On the Take

When the Forja auto plant in suburban Buenos Aires closed down after Argentina went bankrupt in December 2001, even the pigeons deserted the factory. "There were always so many pigeons in here," says a tearful laid-off worker named Freddy as he revisits the factory with his old colleagues two years after they lost their jobs. This incursion into the defunct factory is the first step in the workers' 'Take' – taking back the company – and the most poignant moment of "The Take," Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein's documentary about the National Movement of Recovered Companies (MNER) in Argentina. A year later, Freddy and his buddies at Forja would be back on the shop floor, forging parts again – their bosses nowhere to be seen.

Klein, the author of "No Logo," the bible of the Seattle-Genoa global justice movement, and Lewis, host of the TV show "Counterspin," made "The Take" in response to their opponents' persistent question: "We know what you're against, but what are you for?" When they heard about worker-run factories in Argentina filling the vacuum left by corrupt managers, the husband-wife team found something concrete that they were for: democracy in the work place.

Expropriated companies (the legal term for businesses that are stolen, or stolen back by the workers) nearly always become more productive than they were under the old managers. The Zanon ceramics factory in the southern city of Neuquen now produces more tiles and employs more people than it did under the old management structure. Brukman, a garment factory in downtown Buenos Aires, fought off eviction, paid overdue gas and electricity bills and resumed production even though they couldn't legally issue receipts for the suits they made. According to the solidarity group Workers Without Bosses – who are making an appeal on behalf of the Brukman seamstresses for machine parts and instruction manuals – there are now about 200 worker-run factories in Argentina, employing around 10,000 people.

"The movement isn't exploding, but it is undergoing stable growth," Lewis said in a Q&A after a screening of "The Take" in New York, where it had an initial run last week. "There were halcyon visions of a shadow economy developing. But it's not an alternative economy, and it's not necessarily how we should proceed in this country. It's not a one-size-fits-all solution."

So instead of propogating a factory-takeover system, the documentary focusses on small, usually emotive details of the workers' struggles. We see Forja workers doing target practice with slingshots and marbles in preparation for a forced eviction; the women of Brukman – with the whole community behind them – repelled by teargas and water cannons when they try to force their way back into the factory; and lots of moody shots of derelict buildings.

Because Klein and Lewis focused on the human-interest approach, a lot of details are fustratingly absent: Did the workers have to raise capital to restart their machines? How exactly do worker-run companies gather the expertise to start trading? Was there any hint of Animal Farm-type power-grabs in the nascent worker collectives? Perhaps the biggest unanswered question though is exactly how the Forja workers, and others, secured legal expropriation of their factories – the most important part of a take. The movie doesn't show how the workers afforded lawyers, and under what precedent – if any – they made their case for expropriation. But we do see the Forja workers weeping when the decision finally goes their way on appeal.

This focus is deliberate, Klein told me in an interview. "We didn't want to make a lecture. A film should grab people emotionally and from there get them to read a dissertation on bankruptcy law," Klein said. "We aren't constitutionally capable of writing a manifesto. Even if I could write one, I really don't think I'd want to. I'm not hungering for ideology."

A polemic may not have been appropriate since workers at Forja, Zanon and Brukman reclaimed their factories more through pragmatism than ideology: without social security and jobs in Argentina, what else was there to do? When Freddy attends an MNER meeting for the first time, there is a vague sense of something potentially radical going on in Argentina. But he doesn't make a speech about workers of the world uniting; he tells everyone how hard it has been supporting his family since he was laid off (again, weeping).

Unlike worker-run factories in the old communist states, worker self-management in Argentina is starting from the bottom up, Klein said, and this is what interests her about the movement. Still, the movie's apparent phobia of ideology – the word "Marxism" is never uttered, but there is a glib aside from Lewis: "Think Russia, think Cuba" – actually saps power from the narrative. Without a historical framework or a real political punch, we're left with a rather sentimental and suprisingly timid account, devoid of policy detail. A folk song on film.

A general phobia of ideology might hobble the MNER too. They seem to lack political clout, and neither Nestor Kirchner nor Carlos Menem had anything good to say about worker-run factories in the 2003 presidential elections, which form the backdrop to the movie. Kirchner won, and although he is continuing Argentina's relationship with the IMF, Lewis said he's doing nothing to hurt the MNER – but nothing to help it either. "The real test will come when Argentina stabilizes and there are new elections," Lewis said. It's uncertain whether the courts and politicians will continue to tolerate the idea of worker-run factories when allowing them to function is no longer simply a question of political and economic expedience – the lack of a viable alternative.

In the movie, the filmmakers seem to be in love with the idealistic young activist Maddie and her abstention slogan: "Our dreams don't fit on your ballots." But what about making a place on the ballot for the apparently realizable dream of democracy in the work place? Can this happen without ideology, without manifestos, and without leaders?

Maybe. Klein has her own ideas about the way the worker-run factory movement could spread – somewhere between a meme and a revolutionary spirit blowin' in the wind. "Ideologues love to believe that they can write a book, tell people how the world should work, and that it will be imposed exactly as they imagined it. I believe in a more fluid kind of political change: you throw an idea out there and it travels, and it changes. Some of the workers are Marxists," Klein says. "But more interestingly, they situate what they are doing in a Latin American context, drawing inspiration from the Zapatistas in Mexico and the landless movement in Brazil." The MNER has been called Zapatismo in the city, and their slogan is the same as that of the MST (Landless Workers Movement): Occupy, resist, produce. MST did it in the countryside in Brazil, Brukman and Forja are doing it in Buenos Aires.

Something similar has even happened in Canada. When management announced the closure of the Alcan aluminum smelter in Quebec in January this year, workers occupied the factory and ran it themselves for two weeks (exceeding normal levels of production). Apparently, there doesn't have to be a nationwide catastrophe before workers can seize the means of production – just local catastrophes, Klein said. In American towns where the primary employer has closed down, Klein believes that "People are absolutely ready for desperate measures." Lewis cited the Oneida flatware factory in upstate New York, where 500 workers recently lost their jobs, as a prime example of where a take could happen – if the idea catches on.

But could a take happen where perhaps it most needs to – in the sweatshops in Export Processing Zones that Klein wrote about in "No Logo"?

Klein is sadly doubtful. Brukman and Zanon were defended by their respective communities, but in an EPZ there is no community. "The point of these zones is to deracinate production from the community. It takes production and jails it – literally fences it in, with massive security," Klein said. "No one lives inside and no one from the outside who doesn't work there is allowed in. And the factories are specifically prohibited from selling in the local market, so the model of community support is broken. It made me realize how dangerous these zones are as economic models." Still, Klein says that the flexibility in the idea of worker-run factories is its strength. "I believe workers in Export Processing Zones in China can figure out how to make it work."

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