Interview with Andres Toledo, President of Cooperativa Alé Alé


People often associate the movement of recovered businesses in Argentina with the crisis of 2001 – 2002 and indeed, during that time, many businesses were occupied and recovered to be run under worker self-management. However, this movement is ongoing. According to Andres Ruggeri of Facultad Abierta (reporting on the fourth survey of worker recovered businesses in Argentina which you can find on their website), as of the close of 2013, there were 311 worker recovered businesses in Argentina. Among those 311 worker recovered businesses, 63 began during the period between 2010 and 2013! This interview with Andres Adrian Toledo, below, highlights one of those: Cooperativa Alé Alé.

First, here’s a brief background:

Alé Alé was one of six in a chain of restaurants under the same owner in Buenos Aires. In December 2012, the workers learned that the owners were planning close all of the restaurants. They were behind in receiving their salaries by some four months and one of the restaurants, La Zaranda, had already closed. The workers didn’t want to be out on the streets and they knew Alé Alé could be a viable business so they got together, formed a co-operative and took it under their control. They convinced the other four remaining restaurants to do the same but because of an impending eviction Alé Alé’s struggle would long outlast the others. They had to occupy the restaurant and hold their ground for a year, learning how to manage their business collectively all the while navigating the court system and fighting eviction attempts.

Yes, we’d heard of many of them, co-operatives like Hotel Bauen, Brukman, Chilavert… I had always heard. But one always listens to these things and says, ‘Wow, poor people!’ no? But you never know that it’s going to happen to you and you’re going to face all of this!

We were the first… Had we not done this, all of the restaurants would have been closed and 180 workers would have been in the streets.  Andres Adrian Toledo

The workers of  Alé Alé guarded the restaurant 24 hours a day, running their business by day and sleeping on makeshift mattresses and chairs wherever they could by night. They stood ground and fought the eviction for a year. In December 2013, having secured another location, they finally reached an agreement with the owners of the building to vacate in sixth months. Now just as other co-operatives helped them, they’re helping the workers of Lalo who have formed a co-operative and are facing eviction from their restaurant.

I conducted this interview with Andres Adrian Toledo, president of the co-operative Alé Alé in August 2013 during their long period of resisting eviction. I had met him for the first time on ‘children’s day’ (dia de los ninos). My friend Lisandro and I had gone to lunch and afterwards (see post), while we were waiting for a rich desert of whiskey and ice cream, we asked if we could talk to someone about the co-operative and their experience in it. The waiter said, yes, he would get someone. Five minutes later Andres came over and introduced himself. He said, ‘I’m always here, you can come any time’. Monday was a holiday, so I made an appointment for Thursday.

Alé Alé wasn’t yet open when I got there but the door was open so I went in. I told one of IMG_2216a gentlemen in black and white that I was there to meet Andres Toledo. He said he would get him and asked if I would like a cup of coffee. He returned with a fresh cup of coffee and said Andres would be out in a few minutes. I was relieved. I had a some coffee while I waited for him.

I’ve had some great interviews in Buenos Aries but this one was one of the most inspirational. What you see here is a rough translation that I did myself. I hope to have it transcribed by a native Spanish speaker in both languages to but for now, please excuse the mistakes.

Interview with Andres Adrian Toledo of Cooperativa Alé Alé

August 22, 2013

IMG_2233Andres- My name is Andres Adrian Toledo, President of Co-operative Alé Alé. I’m going to tell you more or less how all of this happened, so you understand us. As we say it was one day after another. There was a process that lead up to all of this. The whole year 2012 we were coming in three or four months behind on our salaries. We would go to the office to try and claim our salaries. We would say “we would like our salaries” and they would say “If you don’t like it, you know what you have to do. You have to leave. That’s how it is”. Things like that were happening that year.

In the middle of December 2012 (more or less), a supervisor came to us and said the restaurant was going close one of these days and that we wouldn’t have the possibility to recover our salary. They owed us four months salary, vacation time, seven years of retirement contributions… So we started thinking. –Because this same year, June of last year (2012) one of the other restaurants closed. We were six restaurants, a chain of restaurants. La Zaranda is the one that closed in June. The others are La Soleada, Don Battaglia, Los Chanchitos, Mangiata, and Alé Alé. When we heard that La Zaranda closed and left everyone in the street, what could I do? I was the first to say, we have to do something. It can’t be that we forty workers are thrown out into the streets without the possibility of doing anything! From some point of view, we’ve got to see an open door.

So we went to the union–the Gastronomy Union–and they dropped the ball [translation?]. They didn’t help us. They said the businesses owed a lot of money and it would be very expensive so they didn’t give us a hand. After all this we left, indignant, upset and crying saying what can we do? And then we looked at the page from the recovered businesses.

