"We learned to have ideals"

Seamstress Matilde Adorno explains how a dispute over pay at the Brukman factory in Buenos Aires bec

Do you remember how the occupation of the factory was organised?

It happened naturally. We had been going in for 15 days during which, although there was a tonne of work, they didn't pay us a cent. The manager coerced people, told them that if they didn't work they wouldn't get paid at all. Supposedly, we took home 100 pesos every Friday, but that was already history. We stopped production so that they would give us some money. We weren't even thinking about taking over the factory.

But you took it?

That last Friday they gave us two pesos and told us not to show up the whole next week. We were terrified - there was work, they wouldn't pay us, they told us not to come in, and they had even made us sign for unpaid leave. The following Tuesday, we sat at our workstations and, at 7am, when the executives showed up, we came downstairs en masse to see how much money they were going to give us. An argument broke out and the owners left. Honestly, we never thought that they wouldn't come back. Twenty-three people stayed overnight.

What did you think when you went back to the factory the following day?

I saw people in the street, a police car. I thought it was all over. Inside I found everyone looking pretty scared. The nightwatchman had left the key with those who stayed, who had locked themselves in until we got there. It still hadn't occurred to us that the owners weren't going to come. As the day wore on and they didn't show up, we wanted to die, we were desperate. We spent the first day waiting for them to come, staring at the walls.

Meanwhile, the country exploded. That day was 19 December 2001.

We were so absorbed by our own situation that we didn't even know there was another reality. I remember how that night most of the workers stayed. One worker sat at a desk and most of the rest lay down on the floor. We were scared to death. Eventually some of the workers, especially the men, began to leave, until my colleague Juanita stood up and said: "No, no one else is leaving this place. This belongs to everyone." She stood in front of the door, grabbed the key, put it right here [Adorno gestures to her bra] and said again: "Nobody moves."

What happened when you heard the cacerolazos [street protests] outside?

At some point during the night we began to hear noises and someone said, "It's the gendarmería [federal police] coming to kick us out." And when we took a peek outside, it was people banging pots and pans. We didn't understand what was happening at all. We didn't have a TV or a radio. The mistake was theirs, the owners - because if they had come, with ten pesos even, we would have grabbed those ten pesos and left.

The political parties approached you soon after?

Yes, they came around about that time. Actually, the first ones that came were from the IMPA [a worker co-operative association], to see if we wanted to form a co-operative. But we still thought that the owners would be here any minute, and that we would be able to negotiate. We started working, but I think it wasn't until we pitched the tent outside that we realised that they weren't coming back.

When did the idea to form a co-operative come up?

In the spring of 2002. The legislature later told us that we had to form a co-operative because they couldn't turn the factory over to just any Tom, Dick or Harry.Some of the political groups didn't want to - they told us that things were going badly for other co-operatives. There were two or three of us who fought over this. The majority weren't paying attention to what was being discussed - they just waited for Friday, hoping to take some money home with them.

Did you always distribute earnings equally?

Always. At no point did anyone oppose this. And now we're going to continue this way. If there are ten pesos, we distribute them among everyone, after setting aside money for bills.

What was it like the first time you were kicked out of the building, in March of 2002?

That eviction was somewhat violent, though not nearly as much as the one on 23 November. It was unbelievable, done by a SWAT team. I was alone on the third floor, on a mattress next to a sewing machine. When I opened my eyes, I saw a guy in a ski mask pointing an Ithaca shotgun at my head. I thought I was in a movie - I couldn't believe this was happening. They came in by breaking all the doors down using their rifle butts - it was pretty dramatic. Walking out of the factory, it felt like a militarised zone, full of soldiers. That's when they charged us with trespassing and theft, and fined us 50,000 pesos.

What changed once you were outside?

My colleagues became more politically conscious, more than during the entire year and a half inside. They came to understand what struggle is about; they learned to not let themselves be fooled, to not keep quiet. They learned that they have to defend their own ideas.

Interview by the Lavaca Collective