Donnelley/Mady Graf

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I’ve been to the Donnelley Printing Factory twice in the past little while. The first time was to watch a workers soccer tournament and the second was to see series of film clips taken by workers and compiled together by my friend Carlos.

I don’t have too much to say about the soccer tournament other than the fact that it was entertaining and that there is something powerful about the fact that the control workers now exert over the Donnelley factory allowed them to host and run a soccer tournament in their off hours where 36 teams from 30 factories participated.

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Worker’s soccer match

It was mainly at this second event that I got to meet some of the Donnelley workers. Before the film showing itself I had the privilege to be shown around the factory by one of the maintenance workers. He basically explained the whole process of printing to me, showed me the machines etc… It was fascinating to tour a worker-occupied factory, even if it was after hours. The best picture I took I think was of the offices where the managers and their staff used to work, lying empty.

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Empty management offices

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Machine for printing larger magazines and newspapers.

A bit more about the factory itself then. Donnelley produces all sorts of printed materials, from magazines and newspapers, to notebooks for schools. Since the occupation they have changed their name to Mady Graf. They are currently in the process of trying to get a law passed to legalize their occupation. They have also engaged in an admirable venture of giving out notebooks to schools and children in working class neighborhoods who otherwise could not afford them. The last portion of the film clips included interviews with grateful students and parents who were thanking the workers for providing them with school materials they cannot afford.

However, to see this as just some sort of philanthropic gesture would be to entirely miss the point. Its objectives go far beyond that. It is explicitly an act of solidarity with the rest of the working class. The workers of Mady Graf sacrificed some of their income to give these away because they see themselves as members of the working class. Helping the working class out therefore is helping out themselves and their community. It is helping those who have the same economic and social position that they do and have the same economic and material interests. Helping the children of the working class and relieving a portion of the economic burden of schooling from their parents is helping themselves both in the literal sense, as some of these workers are parents, but also in the sense of helping out their community and their cause as the working class. Helping the children get a better education will allow the children to know more about their struggle and lead more rich and fulfilling lives. And if they end up occupying their own place of work their education will make it easier to deal with the difficulties of running it.

The notebook campaign also serves to show both the capabilities and advantages of worker’s ownership of the means of production. They want to show that they are an asset to the community for more than just the employment provided by the factory. They are also showing that it is possible for them to give this up for free. The worker occupied factory is functioning well enough not only to provide for the workers but also to provide certain elements to the community.

And finally producing this notebook is a means of getting out their message. They gave me one of these notebooks as a gift for precisely this reason. On the final page of the notebook there is an explanation of where this book comes from, why they are producing it and what their demands of the state are.

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Machines for producing smaller materials, including the Mady Graph notebook

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My copy of the Mady Graf notebook

This was all fascinating, but what I personally was most interested in was learning how a worker-occupied factory operates. As a marxist I believe that all factories should be worker owned and run, and so understanding how it works and the challenges it faces is vital to me, especially because of my interest in economics. I did get ask about this and learn a bit about it. But our conversation was cut short by the beginning of the film, so there is still more that I would like to hear. This is what I have so far:

Mady Graf is, as one would expect, managed by the workers. Some workers in particular seem to be dealing with management tasks, like coordinating work schedules and obtaining supplies and orders from outside companies. I’m pretty sure many of these workers were prominent officials in the union before. I was introduced to one of these people briefly, he worked, and is still working, in the section of the factory where they put together the design for the printed materials on a sheet of metal for use in the printing machines. It is important I believe that even though he is part of managing, he still works at the factory. This means he does not lose touch with the interests of the workers, as he remains one.

I do not know how they are chosen, though I can only imagine they are elected. One of the great things about this sort of situation is that some form of democracy is the only type of system that makes sense. After all, they are all workers, the only way any of them can have any authority is to have it given to them by other workers. However, Mady Graf is even more democratic than that. People are elected for the day to day management tasks, but the big decisions about the directions the factory is taking are decided on by vote at workers’ assemblies. The decision for instance to forgo part of their salary in order to give out notebooks to working class children was made in this manner.

During my tour, the maintenance worker told me that machines had been braking down more since the beginning of the occupation since they were no longer running 24 hours a day during weekdays. Due to fewer orders since the beginning of the occupation Mady Graf has had less business and so the workers have ended their night shift. Whether workers are happy about this change because they no longer need to work late hours or unhappy because less work means less revenue I am not certain. Interestingly this does seem to protect them from the phenomenon of excessive self exploitation (in order to keep up with competition) that I have found in some of my studies of worker’s cooperatives that exist in a capitalist economic environment.