Me- You had heard about the other recovered businesses?

Andres- Yes, we’d heard of many of them, co-operatives like Hotel Bauen, Brukman, Chilavert. I had always heard. But one always listens to these things and says “wow, poor people” no? But you never know that’s its going to happen to you and you’re going to have to face all of this!

That’s how I arrived at Hotel Bauen and talked with the President, Frederico Tonarelli. He helped me, he advised us because they’re also with the association of co-operatives. FACTA. So, we talked with a lawyer. We started to use the paperwork to see exactly what was the situation of the business. The business was at the point to close everything. So there wasn’t an alternative; we didn’t have another option other than to take the place. I found out everything. The rental agreement had expired, there was an eviction agreement, and contest of creditors. Everything indicated that Alé Alé was going to close the first days of January and no matter what, we’d be in the street.

Me- And the owners hadn’t told you anything?

Andres- No, they hadn’t told us anything. That’s when I saw that the only open door to get out of this was form a co-operative. So I had to talk to the group. We had to talk because we’re 40! It’s not easy. We had to convince everyone that the only exit we had was this: to be united, form a co-operative and this way we’ll face an employer who only saw fit to close the restaurant. If we stay together, we’ll solve this. If we’re going one way and the other–if this one says yes and that one says no, we won’t get anywhere. If we, the workers, get together and say, “look let’s form a co-operative and show them that Alé Alé always grew thanks to us, not them.” Because it was us who came and cooked, cleaned and attended the tables and did everything. All they did was the capital. Nothing more.

So there I was gnawing away at the head [“carcomiendo la cabeza” not sure what this expression means… maybe bugging everyone?]. And everyone began thinking and saying is this true or is anything this kid saying true? It was difficult because there are workers who’ve been here 15 years and then just like that someone comes and says, “let’s form a co-operative or the business isn’t going to be anything.” It was hard to believe. It’s like, “what do I do?” Is he saying things that aren’t true? Or is it true what he’s saying?”

The truth is I knew it was the only option we had but I didn’t know what was going to happen, if they were going to put me in chains and send me to prison or what. I didn’t know anything. But I did it. With all of this they said do it, let’s do it together. So everybody, the forty workers, said, let’s go with the co-operative.

The first thing we did was to get rid of the supervisor and say they couldn’t come back. Then the owner called and they passed the phone to me. He said they were going to evict us and I would go to prison. I had been advised on this. I said to him, so if this is your business and you’re doing things right, come here and defend it. Come here, I’m waiting for you here. In the meantime I’ll be managing it. Self managing. We asked the owners to come and talk to us but they never appeared. Never. So we did everything.

The 13th of January we started to working together on everything. The owner called and said whoever is responsible for the accounts is doing it with a criminal charge against them and going to jail, things like that. So the cashiers left and I said no problem. Now I manage the accounts.

After a bit, the the police came. Imagine! That first day we were all sure they were going to come and evict us. By chance, I was here alone talking to a lawyer, saying what do I do? She was saying, you have to do this and that. I mean, we were all excited and saying up with Alé Alé but there I was alone with the lawyer. Really this was beautiful, because I faced policeman and he asked me what was happening and I told him the story. I said, “look, this happened and the other thing… they owe us four months salary, seven years retirement contributions… and now we’ve taken the place and we’re going to work as a co-operative.” The police man looked at me and said, “You know what? Don’t leave here. Stay here. I’m a worker like you. The only thing we’re going to do… These people want us to get you out of here but we can’t without the order from a judge. So, I only came to give you this paper and I’m going. I’m going to collaborate with you peacefully. But move forward, don’t leave here. Stay here and you’re going to win.”  I said, “Wow!”

ME- laughing hysterically.

Andres- So we started. We got everything together for the first eviction attempt. Everyone came, all of the worker co-operatives from everywhere from all the provinces came to help give us a hand so we weren’t evicted. The first attempt to evict us that happened on the first of March really made an impression on me. There were 300 people from all the recovered businesses–Hotel Bauen, Brukman, Chilavert… all of them and businesses that came in from the provinces. Because during those first days and that month when we started self managing (autogestionar)  all of this, we were talking to them.

Me- All these days were you open?

The didn't leave. One worker seen in this photo is still asleep after his night on guard.

They didn’t leave. One worker seen in this photo is still asleep after his night on guard.

Andres- Yes, always. We never closed. We only closed when they made the intent to evict us, mid day but by night we were open again. –Because this is the idea: You’re going to try and evict us. We’re going to resist. We’re going to resist because you’re not going to get us out of here.

