Though unemployed residents of Roxbury face a host of obstacles, from the lack of healthcare and high cost of living, to job discrimination and social service cuts, few, if any, have had to face death threats from former employers or rampant police repression.
But for Argentine workers who have organized street blockades, reopened closed factories, and provided for their community’s needs following their country’s economic collapse in 2001, these are ever-present dangers in the struggle — not simply to make ends meet — but to transform their society.
On Monday, Nov. 7, a two-member delegation from Argentine social movements met with a dozen members of the Boston Workers’ Alliance, a local initiative organizing and cooperatively employing those without steady jobs. For three hours, activists from opposite ends of the American hemisphere discussed these struggles and the lessons learned as part of a nation-wide tour, titled Fire the Boss.
Speaking through a translator, Carlos Berra of the Unemployed Workers Movement of Allen, a town in Southern Argentina, described how members of his organization work outside of the political system to build people’s power through genuinely non-hierarchical, decision-making.
“Our movement is based on assemblies, general meetings where everyone makes decisions together,” said Berra. “We use direct democracy in these big meetings, trying to resolve the problems that we have in a way that is horizontal.”
Though the MTD Allen is best known for its militant barricades of highways and major streets to demand government reforms and basic necessities, this group also grows crops, sponsors workshops, and collectively produces goods for community members.
In response to a question from Timothy Hall of Roxbury, Berra gave an example of a community bakery that sells bread at a low price to neighbors who are not in the movement and uses the revenue to fund future projects.
“Our challenge is always to use our imagination to create something from nothing and be clear that change starts today,” he said.
For others, like Elsa Montera, the 2001 crisis resulted in sharp salary cuts and months of unpaid work. Finally, the owners of the health clinic where she works just stopped showing up, and she, like many others, lost her job overnight.
“The majority of factories that are part of this movement are businesses that went bankrupt, that were emptied out, closed on a Friday night and during the weekend, the owners cleaned out everything,” Montera explained.
“And on Monday, when we went back to work, there was nothing. In this situation of impunity, people took actions to occupy their former workplaces. Some were jailed. But each time the situation closed in on us, we were able to imagine a way out and survive.”
Montera and other workers now cooperatively run the health clinic with an elected administrative council, equal sharing of income, and decisions made at general assemblies.
According to Montera, there are now 177 occupied workplaces and over 12,000 workers in a nationwide movement to open closed factories and manage themselves.
“Even beyond our slogan - occupy, resist, and produce - we see the occupying of the workplace as a recuperation of our rights,” she told the Roxbury workers.
“The biggest troublemakers in this movement are the women. When jobs are taken, women don’t let this happen because it touches the family. We are often the one’s making the decision to occupy or take back the workplace.”
In the 1990s, Argentina was considered the ‘United States’ of Latin America because of its fast growing economy and the high standard of living enjoyed by its middle class. At the same time, government corruption and US-backed free market policies that privatized state companies, lowered trade barriers, and erased financial regulations plunged the country deeper into debt.
The 2001 collapse forced many working- and middle-class Argentines into homelessness and more than half the population into poverty. Though the crisis is over and the economy has grown steadily for several years, unemployment still remains high. Today, roughly 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, with 14 percent in extreme poverty and high economic inequality.
Local activists asked their Argentine counterparts a range of questions from their relationship with unions to their ability to export cooperatively produced goods to other countries. When asked how the U.S. is viewed in South America, Barra described President George Bush as “genocidal.”
Montera pointed out that President Bush recently traveled to Argentina to push a free trade agreement for all of the Americas; despite the misery these policies have already created in many countries.
At the same time, Montera offered that “those who are in government, they don’t resemble the people that make up this country.” Both emphasized that the people they have met on their U.S. tour have welcomed them warmly.
Later, Gwen Johnson of Jamaica Plain asked what dangers they have faced; both cited various instances of police harassment and the creation of new laws banning protests.
“When they can do repression in a covert form, it continues,” she argued. “But if we put it out there in the open, the government is forced to bend to the people.”
Thanking them from their sharing their experiences, District 7 Councilor Chuck Turner noted that “Given the common problems that unemployed workers face in this country and around the world, its essential that we begin communication with each other and understand the focus of each other’s struggles and over time try to develop strategies that can be helpful to each other as we struggle for change. The reality is that while you may be coming from Argentina and we are here in Boston the enemies we have are the same.”
At the end of the discussion, Montera urged that “we should continue to connect and make networks based on solidarity, This is the only way we can rid ourselves of this system and get even more strength to struggle against what they are doing to us.”