Six years ago Brendan Martin, 36, was working on Wall Street in the world of global finance. Then a friend suggested he watch a new film that had just been released in the United States; Naomi Klein’s ‘The Take’. The film documents the struggles of Argentine factory workers laid off during the 2001 economic crisis to reoccupy their former workplaces and rebuild them as democratic, worker-controlled enterprises.
Brendan was so inspired by this social movement that he immediately resigned his comfortable job and took off to Argentina to set up The Working World, a non-profit foundation which gives financial support to factories and businesses under worker or co-operative control. He has been here since November 2004, and to date his organisation has authorised 200 loans to retaken businesses and co-operatives, totalling over $3m. So is Brendan a visionary for the future of Argentine industry, or simply someone who watches too many films? The Argentina Independent visited him at the office of The Working World (which doubles as Brendan’s home) to find out more.
So what does your organisation offer collective factories and businesses in Argentina?
I guess you can say that we offer credit, but specifically the type of credit that we offer closer resembles microcredit, except that we spend a lot more time with each business and make it a lot more like an investment. We earn a fixed income which means that the businesses we support share all of the profits from the venture. Because it’s socially motivated we try to go into these poor areas where there may be a newly retaken or collectively organised factory, and we’ll try to develop a project with them. We can loan the money and if the project doesn’t work for whatever reason they don’t have to pay it back. The major difference in what we are doing here is that we really do try to take the risk on ourselves, while ensuring the factories are the ones who will profit from their own success.
And were you involved in similar ventures back in the US?
I worked in finance, but they were just normal financial ventures. I worked on Wall Street, I worked for hedge funds.
So you come from a financial, capitalist background?
Well I studied economics in college, but secretly my undergraduate thesis was on co-operatives. But the better story is the conversion story.
Please tell us then, what converted you and motivated you to come here and form this type of organisation?
Well this kind of organisation has interested me for a long time. I’ve always been interested in industrial production, in modern work and especially in worker control. I like to experiment, to try things; I believe in taking whatever there is and then seeing what else could be done. So that’s the way I feel about any sort of social quest, I believe it should be done like Edison and not like Lenin! And Argentina became the best place to form an organisation like this by far. Especially after the crisis a social experiment occurred where people tried to fill the vacuum and one of these methods was the workers taking over the factories. Whereas there had always been a handful of cooperatives in the country, slowly building up and developing, suddenly you had 200 brand new worker-controlled businesses, which already had developed products; they just didn’t have any co-op background. The chance was just too incredible so I quit my job, within two months we were down here and we haven’t looked back.
On your website you mention the influence of ‘The Take’. Do you think this focused attention on the co-operative movement in Argentina?
Well it certainly was an influence for me! That’s how I heard about the situation, that’s how I learnt about it. When the movie came there were at least two people that called me up and said, “Hey there’s a movie about co-ops, aren’t you interested?” And actually at the movie theatre I met [the director] Avi Lewis and he was the one who brought me down here originally, he introduced me to all the different players in the movement. It also increased international awareness, the movie has travelled all around Europe and it definitely has been one of the best ambassadors for this movement.
Are collectives able to compete on a level playing field with conventional manufacturers?
Without a doubt, I’ve seen it far too many times. Studies show over and over again that worker run companies can operate so much better, in so many ways. When managed effectively these businesses can run rings around conventional industry. If you look at any treatise from any management guru, they’ll tell you “we’ve gotta have a motivated team, that feels like they’re part of a family.” They want workers to feel like it’s their company. Not that working in a co-op is a utopia, not everyone is happy: people get pissed off; argue with each other, just like any other democracy.
But you get people who are much more involved; if they see something not running they’ll fix it. And trying to unlock that kind of knowledge of workers on the ground, and making sure it comes back to those at the top is one of those great management holy-grails, and this is where co-ops really excel.
What do you see as the future of the co-operative movement in Argentina?
Well I would love to think it can grow and grow, and just go crazy. I think it’s a great opportunity. Since 2001 it’s reached a level, with all the new enterprises that have sprung up since then, where it can sustain itself for at least the next ten years. Before we didn’t know, especially back in 2003 when we were just beginning. There were many companies just forming and you don’t know if they’re going to peter out or fail like so many businesses do. But now I think we have a situation where nothing is going to collapse in the next two months, it can continue for at least ten years and maybe a lot longer.
For more information on The Working World and the projects it supports, visit www.theworkingworld.org