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On Financial Crises and Occupation

Sitting In and Standing Up

by MICHAEL JOHN COMO

For a brief time in December of 2008, just months after the mainstream press admitted that the US economy had been sustained by the dreams of bankers and traders, American progressives turned their eyes to Illinois to lead the way in what might become a template for a change in the American repertoire of resistance. Republic Windows and Doors was a relatively small manufacturing facility in Goose Island, Illinois that had been making noise after workers began a sit-in strike to protest their unlawful firing after they had discovered that equipment was being removed from the plant ahead of closure and Bank of America refused to extend credit lines to owners. Indeed for a short time, it appeared as though American workers were finally occupying their places of business to assert the illegitimacy of their creditors’ decisions. No longer could business owners liquidate a community’s livelihood, because those same community members wouldn’t allow them to do it.

In the end, PR managers at JP Morgan intervened to restore the credit lines of the previous owners, issue back pay to the fired workers, and allow the story to die. A magnificent display of solidarity on the part of US banks.

It appeared the US, for just a moment, was adopting an Argentine model of industrial  resistance. I am referring to a movement of workers who experienced similar hardships after their own domestic economy ‘hit the fan,’ that of the Empresas Recuperadas por los Trabajadores (ERT), or Recuperated Workplace Movement. You see, Argentina had its own crisis, also sustained by the protracted fantasies of international financial institutions and the complicity of local and national government in late 2001 through 2003. This still flourishing movement currently employs about 9,500 workers nation wide in roughly 205 distinct cooperatives.

While surely not the mass revolt of the industrial proletariat, this movement continues to be a symbol of the popular response of the deindustrialization and doomsday capitalism continuing to settle in throughout the Global North.

ERT workers, faced problems similar to those of Republic Window and Door; prolonged periods without pay, layoffs, and an increasingly real suspicion that equipment and machinery were disappearing from the workplace. As some manufactures began to close at the behest of creditors’ machinations, now unemployed workers occupied their old workplaces in the hopes of preserving their livelihood and sense of purpose.

What good is a worker without tools? What of a worker who spent 20 years at a job only to find that it has been taken simply because the same institutions that ran the economy into the ground claim that the business is no longer solvent?

Occupation produced very tangible results as they reopened as cooperatives and assumed the debts of previous owners. In Buenos Aires Province, many workers simply needed to demonstrate to local authorities that business owners were in fact stealing their own equipment to mitigate their losses in capital. If this could be done, workers could exercise eminent domain over the defunct place of business for the public good and obtain a stay in seizure proceedings. Workers attempted to repatriate jobs lost only because too many participated in a fiction that was revealed before their eyes.

Some 10 years later, a uniform process for legal expropriation is only beginning to materialize, but the seeds are there, and the workers have bent the ear of local authorities. As the time of writing the largest single ERT, Fábrica Sín Patrón (formerly the Cerámica Zanón) a ceramics plant that employs over 500 people, is months away from truly and permanently recuperating the factory for the public good. After this precedent is set, the way may be paved for many more ERTs to begin their own proceedings for full expropriation.

Let us move once more in time and place. The one thing we’re sure of in the current occupation of  Wall Street is that people are upset about local and national governments’ complicity with the fantasies of a network of international financial institutions. The disenfranchised ‘regular folk,’ and their collective indignation, is now at a place that American progressives are watching once more. When the occupation’s detractors decide that the event merits comment, it is dismissed as yet another manifestation of a clouded, impractical, assortment of bored college kids, professional ne’er do wells, and perhaps some professors whose witticisms grace the facebook pages of their peers. There is indeed potential in this movement, but I fear that in 2008 a major opportunity was lost to truly disabuse working Americans of the collective deceit of who owns what, who may put something to use, and who exercises legitimacy when it comes to the public good.

If we as a people are interested in occupations to demonstrate the illegitimacy of international financial institutions’ actions, why not occupy the sites at which our jobs have been lost?

Remember Republic Window and Door?

Michael John Como is a Ph.D. Candidate in anthropology at the University of Virginia. He works on Kinship and Exchange in Argentina’s Recuperated Workplace Movement. You may contact him at Michael.Como@virginia.edu.