The idea is not to fall. If we have to go to battle, we’ll go to battle. The month we began to self manage, the owner called and said, these “negros” aren’t going to last long. They’re going to kill themselves. And I said, ‘Really?’ for me, this is a real vindication. –Even more because we’re five restaurants with the same owner.

So my plan was to talk to the other restaurants, talk to the compañeros so they would be united with us and form co-operatives as well. –Because they were going to be thrown in the street no matter what. All the restaurants were going to close. So I went first one night to Don Bataglia at 12 or 1 a.m. and when they came out, I started to talk. I said, “look, one month ago we started a co-operative and we’re covering our salaries. We know the abuses you are facing, that you’re three months behind on your salaries and that you’re going to close any minute. All of the restaurants are in the same situation. Look, if you guys get together with us, us workers, we’re going to have much more force and we’re going to show them that the workers can do it. Think about it, call me. We’ll make a meeting and together we’ll make it work.”

Two days later they called me: “Hey Andres, you know you’re right. They’re going to close the restaurant.”

[Missing a few sentences and laughter that I can’t hear to transcribe].

So we went to Don Battaglia and from there we were two. We had more power. We had more volume, more force. –And from there, we did it again. I did the same thing with La Soleada. I went to talk with them. “Look man, it’s going to close and now we’re two already…”

They began to check and they called me and said, “Andres,” he said, “you’re right, come here.” So we went to La Soleada. We went to La Soleada but, eh… it was like a bucket of ‘cold water’

Me- Cold water? Why?

Andres- This was more difficult. La Soleada is a little bigger than this. Then Los Chanchitos and Mangiata were the last eh, to come out because they were employees with many more years–with 30 years of history. And it was more difficult for them to understand what was happening. But from there, they’ve been with us and all five restaurants are co-operatives. All five restaurants are functioning as worker co-operatives legally. The only one that’s having conflict is us.

We were the first that started all of this and drove all of this. Had we not done this, all of the restaurants would have been closed and the 180 workers would have been in the streets.

So, all of the restaurants on are on the path to form co-operatives. All of the others are there with the membership enrollment and their ownership and accounting paperwork. The exception is us because we have the problem of location. The other restaurants are fine because the owners of the buildings are glad to have the rent from the co-operatives. Here no. The owner of the building wants us out. So afterwards, what happens?

The first attempt at eviction here at  Alé Alé. We made an announcement to call all of the worker co-operatives, recovered businesses to come here in solidarity. We invited them to help prevent the eviction. When the day came, we had the four other restaurants and all the co-operatives of the whole province! We were–this is what I was telling you–we were more than 300 people! From the column to column and corner to corner [he’s showing me with his hands], filled with people! –And all of the newspapers and media! They brought [or ‘got’ couldn’t hear] everything.

Waiting for the official judgement to come and make the eviction, we had gone to give notice to the police station because they were friendly with us and they had told us that tomorrow would be the eviction. ‘Prepare yourselves.’ They didn’t want to force us out because they’re workers as well… From there we were ready.

Four or five months ago, it was just me and my ‘compañeros’ and now 500 people, or more were here helping us! We had media–which lent us real hand–and all around the building it was the same. The whole world was here and inside and out. There were easily 700 people here in total. It was intense. There were national representatives, a mayor, registrars… [A name I can’t hear, Jelele?] Juan Carlos Junio a mountain of people were here inside. In the moment, this makes you think, ‘Wow!” No? The people in solidarity. They came to lend a hand to prevent the eviction. Without them we would have been evicted. This was brilliant.

It’s not that you win all of the battles. If you lose one of the battles, you get back up for

Andres shows me one of the beds they use.

the next battle. –And attitude is a big part of it. This is a big force and difficult too. Because in my case, I’m the elected president so I have to stay motivated and beyond that, I have to motivate everyone around me. It’s work but in some way I have to maintain motivation. Sometimes the only motivation is to help when one of the compañeros are falling and encourage them because moments happen when you fall. After so much time guarding the place and ah… It’s tough. So many days without going home… It’s tough. Sometimes I fall and I have my forty compañeros to pick me up.

We’re strong because the time came when I was working on prices and improving the quality of the meat and vegetables, we were improving the quality of service–the attention people were getting–and the people kept coming and they said to us that we had changed but for the better. They could tell the climate had changed for the better. There’s a great environment here now–the attention to clients, the food, the ability to have everything for you and your experience be perfect. Before we really didn’t give a dam. We were working three or fourth months behind on salary so we were like, whatever. We didn’t care about much and the cook didn’t even want to cook! What do you think? –Four months behind on your salary, you wouldn’t to want to cook…

Everything was done grudgingly. But now that it’s ours, we know that we can do it and that in reality, the workers can do it alone. How can I explain it to you. It’s so good what’s happening. Well, good and bad. Good because we’re a co-operative, we’re doing it ourselves. The bad part is that we have the eviction pending, nothing more. The companionship and the unity is going to change that. The only way to solve all of this is to be united, to resist together strong as a rock and face everything in the path and move ahead. Together is the only way we’re going to solve it.

