,
nacieron como forma de potenciar las huelgas reivindicativas. El proletariado
aprendió que estando encerrados en los tajos aumentaba su capacidad de unión,
organización y espíritu de lucha, eliminando igualmente la posible contratación
de esquiroles y asegurando que la producción se paraba y se hacía un verdadero
daño al patrón y al sistema capitalista en su conjunto. En la gran crisis
mundial de 1930, donde el desempleo fue tan extendido y duradero, se hizo
imposible cualquier huelga contra las reducciones de salarios, porque después
que los huelguistas abandonaban los talleres éstos eran invadidos de inmediato
por las masas de parados con los que los patronos contaban para romper las
huelgas. Así, el rechazo a trabajar en peores condiciones debía combinarse,
necesariamente, con la permanencia en el lugar de trabajo mediante la ocupación
de la fábrica. Un ejemplo notorio de esta práctica fue la toma de varias plantas
de la General Motors de la localidad estadounidense de Flint (estado de
Michigan) entre diciembre de 1936 y febrero de 1937, terminando con la victoria
de los miles de obreros que terminaron imponiendo sus reivindicaciones a la
poderosa multinacional.
Sin embargo, con la ocupación de las fábricas los trabajadores y trabajadoras
demostraban algo más, que su lucha entraba en una nueva fase pues tomaban
conciencia de su vinculación con su centro de producción. Pronto se convirtió en
una forma de demostrar que ese mismo proletariado podía convertirse en
verdaderos administradores y directores de las empresas ocupadas, y que si
podían realizar esta tarea también podrían dirigir y organizar a toda la
sociedad, sin depender de los burgueses y su inservible sistema capitalista. En
1941, el marxista holandés Pannekoek escribía en su obra “Los consejos obreros”:
“Así, en la ocupación de las fábricas el futuro proyecta su luz en la progresiva
conciencia de que las fábricas pertenecen a los trabajadores, de que junto con
ellos constituyen una armoniosa unidad, y de que la lucha por la libertad se
librará en las fábricas y por medio de ellas.” (3)
E. P. Thompson narra que en la temprana fecha de 1819, obreros ingleses de una
fábrica de tabaco, tras 11 meses de huelga, deciden prescindir de los patronos y
producir por su cuenta (4). Es evidente que la gran experiencia de la
autogestión obrera y del control de la producción por los propios “productores
asociados” comienza con la revolución bolchevique en 1917 y continuará en los
años sucesivos en las revoluciones frustradas de Alemania (1918) y Hungría
(1919), y en los consejos de fábrica del norte de Italia en el llamado “bienio
rojo” (1919-1920). Sin embargo, habría que esperar a procesos revolucionarios en
el este de Europa, ligados a partidos socialistas y comunistas tras la derrota
nazi-fascista, para asistir a ocupaciones de fábricas con fines de recuperación
y autogestión obrera, como es el caso más claro de las experiencias en diversas
fábricas yugoslavas en los primeros tiempos del gobierno socialista de Tito,
recién acabada la II Guerra Mundial.
En la Europa capitalista industrializada, podemos situarnos en la Francia
posterior a las oleadas del mayo de 1968 para asistir a nuevas y multitudinarias
acciones de ocupación obrera. En 1972 en Renault se desató el conflicto que
llevó a la toma de la fábrica de más de 14.000 obreros, donde el comité de base
–integrado por franceses e inmigrantes- impuso en varias secciones el control
obrero de los ritmos de trabajo, la rotación en los puestos y forzó a los
capataces a trabajar con los operarios. Ese mismo año, una prolongada
movilización obrera, con apoyo estudiantil y popular, impulsó el control obrero
de la fábrica de relojes LIP en Bensançon, con sus consignas que se hicieron
clásicas: «Es posible: fabricamos, vendemos, nos pagamos», «Los patrones
despiden... despidamos a los patrones».

Sin embargo, esta forma de movilización consciente del proletariado prendió con
especial fuerza en diversos países latinoamericanos, donde todavía continua
marcando un camino que en los estados europeos recién está empezando, como luego