What I would still like to know more about are the specifics of managing the factory. How many workers are involved in administration? Do they get shorter work hours in order to work on it? If not when do they work on these tasks? How specifically are they chosen and how long do they remain in their positions? Are they immediately recallable? Are they paid more than other workers? How have they gone about obtaining orders from capitalist companies? Has their status as a worker occupied factory made this more difficult as I suspect it has?

I’d also like to know how their pay and hours have been affected by the occupation. I know hours have decreased, but by how much? Has total pay increased or decreased? Has pay per hour increased or decreased?

These may seem to be somewhat insignificant details when compared to some of what I have already mentioned. But one of the main things I took away from my time as an activist is that the devil really is in the details when it comes to organizing these sorts of things. Many of the answers to these questions will I believe be vital in determining how much of a success this is and how this factory might evolve in the future.

And finally I plan to try to learn if there are any other challenges being faced by Mady Graf due to its status as a worker occupied factory.

Although this is a post about Mady Graf I would like to briefly note another event in the working class struggle here that was also featured in the film clips. About 2 weeks ago there was another protest at the Panamericana in front of LEAR. The protest I went to was tame by comparison. Protesters were not only forced off the street, but chased down the hill next to the highway by cops firing rubber bullets liberally into the crowd. One of the workers I met at Mady Graf just a couple of days ago still had a broken shin and two sizable circular scabs where he was hit by rubber bullets. And he was far from the worst injured at this protest.

The Argentine Debt Crisis

Class struggle cannot be fully understood outside of its larger economic context. The working class fights against economic imperatives embodied by the ruling class and it is influenced towards or away from struggle by the change in its economic conditions. Therefore I will begin to elaborate on Argentina’s specific economic context in this post.

Argentine economics right now is something of a treasure trove of devastating economic phenomena that affect class struggle. There is especially a lot of interest going on with the Argentine currency as inflation is rampant and the exchange rate between the peso and the dollar is out of control. In this post however I will focus on economic event that has received the most media attention recently: Argentina’s debt crisis.

As of July 30th Argentina is in a rather unusual default. It has been dubbed a “technical” default and the Argentine president Kirchner claims, with some validity, that it is not really a default at all. The cause of this lies in the Argentine default of 2001. A huge amount of debt had been run up by the notorious Argentine dictatorship of the 70s (famous for “disappearing” those who opposed them) and the subsequent neoliberal government did little to control it. By 2001 the Argentine government was no longer able to make its interest payments and so it went into default. In stead of simply annulling the debt however due to inability to pay, the government offered a restructuring of the debt. Those who had lent money to the government would be paid back, but only partially. Most of the lenders accepted this. However, a few large American hedge funds, representing a total of only 7% of the debt, refused this deal and demanded that they be paid in full. These “holdouts” engaged in a long series of attempts to try and force the Argentine government to comply. It is this most recent attempt that has caused this technical default.

There is a clause in Argentine debt, present in most sovereign debt, called the pari passu clause. It requires that all debt holders be treated as equal. The main reason for this is to avoid there being a better form of debt, with higher interest rates or preferential treatment in terms of repayment. However the “holdouts” are trying to use this clause to argue that the Argentine government should not be allowed to treat them differently from those who agreed to the debt restructuring. As it is, since they did not accept the restructuring that allowed the government to keep making payments on its debt, they are not being payed. And they have managed to successfully argue in a New York court that this violates the pari passu clause. Since the Argentine debt payments are being made through a New York bank, the judge who upheld their claim, Thomas Griesa, had Argentina’s most recent debt payment annulled on the grounds that they must also pay the holdouts. This put Argentina into a technical default, not because they couldn’t pay, but because they would not pay. Since then, in order to avoid this, the Argentine government has been attempting to circumvent the order by making its debt payments through an Argentine Bank in stead, a move which Judge Griesa claims puts them in contempt of court.

The move of the holdouts is akin to a gambler who sues when he/she loses a bet. When they lent to Argentina they accepted the risk of default. But when the risk became a reality they tried to avoid it by claiming they have been wronged. It is quite clearly ridiculous, all the more so because this 7% of the creditors has managed to prevent all creditors from being paid.