Like this! Week after week people who had stopped coming because the food was bad or the service was bad, have returned to try and see what has happened. –And they’ve said, ‘Wow! We’re going to keep coming back and we’re going to recommend it to others.’ So, we’re getting more clients. And sometimes I sit a table to talk with the guests and I say to them that when they come to have lunch or dinner, they are part of this fight with us. Without them, we’re nothing.

So when we see people having dinner or lunch, they form part of this struggle because they come to contribute so that we can bring our salaries home. We couldn’t come to this struggle alone. Without clients, we couldn’t do this. So we try to do our best. Every day.

And we’re here every night with the guarding. We get together over there and play ‘Clue’ or cards because it can get boring. We try not to have much internal conflict because this could separate us. So what do we do?

We are friendly because during the week we agree not to have any type of ‘discussion’. No disagreements. For example, if someone wants to complain about something, whatever it is, they say nothing. On Sunday at 4 in the afternoon we have our assembly. Every Sunday. We all get together for the meeting discuss and deal with everything that happened during the week. We present the numbers so everything is transparent. Everyone knows how much money came in, how much money went out, what was paid and what hasn’t been paid, and the money we’re saving or spending. The most important thing about all this is that here we all earn equal pay. Nobody is going to earn one cent more than another. —From the dishwasher to the waitstaff chefs and myself, the president. I don’t want to earn earn one cent more than anybody else. I put more effort in planting the seed but I do it because I care about it, not for the money.

So, if we’re going to grow, we’re going to grow together, side by side as equals. For me, this is a co-operative. We had to change that system of shit that gives each one a different pay… the person who washes dishes earns less than the cook and the cook earns less than the manager. We changed this system. Here we earn exactly the same. So, everybody helps. Thank God. This way is working.

Anyway, on Sundays we go through the numbers and business and then we start our discussions. ‘This happened and that happened during the week…’ Sometimes we have blocks and tensions and arguments… all of this. But, for Monday we have everything out and repaired without anger or bad feelings. You don’t have to bring things up on Monday because you had your time on Sunday to say it. This is the life here at Alé Alé.

I suggested that idea but other restaurants don’t do it that way. The only thing I was able help convince them of was to take over their locations. Each one runs it the way they want. –And some things I don’t agree with, like the pay scales [can’t hear]. One earns more because he’s president… So we had a meeting with all the presidents [of all five restaurants] and I suggested that if they’re going to be the president, the leader, that they should do it because they care about it, not for the money. It should be, as we say, the blood of the leadership of the group. That’s how it should be because if not, it doesn’t work.

Me- And now, in general do you think you earn more than they did before?

Andres- Money?

Me- Yes.

Andres- Yes, we earn much more. [can’t hear]

Me- Really? [laughing]

Andres- Yes because they weren’t paying us and anyway, the money that the owners used to take from us isn’t taken away anymore. But I thought you were asking me if we’re all equal here in the context of the eviction.

No about the money, we earn a lot more. We earn a lot more because we put in double the effort, we’re working harder, people are helping more. People are in solidarity. The people come in for dinner and lunch. They’re helping us more. We’re earning more and well, the money they [the owners] took for themselves before, now it stays here. We’re earning more and saving more… [me- to invest?]. To invest in other things. Invest and open another Alé Alé. For December, November–December or March at the latest.

Me- to move this one or to have two?

Andres- Two. From here, we’re not leaving. [His index finger points down to the table with conviction] From here, we’re not leaving.

But, okay. For me this is a co-operative: Equality for everyone, forget about the individualistic work, and work in companionship. Work in companionship, discipline, charge everyone the same, everyone takes the same pay. Change of the system of shit where one earns more because he’s doing the books and another earns less because he’s washing dishes.

Me- Are you guys associated members of FACTA? [Federación Argentina de Cooperativas de Trabajadores Autogestionados–the Federation of Self-managed Worker Co-operatives in Argentina]. –And do you have to pay dues?

Andres- No, no. We contribute to FACTA but we’re not ‘associated’ yet. We’re not yet associated with FACTA. What we hope moving forward is that we’re five restaurants. With one more co-operative we’ll make a federation. That way we’ll be able to generate more work force and more… and, as we say, power to do more.

