The Children of Bakunin and Coca-Cola


I'm out of the country at the moment, so I haven't been able to follow the Republic Windows and Doors story closely enough to formulate a firm opinion about it. But as laid-off workers occupy a factory and demand the severance pay they're reportedly owed, it's revealing to watch the glosses that observers with different ideological agendas put on the event.

The Huffington Post's Peter Dreier, for example, presents the occupation as an early sign of reinvigorated government activism:

The symbolism of the workers' take-over also adds credence to Obama's call for a major government-funded infrastructure program that will stimulate several million jobs—almost all of them in the private sector—and help jump-start the ailing economy.

"The workers want Bank of America to keep the plant open and the workers employed," said UE President Carl Rosen. "There is always a demand for windows and doors. But with Barack Obama's stimulus proposal, there will be even greater demand for the products made by Republic's workers. It doesn't make sense to close this plant when the need is so obvious."…

During the past two weeks, as Obama appointed moderates and former Clintonites to high-level positions in his economic brain-trust, some progressives worried that the president-elect was already moving to the center, even as the economy nosedived. But Obama's call for the largest public investment plan since the interstate highway program begun in the 1950s, his support for a major federal loan to the Big 3 auto companies if they retool to become more energy-efficient, and now his embrace of the Republic workers' occupation of their factory has given many progressives assurance that Obama hasn't forgotten his liberal instincts.

Meanwhile, the autonomist writer Ben Dangl has a more anarchistic take:

Argentina's crisis was similar to the current recession in the US in the sense that in December of 2001, almost overnight, Argentina went from having one of the strongest economies in South America to the one of the weakest. As the occupation of the factory in Chicago indicates, there are some tactics and approaches to combating economic crises that were used in Argentina that could be applicable during the US crisis.

During Argentina's economic crash, when politicians and banks failed, many Argentines banded together to create a new society out of the wreckage of the old. Poverty, homelessness and unemployment were countered with barter systems, alternative currency and neighborhood assemblies which provided solidarity, food and support in communities across the country.

Perhaps the most well known of these initiatives were the occupation of factories and businesses which were later run collectively by workers. There are roughly two hundred worker-run factories and businesses in Argentina, most of which started in the midst of the 2001 crisis. 15,000 people work in these cooperatives and the businesses range from car part producers to rubber balloon factories. Though the worker occupation of Republic Windows and Doors is different in many respects to examples of worker occupations in Argentina, it is worth reflecting on the strikingly similar situations workers in both countries found themselves in, and how they are fighting back.

For those of you who aren't familiar with them, those Argentine cooperatives were usually born when their previous owners, facing failure and debt, skipped town; the employees then decided to keep the abandoned enterprises alive.

I'm in Argentina myself right now, and I'm afraid the remnants of the 2001-02 rebellion aren't easy to find. The barter-based alternative currency is long gone, and most of the neighborhood assemblies dissolved after Trotskyists and the like decided they'd be a good place to bloviate. Many of the worker-owned businesses are still thriving, though. I stopped in one of the most famous coops, the Hotel Bauen, a few days ago. My wife and I took our seats in its coffeeshop and, in a post-ideological gesture, I bought a bottle of Coca-Cola.