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Sun, May 18, 2003 - Page 12 News List

Neither socialism nor capitalism

Two years ago, many workers in Argentina faced unemployment and misery. But instead of giving up, they have taken over their bankrupt companies, giving both the firms and the workers a new lease on life

AFP , BUENOS AIRES

A metal worker piles bronze bundles at the Cooperativa Unin y Fuerza Ltd metal works in the Avellaneda district of Buenos Aires.

PHOTO: AFP

In Argentina, where president-elect Nestor Kirchner has pledged to revive the ailing economy, workers are taking matters into their own hands, rescuing bankrupt factories and their own livelihoods.

Faced with unemployment and misery, hundreds of employees have taken over their bankrupt companies, giving them a new lease on life and in some cases earning far more than fellow workers who still have a boss.

Two years ago, workers at Fuerza y Union -- "Strength and Union" -- a metalworks factory in Buenos Aires, barely could make ends meet. "Now we earn about three times more than our colleagues in traditional factories," cooperative president Roberto Salcedo said as he sat down to a lunch of grilled sandwich meat at the aging factory's lunch room.

The first months after the cooperative was formed in January 2001 were hard, with no capital whatsoever, no outside help and little business as clients mistrusted a company run by its workers where decisions were taken by consensus, said Salcedo.

But eventually work orders started coming in, legal hurdles were surmounted, and workers at some 200 companies followed the example of their Fuerza y Union colleagues, turning their bankrupt companies into workers' cooperatives.

"We are just saving our jobs so we can feed our families," said Salcedo, an electrician by trade who never had any managerial training but says he is learning as he goes.

"This is nothing political," he said.

Yet, most of the 53 workers -- they call themselves partners -- at the cooperative say they support Kirchner, who was elected by default after his only rival, former president Carlos Menem, pulled out of the presidential race on Wednesday.

Kirchner, 53, who was governor of Santa Cruz province for 12 years, has pledged to pursue the policies that enabled the government of incumbent president Eduardo Duhalde to achieve a modest recovery from the worst economic crisis in Argentina's history.

None of the Fuerza y Union workers has a kind word for Menem, saying the tough free-market policies and the currency's dollar peg he adopted during his 1989-1999 presidency were largely to blame for today's economic woes.

"What we are doing here is something that emerged from a crisis, not a model for how companies should generally work," said Salcedo, as a group of workers poured copper melted from scrap metal into a cylinder.

The factory is ancient and machines are rusty, but the workers' enthusiasm is palpable.

A few kilometers away, on the edge of a notorious slum, shipyard workers get ready to refloat a barge they repaired. The 40,000 pesos ($US14,000) they charged for the 20-day job will help keep their Almirante Brown cooperative afloat as they work on more ambitious plans.

In recent weeks, US and Dutch companies have expressed strong interest in subcontracting barge construction to the 65-person cooperative located on the docks of the Buenos Aires port.

The cooperative workers managed to cut a deal with the owner of the shipyard at a time when he was to lay them off for six months. Since December 2002, the cooperative has been leasing the 44,000 m2 installations from the owner, who has since declared bankruptcy.

Alberto Caro, a lawyer who has been named president of the cooperative movement, has helped keep creditors at bay by convincing authorities the workers could not be held accountable for the owner's debts.

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