EQUALITY PROJECTS IN ARGENTINE WORKER-RECUPERATED BUSINESSES
Katherine Sobering - University of North Texas
In March 2003, Gisela and a group of her former co-workers gathered on a street corner near Hotel Bauen, a twenty-story tower in downtown Buenos Aires where they had once worked. Once a luxury hotel and conference center, the vacant business was one of many that shut down during Argentina’s 2001 crisis, leaving Gisela and many others out of work.
Unemployment can be a deeply disruptive experience. As plenty of sociological research in the U.S. and abroad shows, unemployment not only impacts a person’s financial livelihood and future earning potential, but it can also be a stressful and isolating experience. A very different series of events took place in Argentina. As unemployment rates ticked up, collective action blossomed: residents formed neighborhood assemblies to organize basic services, piqueteros blocked streets to demand jobs, and unemployed workers occupied their former workplaces with the goal of restarting them without a boss.
How can we make sense of such attempts to reorganize work without a boss? Based on my long-term ethnographic research in Hotel Bauen, I found that workers envisioned, implemented and continue to evolve what I call an equality project: a collective effort to challenge the values and practices that justify inequalities at work.
A series of formative experiences and fortunate opportunities guided me to the heavy glass doors that usher you off the street and into Hotel Bauen. As an undergraduate in search of community and affordable rent, I joined a student housing cooperative and inadvertently began a crash-course in cooperation. The next year, I made the trek from Austin, Texas to Ann Arbor, Michigan for the annual conference of the North American Students for Cooperation (NASCO), where I learned about worker-recuperated businesses for the first time. Intrigued by their stories, I seized an opportunity to study abroad in Argentina, where I began this long-term ethnographic project.
Worker-recuperated businesses like Hotel Bauen—which now number over 300 in the country (Ruggeri 2016)—were formed to not only “recuperate” jobs, but also to create better jobs. Unlike many alternative organizations that are created anew, the BAUEN Cooperative was formed in the shell of a previous organization. Efforts to reorganize around principles of democracy, cooperation, and self-management have thus been deeply shaped and sometimes challenged by the spatial arrangement of the hotel, workers’ prior socialization into deferential service work, and their familiarity with templates of managerial control.
As an ethnographer, I struggled to make sense of the innovations and resistances alongside failures and inequalities that I observed in the field. Over time, my sociological training had prepared me to identify the causes and consequences of domination, precarity, and inequality in the workplace. But it did much less to help me understand my informants’ attempts to resist domination, reject precarious working conditions, and promote equality in organizations. This tension first came into relief when I analyzed how gendering processes shaped the organization of work in the hotel. Drawing on my initial periods of fieldwork in Hotel Bauen, I found that the cooperative both produced and reduced gender inequality and I used my case study to refine the theory of gendered organizations to better account for inequality-reducing processes at work (Sobering 2016).
Ethnographic research of alternative organizations and other so-called “extreme cases” is ideal for developing and refining social theory. For example, theories that have long focused on the exploitative nature of work and mimetic tendencies of organizations can be broadened through the fine-grained study of how workers practice inclusion, experiment with work process, and attempt to change the “rules of the game.” While all ethnographic research plays out through twists and turns, the study of “extreme cases” requires a careful attention to removing the burden of explanation from our respondents. As I learned more about the aspirations and struggles of worker-recuperated businesses over time, I refined my research questions and evolved my position as an ethnographer. This evolution was supported by fellow students and faculty in UT-Austin’s Urban Ethnography Lab, many of whom became familiar with my project and helped me map my winding path from “how” to “why” (Katz 2001).
As is now clear, workers in Hotel Bauen reorganized work around principles of democracy, cooperation, and self-management, enshrining political equality through democratic decision-making. Yet formalized political equality does not simply translate into greater social and economic equality. Equality, observes Rueschemeyer (2005), is not so much a feature of democracy but a “critical dimension along which the quality of democracy varies.” Although they often focus on democracy at the societal level, political theories of democratic governance offer a useful starting point to understand not just the implementation, but the quality of democracy at work.
In the BAUEN Cooperative, I found that efforts to reorganize work gave concrete form to the goal of greater equality: workers not only shared the responsibilities of decision-making, but they integrated the division of labor and equalized pay. Today, all members of the cooperative are worker-owners who enjoy the formal right to vote on major decisions and appeal any decision made by their elected officers. The cooperative also practices a system of job rotation, whereby workers with very different skills can move from one sector to another to accommodate changing schedules, fill important vacancies, and ultimately broaden their understanding of work processes in the hotel. Finally, members receive the same base pay rate that is transparent and approved by the collective.
In each of these initiatives, members have confronted challenges and setbacks as they balance the complexities of managing a conference hotel with their attempts to work differently. In my ongoing research, I understand these complicated and sometimes contradictory efforts as part of an equality project, whereby members address inequalities in access to power, opportunities, and resources by reorganizing and revaluing the categories that orient social action. In this case, the characteristics that merit authority, the skills that determine eligibility for jobs, and the values that deserve compensation.
Studying equality projects invites an engagement with both political theory and sociological research. In worker-recuperated businesses like the BAUEN Cooperative, members regularly navigate the ideals of democracy and equality in the context of complex inequalities produced and reinforced in the workplace. At this nexus, the fine-grained study of these lived experiences provides insights into the interplay of values and practices to better understand the quality of democracy in organizations and efforts to create alternative ways of doing and thinking about work.
- Katz, Jack. 2001. “From How to Why: On Luminous Description and Causal Inference in Ethnography (Part I).” Ethnography 2(4):443–73.
- Rueschemeyer, Dietrich. 2005. “Addressing Inequality.” Pp. 47-61 in Assessing the Quality of Democracy, edited by Larry Diamond and Leandro Morlino. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
- Ruggeri, Andrés. 2016. Las Empresas Recuperadas por los Trabajadores en los Comienzos del Gobierno de Mauricio Macri. Estado de Situación a Mayo de 2016. Buenos Aires: Secretaría de Extensión Universitaria y Bienestar Estudiantil Facultad de Filosofía y Letras, Universidad de Buenos Aires.
- Sobering, Katherine. 2016. “Producing and Reducing Gender Inequality in a Worker-Recovered Cooperative.” The Sociological Quarterly 57(1):129–51.