“Initially we never had in mind workers control, we were just struggling for our jobs. We spent two years picketing at the gates before we decided to take it over. Through this process we developed political maturity very fast, not just through our own personal struggle, but the broader political struggles of the constituent assembly and the recall referendum” – Marino Mora, worker at self managed Venezuelan Factory
Worker self-management (or autogestion) is a form of workplace decision-making in which the workers themselves agree on choices (for issues like customer care, general production methods, scheduling, division of labour etc.) instead of an owner or traditional supervisor telling workers what to do, how to do it and where to do it. Examples of such self-management include the Spanish Revolution during the Spanish Civil War, Titoist Yugoslavia, the “recovered factories” movement in Argentina (in Spanish, fábrica recuperada), the LIP factory in France in the 1970s, the Mondragón Cooperative Corporation which is the Basque Country‘s largest corporation, AK Press in the United States, etc.
In Argentina’s recovered factories movement, workers took over control of the factories in which they had worked, commonly after bankruptcy, or after a factory occupation to circumvent a lock out. The Spanish verb recuperar means not only “to get back”, “to take back” or “to reclaim” but also “to put back into good condition”. Although initially referring to industrial facilities, the term may also apply to businesses other than factories (i.e. Hotel Bauen in Buenos Aires).
English-language discussions of this phenomenon may employ several different translations of the original Spanish expression other than recovered factory. For example, recuperated factory/business, reclaimed factory, and worker-run factory have been noted. The phenomenon is also known as “autogestion,” which comes from the French word for self-management (applied to factories, popular education systems, and other uses).
Workers’ self-management is often the decision-making model used in co-operative economic arrangements such as worker cooperatives, workers’ councils, in participatory economics, and similar arrangements where the workplace operates without a boss.
Critics argue that this would necessitate consulting all employees for every tiny issue and so be time-consuming, inefficient and thus ineffective. However, as seen in real world examples, only large-scale decisions are made by all employees during council meetings and small decisions are made by those implementing them while coordinating with the rest and following more general agreements.
Autogestion was first theorized by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon during the first part of the 19th century. It then became a primary component of some trade union organizations, in particular revolutionary syndicalism which was introduced in late 19th century France and guild socialism in early 20th century Britain, although both movements collapsed in the early 1920s. French trade-union CFDT (“Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail”) included worker self-management in its 1970 program, before later abandoning it. The philosophy of workers’ self-management has been promoted by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) since its founding in the United States in 1905.
One significant experiment with workers’ self-management took place during the Spanish Revolution (1936-1939).
In the 1950s, at the height of the Cold War, Titoist Yugoslavia advocated a socialist version of autogestion, leading to a break with Moscow, which practiced central planning and state ownership of industry. The economy of Yugoslavia was organized according to the theories of Tito and – more directly – Edvard Kardelj. Croatian scientist Branko Horvat also made a significant contribution to the theory of socialism (radničko samoupravljanje) as practiced in Yugoslavia. With the exception of a recession in the mid-1960s, the country’s economy prospered under Titoist Socialism. Unemployment was low, the education level of the work force steadily increased. The life expectancy (which was about 72 years) and living standards of Yugoslav citizens was nearly equal to the life expectancy and living standards of citizens of “western” capitalist countries such as the United States. Due to Yugoslavia’s neutrality and its leading role in the Non-Aligned Movement, Yugoslav companies exported to both Western and Eastern markets. Yugoslav companies carried out construction of numerous major infrastructural and industrial projects in Africa, Europe and Asia.
After May 68 in France, Lip factory, a clockwork factory based in Besançon, became self-managed starting in 1973, after the management’s decision to liquidate it. The LIP experience was an emblematic social conflict of post-68 in France. CFDT (the CCT as it was referred to in Northern Spain), trade-unionist Charles Piaget led the strike in which workers claimed the means of production. The Unified Socialist Party (PSU), which included former Radical Pierre Mendès-France, was in favour of autogestion or self-management.
In the 1970s, the Spanish Legitimist Carlist movement split among the supporters of Don Carlos Hugo‘s new Carlist Party, confederalist and autogestionary, and his brother Sixto Enrique de Borbón‘s Traditionalist Communion, extreme-right.
In October 2005 the first Encuentro Latinoamericano de Empresas Recuperadas (“Latin American Encounter of Recovered Companies”) took place in Caracas, Venezuela, with representatives of 263 such companies from different countries living through similar economical and social situations. The meeting had, as its main outcome, the Compromiso de Caracas (Caracas’ Commitment); a vindicating text of the movement.
Throughout the 1990s in Argentina‘s southern province of Neuquén, drastic economic and political events occurred where the citizens ultimately rose up. Although the first shift occurred in a single factory, bosses were progressively fired throughout the province so that by 2005 the workers of the province controlled most of the factories.
In the wake of the 2001 economic crisis, about 200 Argentine companies were “recovered” by their workers and turned into co-operatives. Prominent examples include the Brukman factory, the Hotel Bauen and FaSinPat (formerly known as Zanon). As of 2005, about 15,000 Argentine workers run recovered factories.
The phenomenon of fabricas recuperadas (“recovered factories”) is not new in Argentina. Rather, such social movements were completely dismantled during the so-called “Dirty War” in the 1970s. Thus, during Héctor Cámpora‘s first months of government (May-July 1973), a rather moderate and left-wing Peronist, approximately 600 social conflicts, strikes and factory occupations had taken place.
Many recovered factories are run co-operatively and all workers receive the same wage. Important management decisions are taken democratically by an assembly of all workers, rather than by professional managers.
The proliferation of these “recoveries” has led to the formation of a recovered factory movement, which has ties to a diverse political network including Peronists, anarchists and communists. Organizationally, this includes two major federations of recovered factories, the larger Movimiento Nacional de Empresas Recuperadas (or National Movement of Recuperated Businesses, or MNER) on the left and the smaller Movimiento Nacional de Fabricas Recuperadas (National Movement of Recuperated Factories or MNFR) on the right. Some labor unions, unemployed protestors (known as piqueteros), traditional worker cooperatives and a range of political groups have also provided support for these take-overs. In March 2003, with the help of the MNER, former employees of the luxury Hotel Bauen occupied the building and took control of it.
One of the highest difficulties such a movement faces is its relation towards the classic economic system, as most classically managed firms refused, for various reasons (among which ideological hostility to the very principle of autogestion) to work and deal with recovered factories. Thus, isolated recovered factories find it easier to work together in building an alternative economic system and thus manage to reach a critical size and power which enables it to negotiate with the ordinary capitalistic firms.
See also Socialism in a nutshell
For examples of self managed factories watch the following documentary