By Carolyn Sattin
Photo from Impa Web site
Years before neighborhood assemblies developed in Argentina out of the spontaneous explosion of civil action that began on December 19, 2001 with massive "cacerolazos" (banging of pots and pans in the street in protest) and culminated with thousands of angry Argentines flooding the Plaza de Mayo and successfully demanding that their President Fernando De la Rua resign, the first seeds of a different large-scale movement for change had already been planted. When losing their jobs seemed imminent as factory owners fell deeper and deeper into debt as a result of a severly depressed economy that registered greater than 21% unemployment, workers in factories across the country decided they could no longer sit back and watch their livelihood slip away. Instead many of them became masters of their own destiny and took steps to secure thier jobs and their future.
Rather than sitting by passively as factories closed-the machinery auctioned off and thousands of people left out of work without receiving the back pay they were owed- in a few unprecedented cases, workers came together and decided to "recuperate" the factories, begin production again and reclaim their much-needed source of employment.
IMPA, a metallurgic factory in Buenos Aires was one of the trailblazers in this growing movement that has been spreading rapidly across the country. Bruckman, a textile factory, Zanon, a ceramics factory and Grissinoppoli, a commerical bread factory, are just a few of the over 200 factories that have followed suit.
Each factory has a different story, a unique internal culture and a particular management style that the workers have developed together. A national organization that was formed subsequent to the first few "takeovers" has proven to be integral to the factories' success. Through this network, workers across all industries have been able to share the important lessons they are learning daily throughout the course of this difficult adventure.
The extraordinary fate of IMPA is emblematic of this emergent workers movement: a phenomenon that is revolutionizing labor, business administration and the concept of work community across the country. Founded as a German company in 1910, nationalized in 1945, and transformed into a work cooperative in 1961, the factory was taken over by its own workers in 1998 and turned into an entirely new space for social and cultural production, as well as a working factory. After years of economic decline, pay cuts and failure to pay taxes and debts, in December of 1997, the owners of IMPA finally declared bankruptcy. While the factory owners were stuck in negotiations with creditors, in May of 1998, IMPA employees, past and present decided to "recuperate" the inactive factory and begin production, using the machinery and materials that had been left, and paying out of their own pockets to purchase whatever else they needed.
A few months after IMPA had been "recuperated" by its workers, people of all sorts began approaching the factory, interested in learning about how things worked inside and offering to help in any way they could. The independent press, specifically Indymedia Argentina, was indispensable in spreading the word about IMPA, attracting support and donations from all over the country.
Among the hundreds of people who contacted IMPA there figured a number of artists, students, and other individuals who saw the possibility of creating a cultural center within the factory, taking advantage of the enormous empty space that was not being used for production. Out of extensive conversations with the cooperative, the idea of creating a "cultural city" within the factory was born. Including workshops, a theater, and a community center for meetings, parties, and concerts, the factory could be turned into a space for production of ideas and art in addition to commercial goods.
Photo: Los Moreto
The "Cultural City" got off the ground almost immediately after the initial discussions, and over two years later, on June 14th, 2001, it was declared a sight of cultural interest by the Legislature of the City of Buenos Aires.
|Today IMPA has turned into an important center of culture and social life in Buenos Aires. With over 35 workshops, ranging from poetry to trapeze art, the factory also hosts weekly concerts and fundraisers for other recuperated factories and neighborhood assemblies struggling to make ends meet, and every Friday and Saturday night large crowds pack into the improvised theater space inside the factory to see "Public Works" a highly-acclaimed dance/theater troupe often compared to Argentina's world-renown performance group De la Guarda. After a full day of production, with loud machinery working at full steam, at night IMPA becomes a totally different place where artistic creation takes over and transforms the gigantic building into a factory of ideas and an invaluable space for free expression..||
IMPA is just one of the hundreds of cases of recuperated factories in Argentina. What makes its story so special is the unprecedented success that the factory has been able to achieve, both with its large-scale production after starting with next to nothing and expanding its workforce; providing much-needed jobs to a seriously depressed population.
The "Cultural City" is an extraordinary part of IMPA's success story, and few other factories have been able to emulate this accomplishment.
Almost five years after
IMPA's employees decided to take control of their destiny (as well as their
own factory), the future seems bright.
With a thriving cultural center and growing business, IMPA has built a supportive, horizontal community that is redefining the idea of work for many people. At the same time, however, the danger of eviction still exists and the country's political future is uncertain. But after overcoming the serious obstacles that IMPA has faced throughout this arduous, but euphoric journey, people are convinced of the possibility of effecting change in their communities and in their devastated nation.
IMPA web site