Historical background of the Zanon Factory Workers
"Take" over of their factory
March 18, 2004
By Marie Trigona
At the break of dawn on a frigid winter day the
workers of Zanon, a ceramics factory under worker
control, file into the plant for the day's first shift
(6am to 1pm). They greet the men in charge of security
at the plant's entrance and punch in to the time
Since March, 2002 the factory has been producing
without an owner, bosses or foremen. The factory sits
among the red earth and rolling hills of the Southern
Neuquén province in Argentina and is the largest
factory in the region. After a long-standing conflict
with the owners for back pay, sudden closure of the
factory and firings in the fall of 2001, Zanon's
workers occupied the factory and set an example of
resistance against capitalism for workers all over the
world that workers can produce even better under
"It was a decision to stay here and struggle or go
home, I could have gone home but I decided to stay
here in the factory and struggle. I learned to defend
my 15 years of work here in the factory and fight,"
forcefully expressed Rosa Rivera, one of the 15 women
among the 300 employed by the factory.
"The owners never paid taxes, during the epoch of
former President Raul Menem they were given millions
of dollars in subsidies, the exploitation of the
workers was extremely high and the company were
stealing Mapuche land for raw resources for the
When corporate welfare ran dry due to the Argentina's
economic collapse in 2001, Zanon's owners decided to
close its doors and fire the workers without paying
months of back pay or indemnity. October, 2001, of the
331 original workers, 266 decided to continue to come
to the factory to work to continue in their job posts.
For four months workers camped outside the factory,
pamphleteering and partially blocking a highway
leading to the capital city Neuquén.
During this time, the events Argentina's popular
rebellion December 19 and 20, 2001 and the brief
post-rebellion upsurge of other factory occupations
and organizing among the popular assemblies and
unemployed workers organizations also influenced the
decision to begin working under worker control.
"When we re-entered the factory we began selling the
materials produce on a small-scale level, when those
ran out, we asked ourselves what do we do-fight for an
unemployment subsidy of 150 pesos [about 50 US
dollars] or put the factory to work?," explains
In March, 2002 the workers of Zanon reentered the
factory and began to produce. "This is a battle
against individualism, against everything that those
above impose upon us. Here inside the factory we are
fighting for a new human being."
As soon as the workers began to produce without an
owner or boss, relationships inside the factory were
re-invented, breaking with hierarchical organization,
isolation and exploitation. Workers describe the
company's practices of controlling the workers-one
example is that workers had to wear a uniform of a
certain color, to identify which sector a worker
belonged to and it was prohibited to speak with a
worker from a different sector.
On the wall in the factory's offices hangs a ceramic
tile with an image of a young man, Daniel, with an
inscription remembering him as a fellow comrade who
died in the factory. Production inside the factory was
set to maximize the company's profits, reducing
salaries to the minimum possible level, cutting
corners on worker safety measures and pressuring
workers to produce at higher levels making it possible
to have less workers on the production line.
These conditions previous to the workers' occupation
led to an average of 25-30 accidents per month and one
fatality per year. In the years of Zanon's production,
14 workers died inside the factory. Since Zanon's
occupation by its workers not one accident inside the
factory has occurred. "With the owner, you worry and
are pressured. Without him you work better, you take
on more responsibility with consciousness," one worker
The factory is now organized practicing the ideal of
horizontalism, direct democracy and autonomy.
Everything is decided in an assembly, there is no
hierarchical personnel or administration. Each sector
such as the production line, sales, production
planning, press, etc, has a commission which votes in
a coordinator. The coordinator of the sector informs
on issues, news and conflicts within his or her sector
to the delegate's table. The coordinator then reports
back to his or her commission news from other sectors.
Today, Zanon employs over 300 workers and continues to
plan to hire more workers. Since the factory's
occupation over 70 workers have been hired. The
workers' assembly decided that it is necessary to take
on workers from the unemployed workers organizations.
Most new workers participate in the MTD (Unemployed
Workers Movement). Each worker receives 800-pesos a
month salary, which was based on the cost of basic
"canasta familiar" or family needs.
The factory that spans for blocks has 18 production
lines, while only three are currently functioning.