This is a struggle and to show everyone that we can do it.

Me- It’s important because there are struggles here and in all parts of the world. And, they’re watching, right? Well, we hope they’re seeing what one can do. What you’ve done here is amazing.

Andres- Of course. For example, here we’re 40. One person can’t do it a lone but one person can look for a solution, find the information and find out what they can do. And when they know, they can do it. They can form the group and the group can do it. Hopefully, people see that there’s a solution, there’s an open door and an exit that they know there’s something to face the management. The only thing they have to do is unite the workers. Nothing more.

[another worker comes to ask Andres a question]

Me- I imagine you have to get to work with other things.

Andres- Well, yeah. I have to talk to a woman with the radio. We are consciously trying to get publicity because it’s important to have more people, and so workers know they can do it. It’s important.

Me- Thank you so much for sharing your story. I’ll be looking for your news by internet, facebook and sharing your story with friends, colleagues and my blog.

This interview with Andres Adrian Toledo was conducted by Janelle Cornwell at Cooperativa Alé Alé in Buenos Aires, Argentina on August 22nd 2013. Thank you to Andres Adrian Toledo and all of the workers of Alé Alé for sharing your story. 

IMG_2218Get updates about Alé Alé (including daily specials!) and see pictures of their new location on their Facebook page and learn more about Lalo on their Facebook page and in news on the web.




Coming Soon

I am very excited to write about my visits to occupied and recovered factories in Argentina as well as the interviews I conducted there. Transcription takes time, however, and I don’t have much of that so these posts are forthcoming:

1) Interview with Andres Adrian Toledo, President of Cooperativa Ale Ale

2) Interview with Diego de Prensa of Bauen Hotel

3) Site visit Chilavert and El Centro and lunch with the workers

4) Interview with Andres Ruggerri

5) Site visit and informal interview with Eloisa Cartonera

6) Site visit and update on IMPAH

7) Interview with Vera Zagmani

8) Interview with Carlo Borzaga

Interview with Andres Ruggeri

photo 1 (75)I met Andres Ruggeri at Bauen Hotel in the Cafe Utopia. Hotel Bauen is a famous 20 story self-managed hotel, recovered by its 40+ workers ten years ago. I was excited to visit the hotel and talk to its workers before coming to Buenos Aires but it was Andres who suggested that we meet there. I was thankful for it. My heart skipped half a beat when I saw the Hotel from the corner of Corrientes and Callao. I resisted taking a photo of in the middle of the street.

We’d agreed to meet at 2pm and I walked into the lobby at 1:58. Bauen has 70’/ 80’s chic elegance: mirrors, metal, marble, a piano in the center of the lobby. Its charm is ‘velvetine”, like the rabbit in the children’s story. Much of its newness and shine has been ‘loved’ away.

I expected to recognize Andres because I’d watched a video of a talk he gave on the internet but as I waited, I became doubtful. I asked a couple of strangers if they were Andres. No. No.

After 10 minutes, I asked the woman at reception for the wifi security code: “Hotel Bauen 360” she responded.

“Tres, como?” I asked, needing her to repeat the number, afraid to mix up the Spanish numbers for 60 and 70. She rolled her eyes and snapped at me: “Tres cientos sesenta! Good thing they’re their own bosses, I thought. She must having a bad day.

I sent Andres a text and then called him with no response and looked in the café again. There he was. How could I have missed him before? Without a doubt, that was him. I was nervous and embarrassed because I was now ten minutes late and felt shaky about giving my first interview in Spanish.

“Do you speak English?” I asked

‘Yes, but it’s worse than your Spanish” he said.

So, we had the interview in Spanish, recorded for future reference and (someday) transcription. A piece of me was excited to have a conversation in Spanish. I’ve spoken so much English with my friends since I’ve been here.

Andres Ruggeri is a professor and the director of la Facultad Abierta of the University of Buenos Aires. When Andres and the co-founders of La Facultad Abierta began their work, they had no intention of working with recovered factories. Their focus was political. They planned to link to popular political movements. But when they began in 2002, the economic crisis was in full swing and the movement of recovered businesses was new and extremely important. From that beginning, as he states in the beginning of 10 Anos del Programa Facultad Abierta, la Universidad, los Trabajadores y la Autogestion , (Ten Years of the Open Faculty Program: University, Workers and Self Managment), they aimed to accompany, study, document and collaborate with the workers of the recovered factories. Prior to that time, Ruggeri himself didn’t really think about the co-operative movement. His interest came from the experience of fighting along side the workers during the early years and it continues because the movement is still relevant and growing. He believes it’s important.

