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Interview with trade union militant from the liberated Zanon factory

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Tim West reports on the historic victory at the Zanon factory in Argentina, and interviews workers and activists involved in the struggle

On August 14th 2009 the legal expropriation of the Zanon ceramics plant was announced, after over 7 years of struggle. The event was the main news story for days in Neuquén province where the factory is based, and caused a furious debate amongst the provincial ruling class who were worried about such an open violation of the “right of private property” would legitimacy to these “criminal workers” who had been occupying the plant “illegally” since 2002. The struggle of the Zanon workers is an inspiration to combative workers everywhere in the world and an example that the whole of our class can learn from.

Alejandro Lopez is the General Secretary of SOECN1, a union which works on the basis of workers assemblies and whose leadership is rotating (1 year only) and recallable at any time, as well as earning a workers wage and continuing to work on production lines.

“Zanon under workers control is a gain for the whole working class, and all the comrades who supported us made it possible, for example through strike funds, inviting us on trips to Europe and the US to publicize the struggle. This was very useful when there was a threat of eviction. Workers and students mobilized on a national and international scale, even at Argentinean embassies, and our voice was amplified internationally by these comrades.

Lopez entered the factory in 1992, until 1994 with a series of temporary 6 month contracts.”

“Within the factory it was brutal, due to the persecution, the rhythms of production, with an average of 30 accidents and 17 deaths per month. We began to organize ourselves – in 1998 we fought to win back the internal commission2 – the previous representatives were all either in the pay of the bosses or fired. We based the struggle on a method: all decisions were taken by assembly. This way we won the unity of the workers and strengthened the internal commission. Then in 2000 we gave the fight to win back the union which represented four ceramics factories in Neuquén. In “Ceramica del Sur”, “Ceramica Neuquén” and “Ceramica Estefani” in my opinion there has been partial workers control since 2000, where the workers control the accounts, the same as in Cutral Co.3 The programme of our union is not only to struggle in our sector, but to give an outward-looking political struggle and to look for the unity of workers and the unemployed, workers and students, workers and the defence of the public sector, workers and human rights organizations. To fight for workers unity with the support of public opinion, which we can win with a programme of class struggle and class independence.”

As an example, Lopez explained “Our struggle went along gaining support from all these sectors, and all the effort we made to win this support allowed us to force the MPN itself to announce the expropriation of the factory – that’s the path we have to follow.”

“In my opinion partial workers control began in 1998/99; the bosses told us there was no money for safety measures and so we demanded to see the balance sheets of what we were producing. That’s when we realized how much they were exploiting us. Not only the shop stewards achieved this, rather all the workers. That moment is where our firm decision to not take a step back stems from, because we could go to the bosses with the accounts book in our hand. This is why it’s so important for all us workers to realize exactly what profits we produce, so we realize that we don’t need the bosses, and that we can use this wealth for social means, for the people – imagine the car factories and the oil industry under workers control!”

“But for this to happen we need to win back the unions. This implies a political solution, so that we the workers can be the owners of our own future, for this Zanon is a stronghold – if we can do this with one factory, we can do it with the country and the world.”

“Today the factory if legally expropriated, but all the same the bosses political institutions want to sink us, through charging us high rates, denying us public works, refusing to buy our products, and charging us higher prices for raw materials. But even in the face of all this, we discussed how to lower the costs, through assemblies in each shift for example, or through looking for help and assessment from student comrades, but always understanding that if there is not an advance in the consciousness of the working class as a whole, then Zanon will become an island and it will be very difficult to survive. It’s difficult to sustain this factory in the face of this international economic crisis, but at the same time Zanon represents a way out of the crisis to workers who are laid off. And even with the crisis, in Zanon we are free while we work, with a dignified wage4, which we can manage because we all work and struggle.”

“When we started producing in 2002, we needed to generate more positions, and the assemblies decided that these new jobs should be for comrades from unemployed workers organizations who had always been the first in line to defend us, for the Mapuche comrades, disabled comrades. We can say that more than 250 jobs have been created, production has increased – at the beginning the amount we would produce was 40-50,000 metres, now we have reached 400,000 metres and with the factory exploited we can renew our technology and create new jobs.”

“And if we compare how we used to work under the old boss with today: before we didn’t even know each other between the different production sectors and each sector wore its own uniform, but today we all know each other. Before we couldn’t listen to music, drink beverages, receive visits at work and look after production. Today artists come to visit us at work! Today it’s a pleasure to come to work, but it’s also a double responsibility, because we both live from this factory and struggle from it – today ever squared mere we produce is for the workers as a whole, before we just got the crumbs. Zanon under workers control has a policy of permanent rotation of the workers from sector to sector, within a year you can be working in administration, which is voted for by assembly of the whole factory and the positions are rotating.”

Alejandro concluded by saying “A message to the class as a whole. The capitalist system is in crisis, and the capitalists don’t have any answers. But Zanon represents an answer – we believe this is not just about one factory, and that as workers we don’t have any borders and that we have to pose ourselves much bigger objectives than this, to help ourselves out amongst ourselves: it doesn’t matter if you’re from Britain, Canada, Nigeria or Argentina, a victory for one is a victory for all, and our doors are open to the workers from any country. We call on our brothers and sisters in every country that we need to trust in our own strength, because we have an enormous potential.”