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What We Can Learn from Social Struggle in South America

South American social movements are potential blueprints for change in the U.S.

People in the U.S. seeking ways to confront the economic crisis could follow the lead of South American social movements. From Argentina to Venezuela, many movements have won victories against the same systems of corporate greed and political corruption that produce economic strife across the hemisphere. These movements also have experience holding politicians' feet to the flames once they are elected, a tactic that will be essential once Barack Obama takes office.

A recent connection between activist strategies in the north and south emerged earlier this month when over 200 laid-off workers from Chicago's Republic Windows and Doors factory occupied their plant, demanding the severance and vacation pay owed to them.

The occupation in Chicago echoed the worker occupations of factories and businesses in Argentina during that country's 2001 economic crisis, and is now looking even more like the movement in Argentina: the Republic workers are currently seeking ways to re-open their factory and potentially operate it as a worker-run cooperative.

"This is a place that should've stayed open," Republic union organizer Leah Fried told reporter Meg White. The factory could be very successful in the long run as it produces heating-efficient windows and doors. "The goal is to reopen the plant and create employment," Fried said.

In Argentina, hundreds of worker coops were formed after the occupations under the slogan, "Occupy, Resist, Produce." During the occupation of the factory in Chicago, workers and supporters chanted, "You got bailed out, we got sold out," referring to the fact that Bank of America -- a lender to Republic – received $25 billion of the $700 billion government bailout, only to cut off credit to Republic, leading to the closure of the factory. But after six days of the occupation, Bank of America and other lenders relented, agreeing to pay the workers approximately $2 million in severance and vacation pay plus health insurance.

A foundation created by the Republic workers called the " Window of Opportunity Fund," made up in part from the donations received from around the U.S. and the world to support the workers during the occupation, will be utilized to seek ways to restart the factory.

The similarities between the workers' actions in Chicago and Argentina show that labor strategies to fight economic crises can be applied as internationally as the free market policies that contributed to these problems in the first place.

One international gathering that embodies the philosophy of cross-border organizing and solidarity is the annual World Social Forum which began in Brazil in 2001 to encourage collaboration and education between social movements from across the world. In 2004 I interviewed Michael Hardt, the co-author, with Antonio Negri, of Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire , about the role the World Social Forums and similar encounters can have in globalizing social justice.

"I was at two of the World Social Forums in Porto Alegre, Brazil," Hardt explained. "At one of them, there was this sort of counter forum going on at the youth camp where there were groups from various places. I was at one meeting where we had Italians, piqueteros from Argentina and a group from a movement in South Africa that is against these electricity and water cut offs in Durban and Johannesburg. It was great having three of them talk to each other, because even in a straight forward, tactical way they are experiencing the same thing, the same kinds of police repression and the same kinds of struggles. And it was not really learning from each other, but recognizing a kind of commonality that then creates new relationships… It is that kind of thing that has to happen on a much larger scale."

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