During the interview he said, it’s not that these 250 businesses themselves are going to change the economy overnight but they are setting an example for workers everywhere. We can learn from their experience, what does and doesn’t work, some things that are particular to Argentina and somethings that can be replicated. The world outside Argentina can take lessons the movement here.

Exchanging money

IMG_2158Before meeting Andres Ruggeri at Hotel Bauen, I needed to exchange money. I was living a high fa’luting lifestyle with my amiga in Recoleta (a fancy neighborhood in east Buenos Aires) so, I’d blown through the five hundred dollars I exchanged when I got here despite the favorable exchange rate. Officially, the exchange rate is 5.74 but the market for dollars is strong so you can sell them for much more.

The desire for dollars is an important political factor in Argentina. The value of the peso has been unstable for years. People are hungry for dollars, especially since the government makes it nearly impossible for people to purchase them. The peso has little value on the international market; so, it can’t be used to purchase imports which are needed for national infrastructure and development. Property is bought and sold in U.S. dollars rather than pesos. Instead of investing their pesos in a bank, people save dollars in teapots and under mattresses. Considering the thousands of dollars and pesos lost during the crisis when people were literally locked out of their bank accounts and many lost their entire life savings, this inclination is understandable. But the thirst for dollars preceded the crisis. Government approaches to currency management have ranged over the years with hyper-inflation at one end of the spectrum and the peso pegged to the dollar at the other (part of a neoliberal package supported by the IMF in the 90’s). During those expensive years, in Buenos Aires a simple white-bread ham sandwich at a diner might cost $32. People would say, ‘in Buenos Aires, you could buy the most expensive sandwich in the world’.

Argentinians remember times during the late 80’s and early 90’s, when stores couldn’t keep up with inflation. The price of goods changed so drastically from morning to night that stores were forced to close their doors. The current rate of inflation estimated at 10% officially, however, the ‘real’ number is supposed to be much higher. Many claim that it is 30% but most concede ‘real’ rates of inflation are somewhere in between the low and high estimates, maybe around 20%. On the international market, the peso has little value. Upon arrival to the U.S. one can’t exchange Argentinean pesos for dollars and the Argentine government makes it difficult forArgentines to buy dollars.

There is a $300 limit on the number of dollars the government will sell to individuals who are about to travel. One has to prove they are about to travel and there is a 20% tax on ATM and credit card transactions in dollars. The government wants to use dollars to build its infrastructure (for example to rebuild the recently re-nationalized oil company) and, therefore prevent them from flowing out of the country into foreign bank accounts. This strategy is understandable from a nationalistic perspective but people feel restricted by the policy. For example, the Peruvian guy who waited on our table last night was about to go home for vacation but the government wouldn’t sell him dollars so he asked if we would sell him 200 for the journey. I only had forty but I exchanged them with him for a rate (just under the blue) of 7/1). So, this demand has created a ‘blue market’ for dollars in which the exchange rate is much higher than the governmental one. On the blue market today, I got 8.7 pesos/dollar.  For perspective, a beer at a middle-brow place in El Centro Caballito, like Giribalda the one I’m working in at the moment, costs about 28 pesos and a coffee rings in at 15-20.

Meeting Contacts in Buenos Aires

I came to Buenos Aires with a clear agenda of where to begin. Web resources, books, newspaper and journal articles as well as John Baldridge’s dissertation pointed me in the direction of particular people and organizations. Ethan Earl (formerly of La Base and the Working World), graciously met me at the last minute in June when I was in NYC. –And he had some great suggestions of people and organizations to reach out to while I am here.

Below is a list of businesses, organizations and people from which my research begins, first at home on the computer and then out there in the wilds of Buenos Aires. As time permits, I’m linking them here in the blog. I’d like to with connect everyone but 20 days isn’t much time…

1) Alé Alé one of a chain of five well known parrillas (grill restaurants) in Buenos Aires including Don Battaglia, Los ChanchitosMangiata and La Soleada. The restaurants were taken over by the workers between January and May 2013 and (re)organized as self-managed businesses. All of the restaurants are doing well but Alé Alé is facing eviction from their location so their fellow co-operative restaurants and other recovered business, community members, customers and the Federation of Co-opertives of Self-managed Workers of Argentina have stepped in to provide support.