Ocupaciones y control obrero de fábricas en Latinoamérica: el espejo donde
En la semana santa de 1952, una insurrección de sectores populares y obreros
armados, principalmente mineros con fusiles y dinamita de explotaciones cercanas
a La Paz y de Oruro, derrotó en solo tres días al régimen militar del general
Ballivián, verdadero apéndice armado de la oligarquía minera. En los años que
duró esta revolución boliviana, de carácter popular y obrero, al contrario de
otras de posguerra donde el campesinado era el estamento de vanguardia (como el
caso de China o de Cuba años más tarde) ya se impulsaron sistemas de autogestión
de trabajadores en centros de trabajo, ocupando principalmente numerosas minas.
Entre los años 1959 y 1963, los valles peruanos andinos de La Convención y Lares
fueron escenario de la mayor revuelta campesina desde los tiempo de Tupac Amaru
y foco de un poderoso movimiento campesino indígena que se extendió por otras
zonas del país y donde los latifundios capitalistas, principalmente cafeteros,
fueron expropiados y reconquistados por cientos de miles de arrendatarios
comuneros y trabajadores agrícolas. Al calor de estas movilizaciones y de la
extensión de las guerrillas peruanas del MIR y del ELN en los años posteriores,
se gestó el triunfo del golpe de estado del general Velasco Alvarado que formó
el Gobierno Revolucionario de la Fuerza armada de 1968, de carácter
nacionalista, antiimperialista y progresista que en los años que gobernó impulsó
un régimen de cooperativas y comunidades industriales, estimulando la
participación del trabajador en la gestión, utilidad y propiedad de las
En Argentina, aunque después hablaremos de experiencias más actuales, hay que
recordar que en 1964, en el marco de una gigantesca huelga general se producen
las ocupaciones de fábricas más importantes en número y en calidad de
participación realizadas en estos años. Los investigadores Celia Cotarelo y
Fabían Fernández (5) estiman que entre mayo y junio de 1964 se ocuparon 4.398
empresas, dándose el caso de que en las mismas participaron principalmente
obreros fabriles de las principales industrias (metalúrgicas y textiles, sobre
todo) y en las grandes ciudades del país, lo que le confirió un carácter
proletario genuino y lo dotó de un grado de disciplina y organización sin igual.
Estas cifras concuerdan con las aparecidas en la obra de Mandel antes citada
(“alrededor de 3 millones de obreros ocuparon 4.000 empresas e iniciaron la
organización de la producción por sí mismos”), aunque las ocupaciones,
acompañadas de toma de rehenes de empresarios, técnicos o personal de seguridad,
solo duraron varias horas y los obreros no se resistieron a los desalojos
En Chile , bajo el Gobierno de la Unidad Popular de Allende (1970-1973), a pesar
de la oposición institucional, más de 125 fábricas estaban manejadas por
obreros, organizados en Cordones industriales y Comandos Comunales, que aunaban
las ocupaciones de talleres e industrias y de tierras abandonadas por
latifundistas. Después de la derrota del “paro patronal” de octubre de 1972, en
su Pliego del Pueblo, estas organizaciones de base sentenciaban: “ L a
experiencia de estos días ha demostrado que los trabajadores no necesitan de los
patrones para hacer funcionar la economía. En sus desesperados intentos por
paralizar al país, sólo han conseguido mostrar su carácter parasitario... La
conclusión es clara: sobran los patrones”.
La primera experiencia de recuperación de empresas en quiebra en Brasil fue en
1991, con la fábrica de calzado Makerli que cerró sus puertas dejando en la
calle a 482 trabajadores. En 1994 se funda la Asociación Nacional de Empresas
Autogestionadas (ANTEAG) para coordinar las diversas experiencias que surgían a
causa de la crisis de la industria. Actualmente existen 160 proyectos que la
asociación propicia junto con algunos gobiernos estatales y comunales,
involucrando a unos 30 mil trabajadoras y trabajadores brasileños. Los momentos
más importantes tuvieron lugar entre 2002 y 2005, cuando más de 35 fábricas
fueron ocupadas y pasadas a control obrero. A finales de 2002 tuvieron lugar
grandes huelgas en la zona industrial de Joinville (Estado de Santa Catarina),
hasta que un millar de obreros de las multinacionales CIPLA (materiales de
construcción) e INTERFIBRA (plásticos y vidrio) deciden tomar el control de la