More interesting though is to look at this in the broader context. To a certain extent this is a show of force by the american ruling class over that of the argentine ruling class. The holdouts were American while many of those who accepted the restructuring were Argentine. It is quite significant, and a little surreal, that an American judge in New York can make decisions about Argentine sovereign debt and how it is repaid. Furthermore, it is claimed that this absurd situation could be ended if President Obama were to intervene under the principle of “comity” which allows the president sole authority to conduct foreign policy. I am by no means a legal expert, and so cannot say whether or not this is actually possible. But the fact that there has not been more of an outcry from the US government is significant.

However, I believe that the international ruling class and even the american ruling class is not going to let this stand. Or rather, more precisely, it is not going to let it be repeated. If a few debtors can essentially block debt restructuring, as was the case here, this puts in jeopardy the whole system of dealing with default without annulling debt. After all, if a few can get away with being repaid in full after a default, who wants to be the sap who takes a loss in order to make it possible for the government in question to be able to repay its debts. If restructuring plans become impossible then this greatly increases the risk to lending capitalists. And risks mean costs, as it entails higher insurance payments or setting aside more money to cover the risk.

Indeed, the IMF has started to begin to take steps to avoid this occurring in the future. It is in the process of reforming the way debt restructuring works in order to avoid specifically this problem. However, it is unclear in all of this, at least as far as I can tell, whether the Argentine government will be able to make use of this. The goal of the IMF seems to be preventing this occurring in the future, not helping the argentine government. It certainly would have no qualms letting this assertion of the interests of american capital over those of argentine capital continue so long as there is no risk of it occurring again in the future. How the Argentine case is resolved I believe depends on how the situation plays out. A lot will depend on whether the Argentine government bends, what deal it might be offered, and whether this whole course begins to threaten another actual default.

It is important to note that the Argentine government is far from blameless in this. President Kirchner after all legitimized this debt, the debt largely of a military dictatorship, by restructuring it. The Argentine government acted in the interests of Argentine capital, who needed as much repayment as possible while also requiring the government to be able to function.

Understanding all of this is vital to understanding the behavior of the Argentine ruling class. It is under a lot of pressure right now. The government is unable to issue bonds for the moment due to the default and it is in a struggle with at least some of the american ruling class. It can let the protests occur, particularly because they are directed at american corporations, but it cannot let them get out of hand either.

Blocking the Panamericana

A few day ago I made the trek north to observe the Lear workers blocking the Panamericana highway. I decided not to participate largely because there was a significant chance of getting arrested, something I would rather not do in a foreign country only a little more than a week after arriving here. Nonetheless I was able to observe quite an action and take a number of good photos for this blog.

The protest was to be in two parts (although I didn’t know it at the time). First, there was going to be a march along the Panamericana highway. Second, there was going to be a caravan of cars driving slowly to block the road.

I arrived early in the morning alongside my friend Carlos, a member of the PTS who has been introducing me to the political scene here. We were greeted by a lot of riot police, both from the local police force and the national guard, lined up in groups along the road (which made their numbers difficult to convey with pictures). They were equipped with shields, batons, shotguns, attack dogs and, as I would later discover, mace. There was even a police helicopter above.

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As protesters began to arrive we heard that a deal had been struck with the government: So long as the protesters left one lane open the police would leave them alone. This was quite a good deal for the protesters, the government was obviously a little scared and trying to avoid any incidents after the media fiasco of the week before (see post about background). The protesters would essentially still be allowed to carry out the action, make an impact and get media attention without being repressed so long as they made this small concession.

At about 8am two busses arrived on the street and deposited a group of about 200-300 protesters in the street. They waved large banners and started chanting a variety of slogans. Some of their chants were quite long and complex, and being only partially fluent in spanish I was not able to catch all of what they were saying.

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Immediately the police began to surround the protest. Once this was accomplished they began to force the protesters forward using their batons and mace liberally to force the unarmed protesters forward. Protesters sprayed in the face by the mace started to trickle out of the protest to recover. However, not satisfied with this, they then began forcing the protesters off the road. Obviously, they considered that the government promise did not apply to these protesters, since they had left a lane open. Either that, or they were simply breaking the promise. The slow trickle turned into a flood as protesters tried frantically to step over the barrier at the side of the street fast enough.

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The protesters soon rallied and resumed chanting on the side of the road. This continued for a good hour at least until the cars arrived. This time the police left them alone. The cars proceeded to block the road, honking their horns and joining the chants of the protesters at the side of the street.

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All in all, in spite of the police forcing the protesters off of the street the action was quite a success. There was a whole host of media, including at least ten television trucks. Reporters were interviewing protesters at any time they were able, particularly those hit with mace. The highway was essentially blocked twice and the government is clearly somewhat fearful of these protesters.