Links to a few articles and news clips about it: In Pagina 12In Argentina Indymedia, on

2) Bauen Hotel a famous 20 story hotel that was taken over by its workers in 2003

Links to a few resources about Bauen Hotel: Video by Ginger Gentile and Ande Wanderer“Meet Diego Bandera from Bauen Hotel Co-operative” via ICA; Sammy Loren (2005) Upside Down World “Argentina’s Worker-run Hotel Bauen”Maria Trigona (2007) “Argentina: Hotel Bauen’s Workers Without Bosses Face Eviction”Maria Trigona (2003) Geo  “Worker Self-managment Threatened at Hotel Bauen in Buenos Aires”

3) Facultad Abierta (‘Open Faculty’ based at the national university) which is home to a number of scholars involved in the movement including its director Andres Ruggeri. Ethan Earle suggested I meet with professor Ruggeri who appears to be very busy. He has co-organized several international conferences for recovered businesses the most recent of which took place in Brazil, July 2013 and has authored and coordinated a number of books and articles on the subject.

Links to relevant resources: 10 Anos del Programa Facultad Abierta,la Universidad, los Trabajadores, y la Autogestion

Reed and McMurtry (2009) Co-operatives in the Global Economy: the Challenges of Co-operation Across Borders Cambridge Scholars Press.

El Centro de Documentacion on Facebook

4) La Federación Argentina de Cooperativas de Trabajadores Autogenstionados (FACTA, the Federation of Co-operatives of  Self-managed Workers of Argentina)

FACTA (website)

5) El Movimiento Nacional de Fábricas Recuperadas (or MNFR the National Movement of Recovered Factories)

MNFR (website)

6) El Movimiento Nacional de Empresas Recuperadas (or MNER, the movement of recovered businesses)

MNER (website) –a link to links

7) La Vaca Collective

8) La Base and The Working World in Argentina and specifically Esteban Magnani, author of El Cambio Silencioso (The Silent Change) available to purchase or read online for free.

Bienvenido a Buenos Aires!

The recovered factories of Argentina are famous world wide but not in all circles. During and after the 2001-2002 political economic meltdown Argentine businesses closed by the thousands and people were locked out of their bank accounts while dollars flowed like water out of the country. Workers took over the factories, occupied them and ultimately resumed production as co-operatives. For more information las fabricas recuperadas (the recovered factories) google it, watch The Take  (though this film is not endorsed by the all of the co-operatives themselves) and/or read Chapter Six in Co-operatives in a Global Economy by Vieta and Ruggeri and John Baldridge’s dissertation.

Buenos Aires is the center of world in terms of worker takeovers. There’s a difference between “occupied” and “recovered” factories… It seems. An occupied factory is, just that: a factory (or restaurant or hotel) that is occupied by the workers, possibly functioning but in legal limbo.  There are between 185 and 250 recovered self-managing businesses in Buenos Aires. But it’s a big city, you don’t just run into them wherever you go. Nonetheless, as we’re driving (very slowly thanks to a major traffic jam) into the city from the airport just after my arrival, my friend Lisandro points to a colorful metal doorway: “I think that is a cultural center of co-operative IMPA.” Indeed, it turns out to be just a few blocks from his house.

My contacts in Buenos Aires have very  different perspectives on Buenos Aires and Argentine politics in general. One is a Yale scholar of Latin American literature and the other is an American diplomat at the USDA in Buenos Aires. One lives in the middle-class neighborhood called Almagro and the other lives in Recoleta, an affluent residential neighborhood that is also a tourist destination. I am lucky to have these two extremely generous friends who are sharing their homes, experiences and knowledge of the city while I’m here.

I’m looking forward to meeting people in the movement, recording some interviews and seeing the recovered businesses themselves. Communication here is far easier than it was in Italy because I speak the language. However, now six days into my visit, I’ve done a lot of reading and written several emails but nobody has written back. My friends tell me that people here don’t work on the weekends and Monday is a holiday so my best chance for interviewing people at this point is to stalk them in person. Of course in a strange town that requires navigating the bus and subway system or paying for expensive taxis but I’m determined to do it.

In the meantime, I read articles and chapters ’empresas recuperadas’ (recovered businesses), catch up on posts from Italy, the review of The Deep Down Delight of Democracy by Mark Purcell.

(incomplete thoughts) on John Baldridge’s dissertation

I met John Baldridge briefly at the 2011 meeting of the Association of American Geographers. I remembered him for his fantastic research topic: Argentina’s recovered Businesses. At the time I promised myself I would read his dissertation as soon as possible. However, “as soon as possible” turned out to be more than two years later. 240 pages into “Sociospatial Transformation in Argentina’s Recovered Businesses”, I wonder why I didn’t get to it earlier? I’m very much looking forward to the rest, especially Chapter 6 that draws on Butler, Bourdieu, Lefebvre and Gibson-Graham in “an exposition of the trialectic relationships between space, power, and subjectivity based in a review of theory and application of theory to recovered business workers as subjects.” (Baldridge page 31)

From the introduction:

