We all know the childhood tale of Charley and the Chocolate Factory best emulated in the psychedelic inspired 1971 film. Charley a poor, well intentioned boy wins the Willy Wonka chocolate factory in a stroke of good fortune - every child's fantasy and utopia. But would what happen if Charley grew older and greedy against the advice of Willy Wonka? If he ran the chocolate factory into ruins, throwing out the workers and closing up shop? And what if the oompa loompas would take over the plant to demand their unpaid salaries and severance pay? What if they would decide to start up production without Charley, collectively running the plant and relating to other worker occupied factories? Well, this alternate version of the childhood story is becoming a reality for workers in Argentina.
In Argentina, Charley did abandon his factory. But in this case, Charley is Diana Arrufat, heiress to the Arrufat chocolate factory in Buenos Aires. She closed the factory's doors on January 5, 2009. The workers, who are not the imagined oompa loompa refugees in the film, but real workers decided to occupy the plant. And now the workers are producing deliciously sweet delicacies without the supervision and exploitive practices of Charley.
On January 5, the workers got the news that they were fired. Diana Arrufat left a poster on the gate of the factory to inform the workers they no longer had jobs. The 50 workers still employed hadn't been paid their salaries for much of 2008. "They fired us without having to look at our faces. They abandoned us," says Alberto Cavrico a worker who has worked at the plant for more than 20 years. That they same day they to open the factory gate and remain inside the factory.
Within hours owner went to the police accusing the workers for "usurpation" and trespassing of the plant. Meanwhile, she has been unwilling to meet with the workers and labor ministry to discuss how to normalize the situation.
Arrufat, founded in 1931 had been a national leader in chocolate. The family run business was finally inherited by the original owner's granddaughter, Diana Arrufat in the late 90's. Since she took over the company, the factory took a turn for the worse. Workers describe how the owner would cut corners sacrificing product quality - using hydrogenated oil instead of cocoa butter and imitation cocoa instead of the real beans imported from Ecuador or Brazil. In its heyday, when the company produced high quality chocolate, it employed more than 300 workers. By 2008, the chocolate manufacturer only had 66 employees.
Throughout 2008, the owner was not paying workers their full salary, with the promise that they would be paid at a later date. The workers sent a report to the labor ministry in May 2008 that the owner owed them nearly 6 months in back salaries, was emptying out the plant and hadn't paid the workers' retirement funds for 10 years. By the end of 2008, on Christmas Day the owners gave the workers 50 pesos (less than 20 dollars) and then five days before firing them paid them 50 pesos again on New Year's.
Many of the workers had heard about factory occupations but never thought that they would face a factory closure. "I never thought that I'd have to sleep inside the factory on top of a machine to defend my job post," says Marta Laurino, a stead fast woman with over 30 years working at the plant. Concluding that the owners weren't coming back, at least to open up shop again - the workers decided in an assembly to continue to occupy the plant and form a cooperative.
Chocolate without a boss
Just 30 days after occupying the plant, the workers of Arrufat had already formed a cooperative and sought out the advice from other occupied factories operating since the 2001 financial crisis. They have successfully begun producing, although sporadically because the electricity in the plant has been turned off since Diana Arrufat ran up a $15,000 dollar debt with the privatized electric company Edesur. And the electric company won't turn the lights back on until the debt is paid.
Meanwhile, the workers have invented alternatives in order to produce. For Easter, the cooperative produced more than 10,000 chocolate Easter eggs. They got a loan of $5,000 dollars from the NGO La Base that provides low interest loans to occupied factories and worker cooperatives. They used this money to rent an industrial generator and buy raw materials - cocoa beans, cocoa butter, liquor and sugar needed to make high-quality chocolate. They decided to re-open the store front on the side of the factory. The day that they started producing the government health inspector came to the plant, the same inspector's office which hadn't visited the factory in probably 20 years according to the workers. The police also came because the workers opened the store front.
All of the eggs were sold out of the factory's store front before the end of the Easter season. The workers were able to pay back the loan within a week, sell the entire stock of Easter eggs and each take home around $1,000, no small feat after not getting a full salary for more than a year. With the remaining capital, rented a generator and bought more raw materials.
During much of the occupation before getting the loan and afterward, the workers were producing small quantities of chocolate by hand, unable to use the machinery because the electricity was shut off. A neighbor, a niece of Diana Arrufat, let the workers connect an electric line that way they would at least have lights and a refrigerator in the factory. And in a small space, with a domestic freezer, the workers began producing small batches of bonbons, chocolate bars and chocolate covered delicacies.