producción y organizarse mediante asambleas y a través de los consejos de
fábrica. El mismo camino de ocupación y control obrero siguieron un año más
tarde los 64 trabajadores de la empresa de contenedores plásticos industriales
FLASKO, del barrio de Sumare. Dos años más tarde, en 2005, la fábrica ocupaba
tan sólo una cuarta parte de los 14 mil metros cuadrados del total del terreno,
pero la asamblea popular, coordinada con los trabajadores, decidió ocupar y
construir la llamada “Vila Operaria”, un conjunto habitacional donde actualmente
viven más de 350 familias. Y más tarde en el 2007, la Flasko impulsó el
surgimiento del Centro de Memoria Operaria y Popular (CEMOP), el cual funciona
como un archivo que reúne documentos, videos y fotografías sobre el movimiento
de las fábricas recuperadas y realiza y apoya diversos seminarios, simposios,
etcétera. Esto da una idea del grado de compromiso político que han adquirido
las ocupaciones de fábricas en Brasil, a pesar de los numerosos intentos de
desalojos y la feroz represión del movimiento.
En Argentina, el paso del siglo XX al siglo XXI la sorprende con una crisis
económica brutal e insostenible que se había gestado desde 1991 con un proceso
de des-industrialización. Producto de dicha crisis es la enorme tasa de
desempleo y el alto porcentaje de personas pobres y sin viviendas. Son miles las
empresas y fábricas que cierran y se declaran en quiebra con el despido de las
plantillas. En este contexto es como se generalizan las tomas de fábricas y las
recuperaciones de empresas diversas (incluidos hospitales, colegios, hoteles,
etc.). Frente al abandono de los capitalistas, el proletariado argentino se
'atrinchera' en su territorio laboral: ocupan las plantas primero, resisten los
desalojos después -por medio de batallas legales y físicas- y por último
gestionan su producción. Con ello hacen suyos la consigna del Movimiento de los
Sin Tierra de Brasil: “Ocupar, resistir producir”. A las legendarias ocupaciones
de la empresa de cerámicos Zanón (en Neuquén), cuando a finales de 2001 los 271
obreros deciden oponerse al despido patronal y acampan en las afueras de la
empresa para posteriormente poner en funcionamiento cuatro hornos y dar comienzo
a la producción bajo control obrero, y de la textil Bruckman (en Balvanera,
Buenos Aires), cuyas 50 trabajadoras tomaron la empresa el 18 de diciembre de
2001 y posteriormente, ante la huida de los empresarios, controlaron la
producción, le siguieron la de cientos de fábricas recuperadas y ocupadas más,
otorgando al proletariado argentino una experiencia reconocida en esta faceta de
la lucha de clases.
Sin más dilación y para no abundar en otros ejemplos (Uruguay, México o
Colombia) debemos pasar al caso de Venezuela, donde en las últimas décadas el
movimiento obrero se ha impulsado al calor de la Revolución Bolivariana. Las
numerosas ocupaciones y control obrero de las fábricas han sido apoyadas por el
gobierno, que ha terminado por nacionalizar a muchas de ellas. Entre los
patronos y los trabajadores, los dirigentes venezolanos han sabido decantarse
desde el principio. No es casualidad que en 2005 el presidente Chávez proclamara
en Brasil que no había nada que buscar dentro del capitalismo y que el camino de
la revolución era el socialismo. Ese mismo año nacionalizó la papelera Venepal
ocupada por los trabajadores desde hacía tiempo, y meses después hizo lo propio
con la Constructora Nacional de Válvulas (llamada después Inveval), ocupada
también desde que en 2002 la plantilla quedara en la calle tras un cierre
patronal. Las pocas decenas de trabajadores son los que impulsaron la creación
del FRETECO (Frente Revolucionario de Trabajadores de Empresas Cogestionadas y
Ocupadas) para sacar la lucha a la calle y organizar a otros trabajadores en
situaciones similares Tampoco por eso es casualidad que en Caracas se celebrara
el I Encuentro Latinoamericano de Empresas Recuperadas, donde el propio Chávez
hizo suya la consigna del encuentro: "fábrica cerrada, fábrica tomada".
Con más conciencia y fuerza que en el caso de Argentina, el mensaje de la clase
obrera venezolana para los proletarios de todo el mundo es claro: los
trabajadores sí pueden dirigir y administrar las empresas, y si pueden realizar
esta tarea también pueden dirigir y organizar a toda la sociedad.