To the uninitiated, Chilavert [a worker recovered business] would look like a typical, if somewhat run down, printing business, set up in a warehouse in south central Buenos Aires. But to Daniel and his coworkers, the print shop has changed dramatically since 2002. Some of the changes are noticeable on the surface, if one pays closer attention: the sign that reads “Cultural Center” above the stairway leading to the upper level; an office labeled “Recovered Business Documentation Center”; a poster in the entryway that declares this space an “open factory”; signs announcing the new accredited secondary school that has opened in one of the unused rooms in the building. But aside from these changes, which are indeed  significant, perhaps the most profound change in the factory has occurred in the workers themselves—their relationships to this place and its many socially-coded spaces; the way they negotiate their roles in the business, with one another, and in the communities with which they engage. When Daniel says that he sees the factory differently, he isn’t simply pointing out the material changes, which are relatively minor. The print shop appears and functions much as it did before 2002: same building; same machinery; same walls, halls, and stairwells. No, Daniel is hinting at something deeper: a change in his relationship to the world around him. And Daniel is not alone, nor is Chilavert an isolated case. (Baldridge 2010 page 12-13)

Indeed, Chilavert is not an isolated case. In a recent post on “The Guardian” Oliver Balch estimates some 300 “recovered factories” in Argentina (March 2013). A more conservative estimate of 200  came from Wayne Ellwood of the New Internationalist Magazine in 2012 (up from 161 in 2004) while Andres Ruggeri tentatively estimates somewhere around 250. These numbers may not amount to a structural revolution of the kind imagined by Marxist political economic perspectives like David Harvey’s which are described in detail by Baldridge in an historical account of Argentina’s cyclical crisis of capital. That is a repetitive cycle of capitalist accumulation, growth, crisis and decline; accumulation, growth, crisis, decline. This view of the capitalist system (as an hegemonic machine) is referred as a giant system like the weather–beyond our control.

Taken to the extreme, the logic of this Marxian political economic perspective suggests that the recovered factories (regardless of their political ideology or lack thereof) ultimately accomplish nothing but the restoration of capital. After all, the argument suggests, in the face of constant pressure from capitalist competition, workers will be driven to exploit themselves and/or hire non-member labor to exploit. Should the the state provide a sheltered market by promising contracts, they may not resort exploitation themselves but they are dependent on the surplus labor extracted and stolen by their capitalist suppliers and (non-state) buyers. In this view, anything touching the hegemonic capitalist system (ie: everything) is tainted, vulnerable, bound to be squashed or corrupted. On the off chance, they can survive, we are told, we can only thank them for their stabilizing affec which ultimately functions to prop up and perpetuate the capitalist system.

Baldridge’s historical account structured by a particularly strong (to the point of paranoid) political economic perspective is interesting (especially his own history of the recovered businesses in Chapter 2 and the story of the two national movements in Argentina) but the dominant narrative adds up to a story we’ve all heard before–one that suggests that nothing short of widespread global revolution can affect the ominous system. In this story we are either a minority class of powerful capitalist owners, victims of their system or frustrated frustrated revolutionaries.

For those protagonists who began as, or have become, committed to a struggle against capitalism, the irony is that their actions, at some levels, help to perpetuate the socio-economic processes they want to resist. (Baldridge page 176)

To my great surprise (and not a moment too soon) Baldridge turns on a dime in Chapter 4.  This is where, in my mind, he diverges from the “dominant” predictable story summarized above and the analysis begins to elaborate an exploration of his two primary research questions which are:

1) What new institutional arrangements have resulted from these workplace takeovers, and how do working people create and sustain them?; and 2) How are these emergent social institutions affecting conceptions of the workplace, the meaning of labor, and the identities of the workers themselves? (Baldrige page 14)

He offers “an extension of common property theory into the realm of industrial commons” and elaborates a theory of the “industrial commons” leveraging Elinor Ostrom’s framework of institutional analysis which has more commonly been applied to natural resource pools such as water, fish stocks and trees. He offers a review of literature on “the commons” demonstrating there is “precious little guidance on defining “the commons” as something other than common property”.

By adopting this term [industrial commons], I expand the discursive terrain of the commons to include sites of economic activity typically essentialized as capitalist because of their industrial nature. In so doing, I propose a language that allows industrial production sites to be characterized not merely as places where labor churns out surplus value for some other individuals’ profits, but as potential spaces of community solidarity and ethical economic practice. (Baldridge 212)

The practical value afforded by extending “the commons” to the “industrial commons” is the provocation of imagination and possibilities for documenting and analyzing the strategies used by members of worker co-operatives to govern and collectively benefit their “joint-use resource” that is their particular “industrial common”.

There is much more to say, I will return to this later…