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Argentina's workers' movement
"Our dreams don't fit in ballot boxes"

Review by Peter Lamphere | Janury 7, 2005 | Page 9

The Take, a documentary directed by Avi Lewis and written by Naomi Klein.

IN THE last two weeks of December 2001, hundreds of thousands of Argentines took to the streets to protest the neoliberal policies that had driven the country into economic crisis, deposing five presidents.

But these protests did not simply drive the politicians out. Organizations and movements also emerged that pointed the way toward a hope for a different way of running society--neighborhood assemblies that distributed food from grocery stores to the hungry, unemployed organizations that blocked highways until they were given jobs, and workers who re-opened closed factories under their own control.

Global justice activist and No Logo author Naomi Klein and director Avi Lewis's documentary The Take is an examination of one of those attempts to create an alternative to the neoliberal economy.

The movie follows the efforts of the unemployed workers at an auto parts factory, the Forja San Martín, to reopen the factory as a worker-run cooperative. The factory had been closed for three years, and its workers couldn't find jobs in a country where the official unemployment rate is 18 percent but is actually close to 40 percent. So the workers occupy the factory and demand that the state turn over ownership to them so they can reopen it for production.

These workers are part of a national movement encompassing over 15,000 workers in everything from health clinics and schools to hotels and tailor shops. And these occupied workplaces are run by democratic assemblies of the employees. Many decided to pay the workers equal wages.

Some of the documentary's best material is its sharp look Argentina's 2002 presidential election.

On one side is the law-and-order campaign of Carlos Menem, who introduced most of Argentina's neoliberal reforms as president in the early 1990s. Menem's platform is specifically aimed at the social movements. "We will impose order," he says in one speech, "we will saturate the streets of the republic to impose respect for the law and the right to private property."

Menem is closely tied to the country's ruling class--promising a return to the mid-1990s prosperity. Klein interviews the former owner of the Zanon ceramic factory, for example, who got millions in corporate welfare from the earlier Menem government and is sure that Menem's return to office will mean he can recover his factory from the rebellious workers.

Opposing him is the populist Nestor Kirchner who many Argentines support as a rejection of neoliberalism and a return to the Peronist past of national populism that nationalized industry and solidified the power of the union movement.

But Lewis and Klein show how, no matter who wins the presidential election, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) remains the major player in determining Argentina's economic policy. As Klein and Lewis argue, "No matter who is elected, the country will be stuck with the same economic policies that most people blame for the economic crisis."

They document those who voice a third option in the election, that "nuestras sueños no caben en sus urnas"--our dreams do not fit in their ballot boxes--and argue that voting in the election doesn't square with the "throw all the bums out" sentiment of the 2001 rebellion. By the end of the documentary, the auto parts workers have been allowed to start production as a cooperative, while Menem drops out the presidential race a few days before the election in order to avoid an embarrassing loss in a landslide to Kirchner.

Today, Argentina's economy has recovered somewhat--with jobs-led growth thanks to the government refusing to pay its debts according the IMF's strict schedule. But many worker-controlled factories are still in an extremely tenuous position, under threat of reoccupation by their original owners.

Many of the temporary orders allowing cooperatives to take over failed factories expire this year. Klein and Lewis recently issued an appeal for international solidarity with Zanon, as it is under threat once again (see www.petitiononline.com/zanon/petition.html).

The Take is a must-see for activist looking for an alternative to a world of neoliberal economics. For all the limitations of the Argentine workers' cooperatives--they have to compete, at the end of the day, in the profit-driven market--they remain an inspiring counterexample to all those who say that workers could never run society.

The Take is showing at theaters and festivals all over the U.S. this spring--visit www.TheTake.org to see if it is coming to your town.

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