Los escasos ejemplos europeos
En el otoño del año 2007, las 124 trabajadoras y trabajadores de la fábrica de
bicicletas “Strike Bike” en Nordhausen, pequeña ciudad del este de Alemania,
comenzaron la ocupación y control de la producción tras el cierre patronal y
despido de la plantilla. Era un caso insólito en el panorama sindical de
Alemania en las últimas décadas.

La empresa francesa de televisores “Philips” en Dreux ha sufrido un proceso de
desaparición que puede ser otro ejemplo paradigmático de lo que ha pasado y está
pasando en otros estados europeos en estos años de crisis galopante. De tener
7000 obreros en el año 2005 pasaron a tener casi doscientos en el año 2009 y
cuya única salida era esperar la subvención y el seguro de desempleo. A
principios de enero de 2010, los obreros decidieron poner la fábrica a producir
para demostrar, ante el plan de cierre de la patronal, que la fábrica era
productiva y podría seguir funcionando. Este intento de control obrero solo duró
diez días y tuvo que seguir fuera de la planta, pero en marzo de 2010
consiguieron su objetivo de mantener los puestos de trabajo.

Y más recientemente, en medio de una crisis económica que no se le ve el final,
el martes 12 de febrero de 2013 fue el primer día oficial de producción bajo
control obrero en la fábrica de azulejos y materiales de construcción
Viomijaniki Metalleftiki (Industrial Minera) en Tesalónica, Grecia. En mayo de
2011 la Administración de esta filial de Filkeram-Johnson abandonó la empresa
dejando sin pagar a los trabajadores los sueldos de varios meses de trabajo. En
respuesta, los trabajadores de la fábrica se abstuvieron de trabajar desde
septiembre de 2011 hasta que en asamblea se decidió, casi por unanimidad, el
25 de enero de 2013 la auto-gestión y el funcionamiento de la fábrica por sus
trabajadores, “sin patrones y otros parásitos y mediadores” (6)
En mayo de 1973, los trabajadores de la cadena de montaje de la fábrica de
maquinaria agrícola John Deere en la ciudad alemana de Mannheim iniciaron con su
huelga uno de los ciclos de lucha (principalmente en la industria del metal) más
memorable de la historia proletaria en Alemania, según cuentan Roth y Ebbinghaus
(7). Para estos autores, tras las lecciones extraídas de la oleada de huelgas de
obreros y obreras alemanes, “la fábrica se ha convertido hoy en una fortaleza
empresarial llena de armas que aplastan las necesidades de los trabajadores. La
respuesta solo puede ser convertir la fábrica en una fortaleza, en un punto de
partida desde el cual los trabajadores cortocircuiten la maquinaria socializada
del sistema” (op. cit, pág. 368).
O como decía un representante obrero de la empresa venezolana de artes gráficas
Asertia, filial de la española Indra, primero ocupada y después nacionalizada
por el gobierno bolivariano: “Cuando vemos estos escenarios, ves un ejemplo de
cómo es el sistema capitalista en el país, de cómo destruye a la sociedad, de
cómo juega con el salario, con la estabilidad laboral de los trabajadores en el
país. Este sistema capitalista se tiene que acabar de una vez por todas. Y ¿Cómo
se tiene que acabar? Pues con el apoderamiento de todo el sector obrero del país
sobre las fábricas, porque debe existir el control obrero en toda fábrica y
medio de producción, no puede seguir sucediendo que los capitalistas se llenen
los bolsillos sacando el dinero fuera del país a través de las trasnacionales
Ellos cierran las fábricas, nosotros abrimos.
Ellos roban las tierras y nosotros las ocupamos.
Ellos hacen las guerras y destruyen naciones,
nosotros defendemos la paz y la integración soberana de los pueblos.
Ellos dividen, nosotros unimos.
Porque somos la clase trabajadora,
Porque somos el presente y el futuro de la humanidad.
(Declaración del I Encuentro Latinoamericano de empresas recuperadas por los
trabajadores y trabajadoras, Caracas, Venezuela, Octubre de 2005) (9)

1: “Naturalmente, la condición fundamental de este éxito fue que la clase
obrera, cuyos mejores elementos crearon la socialdemocracia, se diferencia en
virtud de causas económicas objetivas, de todas las demás clases de la sociedad
capitalista por su mayor capacidad de organización. Sin esta condición, la
organización de revolucionarios profesionales sería un juego, una aventura. . .”
(VI. Lenin. Obras completas. Ed. Cartago, Buenos Aires, 1960; t. XIII, p. 97.)
2: Publicado el 16 (3) de mayo de 1917 como anejo al núm. 13 del periódico
"Soldátskaya Pravda". T. ül, págs. 454–457.
3.- Anton Pannekoek. Los Consejos obreros. Ámsterdam, 1941-42.
4.- Citado en el prefacio de la obra de E. Mandel “Control obrero, consejos
obreros, autogestión, antología”, Editorial la Ciudad del Futuro, Buenos Aires,
5.- María Celia Cotarelo y Fabián Fernández. “La toma de fábricas. Argentina,
1964”. En:
6.- “En el corazón de la crisis, los obreros de Viomijanikí Metaleftikí
(Industrial Minera) atacan el corazón de la explotación y de la propiedad”:
Comunicado de Iniciativa Abierta de Solidaridad y Apoyo a la Lucha de los
Trabajadores de Viomijanikí Metaleftikí. En:
7.- KH Roth y Angelika Ebbinghaus. El “otro” movimiento obrero y la represión
capitalista en Alemania (1880-1973). Ed. Traficantes de sueños, Madrid, 2011.
8.- Entrevista a trabajadores de la fábrica ocupada ASERTIA GC. Jueves 20 de
Diciembre de 2012. Disponible en:
9.- Lia Tiriba. Reflexiones sobre fábricas ocupadas y recuperadas por los
trabajadores. Revista OSERA (Observatorio Social sobre Empresas Recuperadas y
Autogestionadas) nº 6, 1º Semestre de 2012, Buenos Aires-Argentina. Disponible

** Una referencia obligada debe ser la lectura y discusión del exhaustivo
trabajo de Iñaki Gil de San Vicente, donde se encontrará una impresionante y
diversa bibliografía:
“Cooperativismo obrero, consejismo y autogestión socialista. Algunas lecciones
para Euskal Herria”. Iñaki Gil de San Vicente (2002). Disponible en: