After four years of successful worker management, a federal court issued a 30 day eviction notice to the workers of the hotel on July 20. If the workers do not successfully block the eviction order legally or through political actions the hotel could be lost and 154 workers out of a job.
A network of worker run factories and worker organizations are mobilizing not only against the possible eviction of the cooperative from the BAUEN Hotel, but also for a long-term legal solution for the 10,000 workers currently employed at Argentina’s recovered factories and businesses. At worker assemblies and rallies, hundreds of workers without bosses are using the slogan: si tocan a uno, nos tocan a todos! (if they touch one of us, they touch all of us!)
Working without bosses
After the hotel’s 2001 closure, on March 21, 2003 the workers decided to take over the hotel to safeguard their livelihood and defend their jobs. Since 2003, workers have operated the BAUEN cooperative hotel, a 20 story building in the very heart of Buenos Aires. The BAUEN cooperative, like many of the recuperated enterprises was forced to start up production without any legal backing whatsoever.
Just a week before the eviction notice was delivered workers could be heard in the comedor (cafeteria) talking about how to improve services for hotel guests. Over a lunch of roast beef and potatoes, reception workers discussed strategies for checking hotel guests in quickly to avoid back ups at the front desk during their busiest time of year, winter vacation in Buenos Aires.. These aren’t hotel managers strategizing how to make employees improve services in order to get a promotion. They are simply rank and file workers taking pride in their jobs and working to improve services for the benefit of the entire cooperative. Such conversations are common in the break room, an informal space where the workers can discuss administrative and personal issues that need to be resolved. Since the eviction notice, there was a dramatic shift in what is being discussed in the break room. Workers are now talking about how to defend their jobs and hotel by keeping services up and running, while focusing energy on the political fight to prevent the cooperative from being evicted from the hotel.
At a time when Argentina is just recovering from its 2001 economic crisis, during which thousands of factories closed down and millions of jobs were lost, the recuperated enterprises have created jobs. Gabriel Quevedo, president of the BAUEN cooperative says that the workers created jobs when investors and industrialists were fleeing the country. “The workers took on responsibility when the country was in full crisis and unemployment over 20 percent, where workers couldn’t find work. The workers formed a cooperative and created jobs, when no one believed that it was possible.”
Along with the other worker-run recuperated enterprises throughout Argentina, the BAUEN Hotel has redefined the basis of production and management: without workers, bosses are unable to run a business; without bosses, workers can do it better. This is the message of Pino Solanas, world renowned filmmaker. “BAUEN is a symbol of resistance and an example of creativity in society. At the BAUEN they have invented a way of managing a business successfully. This proves that a non-capitalist form of management is viable, in a society that has been in crisis.”
Working class culture
The BAUEN hasn’t only just shown that workers can efficiently manage hotel services, but have also demonstrated creativity in opening this space to the cultural and social movements in the city. On a local level, BAUEN Hotel has become a prime example of coalition building and development of a broad mutual support network. In the midst of legal struggles and successfully running a prominent hotel, the cooperative’s members haven’t forgotten their roots. The 19-story worker run hotel has become a political center for movement organizing.
The eviction order came as the BAUEN cooperative was spearheading a Federation of Self-Managed Worker Cooperatives (FACTA) for worker-run businesses to strategize how to overcome market challenges collectively. “It’s difficult for a cooperative to become viable, without capital resources and state subsidies,” said Fabio Resino, a legal advisor at the BAUEN Hotel. According to Resino, the 30 cooperatives in this federation are building a productive network for the commercialization of self-managed produced goods to at least have a chance to survive in a dog-eat-dog market.
Legal attacks against workers without bosses
“They built this hotel for the world cup in 1978. It became a symbol for the 1976-1983 military dictatorship when businessmen did whatever they wanted to with the working class by disappearing thousands of workers,” said Raúl Godoy, a worker from the Zanon ceramics plant, the largest recuperated factory in Argentina in the Patagonian province of Neuquén.
Hotel BAUEN’s original owner, Marcelo Iurcovich, received more than five million dollars to construct the BAUEN, with a government loan from the National Development Bank (BANADE). Iurcovich, never held the hotel up to safety inspection codes and never paid back state loans. He ran up debts and committed tax evasion while making millions of dollars in profits and acquiring two more hotels. On December 28, 2001, after the management began systematic firings and emptied out the hotel, the remaining 80 workers were left in the streets in the midst of Argentina’s worst economic crisis. Unemployment hit record levels at this time-over 20% unemployed and 40% of the population was unable to find adequate employment.
At an assembly at the BAUEN Hotel, where workers democratically discuss and vote on business matters, workers debated about what strategies to undertake in the fight against eviction. Zanon worker, Godoy, reminded the BAUEN workers of the former owner’s dark past and that the workers’ right to jobs has more legitimacy than a piece of paper with a court order eviction notice. “This hotel was a symbol of the dictatorship: of the repression and looting that this country endured. Now this hotel is a symbol of the workers, the workers that are beginning to recover from 30,000 disappearances and take back what was taken from us.”
The Zanon ceramics factory has been the most successful experience in worker self-management, now employing more than 470 workers and producing 410,000 square meters of ceramic tile monthly. In 2001 Zanon’s owners decided to close its doors and fire the workers without paying months of back pay or indemnity. In October 2001, workers declared the plant under worker control. The plant functioned for almost four years without any legal standing, until the FASINPAT (“Factory Without a Boss”) cooperative won legal recognition for three years starting in 2006.
As part of self-management, workers have had to organize themselves to defend their factory. Self-defense against violent attacks has been the backbone of the radicalization and production at Zanon. The government’s response has been violent, using different tactics to evict the factory workers. The government has tried to evict Zanon workers five times using police operatives. On April 8, 2003, during the most recent eviction attempt, over 5,000 community members from Neuquén came out to defend the factory.
Many of the worker-run factories are discovering that even with legal standing their future job-stability may be threatened by market pressures and changes in the political landscape. Such is the case at the Zanon ceramics factory. A court is now considering shortening or even revoking the cooperative’s legal status because a creditor has been demanding that the factory be sold to pay back the debt that the original owner, Luis Zanon left behind.
Courts have gone so far as to take workers from recuperated enterprises to court for criminal charges. In June, workers from the worker-run printing shop, Cooperativa Gráfica Patricios, faced charges of “usurpation and dishonest abusive actions,” for recovering their jobs, charges brought by the former owner of the printing factory who shut down operations and ransacked the shop in 2002. The 14 workers agreed to testify in court. Gustavo Ojeda, the president of the cooperative, stressed that what was on trial was a group of workers who “had to sleep on cement factory floors, eat only rice and live in poverty for more than a year to save our jobs.” After the court listened to the determined workers’ testimonies of hardship and their subsequent community project initiatives, the court ruled the workers were not guilty and made the former owner pay all court costs.
However, fighting against the BAUEN eviction notice may not be easy, especially considering the shaky political arena ahead. The Buenos Aires city legislature passed a law in favor of evicting the cooperative and selling off the hotel in 2005, at the discretion of the right-wing PRO party which hold the majority of seats city-wide. The Hotel workers now also face another bigger challenge: a newly elected right-wing mayor from the PRO party, Mauricio Macri. Macri, a business tycoon and son of neo-liberalism, won the city-wide elections in June. As part of his campaign, he has promised to clear out any “okupas” or “squats” in the city. In the week that the BAUEN Hotel received the eviction notice, more than 12 housing squats in the city were forcefully evicted. Macri, will take office in December.
Workers and supporters have rallied support nationwide. Nora Cortinas, president of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo’s founding chapter has expressed her commitment to defending the BAUEN Hotel. When asked how she is going to defend the BAUEN she said, “like this,” while striking a boxer’s pose ready to give the knock out punch. In front of the Buenos Aires central courts on August 5 nearly 2,000 came out to defend the hotel. The workers cooperative presented an appeal and will continue to lobby for the definitive legal right to the hotel.
Arminda Palacios is a seamstress who has worked at the hotel for over 20 years and was one of the key people who decided to cut off the locks on a side entrance into the hotel during the initial occupation on March 28, 2003. “During my 20 years working at this company, I got to know the bosses well. For us negotiation has been a bad word, and much more right now. We don’t have to negotiate with them, because the BAUEN is ours, even if the bosses don’t like it!”
The BAUEN workers’ cooperative has embarked on a national campaign to defend their hotel and jobs. The campaign is gaining steam as the eviction date nears in late August. Groups have planned a massive rock concert featuring Argentina’s Bob Dylan – folk guru Leon Gieco, among other big names in support of the workers for the legitimate right to defend their livelihood on August 21.