Economic Crisis Encouraging Factory Takeovers in Spain

This article was translated from the Spanish by Clayton Conn.

At least 40 struggling companies have been converted into cooperatives with workers assuming management. In some cases, the former owner of the company has joined the initiative.

Daniel Martinez, 33, was fired from the company where he worked in Mazarron (Murcia), like so many others who have been crushed by the crisis. Half a year later, he is once again onboard – and is an owner.

The economic crisis has led to scores of workers in Spain taking over and directly managing declining enterprises. Instead of just being content with a strike, they have dismissed owners and are trying to keep their companies-turned-cooperatives afloat.

The situation in Spain is not as dramatic and sudden as it was in Argentina a decade ago, when the crash of 2002 left thousands of workers in charge of their factories as their bosses fled. Their struggle was captured on camera by Naomi Klein and Avis Lewis in “The Take.” However, the flow in Spain is constant: last April, Daniel Martinez and six colleagues created the Akami Tuna Cooperative, where they work in the same factory, and with the same machinery, that once belonged to the company that had fired them; the metal workers of Metalva joined with those of Alcaniz (Teruel), who went to work one day to find that the owner had fled; the cooperative of Zero-Pro in Porriño (Pontevedra) is developing robotics projects that were previously prepared for their boss.

The Confederation of Labor Unions (COCETA by its Spanish initials) estimates that within the last two years, there have been some 40 companies taken over in Spain, something that has not been seen in the last two decades.

Sometimes, although rarely, even the owners join in the takeover. This occurred, for example, with Francisco Javier Jimenez, 40, who was the owner of the Cuin Factory, a small producer and marketer of kitchen furniture from Vilanova i la Geltrú (Barcelona). At the beginning of the year, the books were showing a crisis, and Jimenez told the workers that the company was to be closed. After the collective shock wore off, one worker suggested that they all pitch in together in order to continue as a cooperative. Since June, Jimenez has ceased to be an owner – he is now just one more worker, part of the assembly, and the factory continues on.

“Today, the person who signs my paycheck, used to be my secretary. It seems as if the world was turned upside down, but I am very pleased with the steps taken: before everything fell on my back; now, I have fellow workers,” says Jimenez. Since the economic situation presents something like a wartime economy, the six co-ops have self-assigned a salary of just 900 euros a month. “We are all leaders and we all make the same. I hope we can give ourselves a raise as we get past the crisis,” says Jimenez, who jokes about his former employees: “Now they will realize how hard it can be to be an entrepreneur.”

Catalunya is probably the community with the majority of these kinds of experiences, to the extent that the local government set up in June a specific support hotline to transform an enterprise into a cooperative business. There is also a cooperative called Aracoop which specializes in helping with the transformation process. In this past year, requests for information from Aracoop have increased by 50 percent.

The phenomenon of worker takeovers has crept throughout Spain, encouraged not just by the unemployment situation, but also by the rich experiences gained in the crisis of late 1970s, when many workers occupied their factories and converted them into cooperatives. Some of these companies, like the Catalan Mol-Matric, continue to operate through workers’ assemblies and generate profit some 30 years later.

“The problem, sometimes, is with the owner directly,” said Enrique Emsoleaga, co-owner of Metalya metalworks, created by five workers who were tired of not being paid by the owner. “Before we had work, but never money. Now we do the same, but with much more freedom and are able to make a living,” he adds.

Are the assemblies a nuisance when making decisions? “Not at all,” replies Emsoleaga with a touch of irony. “The agreements are always unanimous: work, work and work,” he says. The assemblies occur on Saturdays in the factory, while they eat breakfast with the whole family.

The reasons for the decision to occupy factories are often not ideological, but practical – although many partners refuse to believe it. “The head of a bank whom we were asking for money closed the portfolio after hearing the word cooperative. He must have thought that he was in front of Lenin himself!” explains a laughing Marcos Jalda of Zero-Pro.