Production has helped the workers transform their subjectivity, seeing that they have more power to fight against the owner, judges, private companies and police constantly throwing monkey wrenches at their dreams. "The worker occupied factories insisted that we get back to work giving us the advice that we won't gain anything by sitting around. They're right producing without a boss does change your outlook and ability to believe in yourself," said Marta Laurino.
Now the cooperative hopes that they can gain enough momentum in the market to continue production with regularity. But they are fighting an eviction notice, criminal charges and bureaucratic offices preventing them from accessing a tax number for their cooperative, which they consequentially need to get an account with the electric company. Looking at the business model other worker recuperated enterprises have established, the workers at Arrufat make all their decisions collectively in a weekly assembly. All workers are paid the same wage. And they want to continue to reinvent social relations inside the plant.
New wave of occupations
Arrufat isn't the only factory that has been occupied since the global recession crept up. Since late 2008 there have been several new factory takeovers in Argentina. For example, the owners of Indugraf printing press shut down operations in a similar manner to Arrufat in November 2008. The printing house workers in Buenos Aires occupied their plant on December 5, the same week that workers in Chicago decided to occupy the Republic and Windows Doors Plant - to demand severance pay and benefits after being abruptly fired. Currently, they are fighting to form a cooperative and start up production without a boss. Other occupations include Disco de Oro, a plant producing the pastry dough to make empanadas, a meat filled pastry common in Argentina. Febatex, a textile plant producing thread and Lidercar, a meat packing plant are two more examples of recent worker occupations. These workers have had to collectively fight violent eviction threats and are still struggling to start up production as worker cooperatives.
Many workers from the newly occupied factories say that their bosses saw the crisis as the perfect opportunity to clear their debts by closing up shop, fraudulently liquidate assets, fire workers and later re-start production under a new firm. This was the case in Arrufat, and seems to be a global trend with many companies hoping for a bailout plan to re-open shop.
All of these newly formed cooperatives have said that they were influenced and inspired by the previous experiences of worker self-management in the nation. "The other worker occupied factories bring us hope that we can win this fight," says Mirta Solis, a long time chocolatier. Essentially, the worker run BAUEN Hotel in downtown Buenos Aires, has become the landing place or you could say launch pad for many of these factory takeovers. Workers, who decided to take over their plant, come to the BAUEN Hotel occupied since 2003 to get legal advice and political support.
FACTA or the Federation of Worker Self-managed Cooperatives has played an important role in supporting the cooperatives. FACTA, founded in 2007, is made up of more than 70 worker self-managed coops, many worker occupied others worker owned inspired by the recuperated enterprise phenomenon. FACTA's objective is to group cooperatives together so they can collectively negotiate institutional, political, legal and market challenges together; the idea being that 70 cooperative united can better negotiate with state representatives, institutional offices and other businesses. FACTA also brings identity. For Adrian Cerrano, from Arrufat FACTA's work has helped the new occupied factories to organize legally and as cooperatives. "We were occupying not knowing what to do and workers from the BAUEN, which forms part of FACTA and provided a lot of support. We decided to ask FACTA's lawyer to represent us legally."
Arrufat is not yet a utopia, but at least workers are fulfilling the dream of fighting for their rights. "I worked at this factory for 25 years. I lost part of my body inside this factory because I lost my hand while working in this plant. This is what makes me make the sacrifices and work towards forming the cooperative and produce." They are setting an example for workers all around the world that through direct action and occupations they can prevent companies from using the crisis as an excuse to further exploit workers and make unnecessary cut-backs in hopes of getting a bailout plan. The government should support these experiences of worker-self-management, provide them with the same benefits and subsidies that capitalist business receive.
And if Charley, or any other boss, wants to leave his or her factory, let them! But the workers have the right to continue their work with dignity. "Maybe one day our story will be included in a chapter on the working class history that a group of workers occupy a plant and begin producing," said Adrian after lamenting the loss of his hand in the factory under capitalist supervision. And the occupied factories in Argentina are doing just that; writing a new chapter in working class history sending the message that workers can do what capitalists aren't interested in doing creating jobs and dignity for workers.
Marie Trigona is a writer, radio producer and filmmaker based in Argentina. She is currently writing a book on Worker Self-Management in Latin America forthcoming by AK Press. She can be reached at email@example.com