Call centre workers from across Britain came together at a meeting at last month’s CWU conference. The meeting was unlike most others at the conference, with many of the participants far younger than the average delegate, and most at firms that do not recognise the union.
Nevertheless, the picture of how activists are recruiting included stories of great creativity in the face of bosses that are determined to keep call centres union-free zones.
Hundreds of workers occupy three Visteon car manufacturing factories in Britain after the management closed them down, laying off the entire workforce with no notice, violating their contracts. This is reminiscent of the factory occupations of the 1970s.
“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
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).
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, TitoistYugoslavia 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.
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.
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.
The term “exploitation” typically conjures up images of horrendous working conditions, perhaps sweatshops in China or India, or the child labour used by Western clothes manufacturers. We think of people working long hours for little pay in terrible conditions ruthlessly bullied by unscrupulous bosses or gangmasters.
Such “exploitation” is presented to us as exceptional – and contrasted with the “normality” of working life for most people, particularly in countries such as Britain.
Karl Marx had a different understanding of exploitation. Rather than seeing it as exceptional, he argued that exploitation is fundamental to capitalism.
For Marx, exploitation was not just about the level of wages received, or working conditions, but was the very process whereby capitalism creates profit out of the work we do.
In order to understand what Marx meant by exploitation we need to start with his explanation of where profits ultimately come from – the “labour theory of value”. Continue reading →