A further note of interest was that this protest seems to have been organized largely, if not exclusively by the far left. I was told that the majority of the protesters were from the PTS and the PTS clearly had a large hand in organizing this. Their presence in the workplace has paid off significantly here. One of the difficulties that we’ve come across in the US is that members often tend to be scattered in various different workplaces, few if any of which are involved in struggle. I will have to remember to ask exactly how it is that they gained such a presence and influence in LEAR.

But most importantly, this is part of a long term struggle for the workers of LEAR that has a clear strategy and does not in any way seem to be losing momentum. Here is a serious and militant struggle of workers fighting for their rights in the long term. In these ways it reminds me of the hotel worker’s fight back in Providence, where I went to college. However, the workers here feel like they have more power than in Providence. There are more of them, they are organized and they are able to disrupt things.

One final note about the day. After the protest I was invited by a student member of the PTS to a performance of Marx in Soho at the University of Buenos Aires that night. The auditorium could contain 300 people according to the publicity online, and it was packed! The performance was a lot of fun, I highly recommend you see the play if you haven’t had the opportunity yet. Then at the end of the play workers from LEAR and Donnelly came up on stage to talk about their struggle. The event had the clear purpose of getting more people involved in the protests as well as in Marxism. The PTS students were clearly well organized and linked with the workers movement, something that in my experience is pretty rare in the States. My group only really started to get involved in the worker’s struggle last year. There is a lot of organizing to be done on campus, and I’m sure the PTS is doing some of that as well. But a thriving socialist student group must also look outwards to the city and be involved to the fullest extent possible in workers’ struggles there.

Background

I am a newcomer to Argentina, so I may be missing something, but from the conversations I have had there appear to be two main workers’ struggles in Argentina at the moment: The fight against layoffs in the LEAR automotive seat factory, and the occupation of the Donnelly printing firm.

The LEAR workers appear to be the biggest center of attention. Back in June LEAR fired 200 workers. Though consistent struggle LEAR workers and their allies have managed to get most of these workers reinstated, though 60 of them are still jobless. The police however have been clamping down on the protests however. Most notably, when protesters blocked the Panamericana highway, a relatively typical tactic, the police drove them away by force.

In response to this repression protesters decided to block the highway again. But this time they did so by driving slowly with cars in stead of blocking it with a march. The police tried to disrupt this action in an incident that has now become famous. A policeman jumped on to the windshield of the car of one of the protesters and then fell off in order to pretend to have been run over by the protester. The police then proceeded to drag the protester out and beat him. What they did not know was that the whole incident was being filmed and that the film clearly showed that the whole think was a badly executed setup. The video clip was uploaded to the internet and caused a scandal.

I went to the next protest, which was the first one since I arrived. This march was designed to be non-disruptive as the focus was squarely on the police and so there was no need to give them anything that they could use to deflect attention away from their latest blunder. Nonetheless, I was struck by the high presence of the police at the demonstration, although I was told by my companions that it was nothing exceptional by Argentine standards. They were everywhere! Police in full riot gear lined the march as we advanced, and less heavily armed policemen were to be seen on all sides.

Interestingly, two days ago, Lear workers in the United States also went on strike. They are demanding higher wages from the corporation which has used the crisis as an excuse to cut their wages but has not increased them as the company’s profits have increased. It is at moments like these that international solidarity would be very beneficial. They are both fighting the same company, unifying their demands and struggle would make it that much more difficult for them to be ignored and that much more likely that both would be victorious. Unfortunately however the strike in the States has not, to my knowledge, even noted the existence of the struggle occurring in Argentina.

As for the Donnelly printing firm the story appears simpler. The factory was abandoned by its owners who claimed bankruptcy, though this claim is considered fraudulent by the Argentine government. Workers have taken over the factory and hold general assemblies in order to solve day-to-day problems of running the place as well as fight against attempts by the government to put the factory under a provisional manager or sell it to another company. Interestingly, there is even opposition to working as a cooperative since doing so would mean having to compete with capitalist companies and so have to stoop to their work standards or be competed out of the market. This perspective shows a very high level of class consciousness as well as a deep understanding of the difficulties of workers’ ownership. Their intimacy with worker-owned production comes no doubt from other attempts, successful and failed, to make such situations work in Argentina. However, I would be curious to learn if and how they are hoping to be able to produce without having to compete with capitalist production.