Hugo Cabrera enjoys teaching printing skills to young people coming out of prison, because he has been on the wrong side of the law himself.
In 1992, he and fellow workers at the Grafica Campichuelo print works occupied the site, in protest at its closure by the government and in defiance of an expulsion order from the police.
Forty three of the workers, with the active support of their trade union, came together to bid to save their livelihoods by saving the machinery and the business. To end the conflict and perhaps because they thought it would fail, the Government allowed them to reform as a worker cooperative.
Eleven of those founders, with a workforce now of fifty, are still with the business, which holds the contract for printing car registration documents.
Bringing new people in, without sharing the context of that extraordinary start, took time but they were committed to operating in an open way as a cooperative. “To begin with,” explains Hugo “young workers would watch debates at our Assembly like a crowd at a tennis match. To change that, we moved to decision making in smaller circles, giving new people a chance to participate and build their confidence to contribute and to challenge.”
Hugo has retired now, with the benefits that the cooperative had been able to build up, and now leads the social programme of the business, a foundation which supports training and work skills for people who are homeless or ex-offenders.
Grafica Campichuelo is one example of a recovered or recuperated enterprise, where firms went bankrupt and once abandoned, were taken over by the workforce as a coop.
Hotel Bauen in Buenos Aires is a second example. With a coffee shop, Utopia, and artwork on its walls, the hotel provides free space for solidarity groups, such as recently the annual meeting of the human rights collective that formed during the Dictatorship years. The Mothers of the Disappeared (of the Plaza de Mayo) are now grandmothers and great grandmothers, but their spirit is undimmed and as economic challenges mount up again in Argentina, they carry the torch for democracy and human rights.
A hotel, a bank, a theatre, a restaurant and a print shop are among the co-ops I have had the chance to visit over three days in Buenos Aires, alongside the programme of the International Cooperative Alliance. (I have written a report of the Assembly of the Alliance for Co-op News, which you can find here.)
As the President of the national Cooperative Bank, with 250 branches and 1.5m members, put it to me: “our job is to combine efficiency and democracy and to demonstrate that the result is a better bottom line”.