Meanwhile, the factory is only producing 12-15% of its
capacity, with lowered levels of exploitation (workers
working less hours, higher salaries) they have been
able to hire new workers.
One of the keys to Zanon's success has been the
insertion of the workers' struggle into the community.
At the factory's entrance, workers have constructed a
mural made of broken ceramics. The mural tells of the
history of the struggle inside Zanon. It begins with
men and women around a large pot cooking above a fire.
During the months outside the factory, neighbors,
students and workers from piquetero movement
demonstrated solidarity-giving funds and groceries for
the workers campaign. The prisoners from the jail
behind the factory donated their food rations to the
workers. Social organizations such as Mothers of Plaza
de Mayo have acted in solidarity, some of the women
are 70-years old, have declared that they to will
defend the factory with their lives.
Zanon's self-defense and security scheme is the back
bone of the factory. The government's response to
Zanon has been violent, using different tactics to
evict the factory. The government has tried to evict
the factory five times with police operatives.
Each time thousands of community members came to
defend the factory. When there is the threat of
eviction, everyone leaves their job posts and assumes
the role of security-unemployed workers organizations
with self-defense lines outside the factory, while the
workers go to the roof-top to take on self-defense
measures like using the sling-shot.
Prison number 11 sits right behind the factory. One
night, we accompanied the workers in charge of night
security on their nightly rounds around the factory we
near the prison. About 20 meters away we hear
"clack-clack", a prisoner guard loading his rifle
while we pass by.
The factory has developed particular measures to
ensure that infiltrators do not enter the factory.
Each worker must punch into the time clock-not to
punish him or her for arriving late but to keep track
of who is inside the factory. Before the plant's
security was used to guard against workers stealing
equipment. Today, workers in security make sure each
worker coming to work brought his or her sling-shot to
On November 25, 2003 workers from Zanon and unemployed
workers organizations in Nuequén protested a debit
card for the unemployed (rather than receiving the
150-unemployement welfare to work subsidy in cash the
government now wants the jobless to use the bank card,
forcing them to only be able to take out a minimum
amount in cash from the banks and having to purchase
defined goods in 'commercial networks' which are to be
The protests ended with violent state repression.
There were over 22 injured - 10 from lead bullet
wounds. Andrés from MTD and worker of occupied
ceramics factory Zanon was injured with over 64
impacts from rubber bullets. He was held for over 8
hours by police without medical attention while he was
tortured. He lost his left eye.
On December 2, 2003 seven hooded men entered the
factory armed and stole 32,000-pesos. This was also
after organizations in Nuequén were brutally repressed
in November and workers and activists with MTD were
continuously threatened in their homes. "We see this
as a way to pressure those of us who are struggling
for a more just society," published the workers in a
press release after the infiltrators made off with the
The government is also using cooperatives to co-opt
the factories under worker control. Other than Zanon,
there is only one business, Tigre supermarket in
Rosario that has refused cooperatization. "The
government is co-opting the movement through different
methods. The state offers cooperatives but you have to
stop struggling," explains Raul Godoy, worker at
The workers of Brukman, suit factory in Buenos Aires
that was evicted on April 18, 2003, have reentered the
factory recently but under cooperatization. They now
have only two years to buy the machinery and building
under the agreement that the government offered. Since
the Brukman eviction, the political Left has been
criticized for its damaging intervention in the
conflict (convincing the workers that self-defense
tactics were not necessary during the workers 16-month
occupation of the factory and during the attempt to
re-enter the factory after the eviction). The factory
now has private security company, a shameful
reminder of what the factory once symbolized.
Rosa Rivera, worker at Zanon for 15 years explains
that Zanon is not only a struggle for the 300 workers
inside the factory but a struggle for the community
and social revolution. "If factories are shut down and
abandoned, workers have the right to occupy it, put it
to work and defend it with their lives."
In the shambles of Argentina's highly divided
movements, Zanon continues as one of the most dynamic
expressions of resistance against capitalism. The
social process inside the factory has brought
inspiration to break with the patrón (boss) for other
workers occupying factories and for the working-class
all over the world.
Marie Trigona is an independent journalist and
activist based in Argentina. She participates in Grupo
Alavío, video and direct action collective. She can be
reached at email@example.com