Collective subjects, self-management, and public policy in Uruguay

Anabel Rieiro
University of the Republic


We will address, from the viewpoint of political sociology, the topic of businesses recovered by their workers in Uruguay, who, faced with the closure or bankruptcy of their workplace, refuse to be part of unemployment.

We will document processes of self-management to understand their possible dynamism in the social movement. So, two clearly differentiated contexts and frames of opportunity will be analyzed: on the one hand, the emergence of the phenomenon beginning in the socioeconomic crisis of 2002 and, on the other hand, the current context, marked by a strong public policy that promotes credit for self-managed enterprises.

We analyze how, through demands that emerged defensively from the first context, configuring specific subjectivities, networks, and social forces, they were able to create new spaces for involvement that can be interpreted as new horizons and opportunities in social struggle. In the search to recreate their work, the workers engage in complex processes of empowerment that are addressed and analyzed from their economic-productive, relational, and symbolic dimensions.

This way, we will show how new collective subjects were configured that represent different experiences, with a new and complex map emerging from social relations between representatives of recovered businesses, cooperatives and unions, to investigate how the relationship is being established with public policies focused on the sector.

The chosen theoretical/methodological focus incorporates collective subjects, while determining/determined factors in the economic-productive structures. The field work consisted of triangulating qualitative and quantitative techniques.

The question that we wished to approach is: How do these processes of worker self-management happen in Uruguay? What is their meaning within the sociological-political focus on social democratization?

Contextualization: old and new frames of emergence

Between 35% and 40% of Uruguayan businesses closed during the social-economic crisis that exploded in our country in 2002, a crisis of the model of accumulation based on neoliberal principles. For more than three decades, these principles had oriented public policies in Latin America. At that point, the working class experienced the greatest level of unemployment and the greatest fall in real salaries in the history of the country.

This context, characterized by the insecurity and disintegration that create massive unemployment, acted as framework of political opportunities1 for the emergence of several cases of the defense and recovery of work. How? On the one hand, making it obvious to the workers that decide to resist unemployment that it was difficult/impossible to find another job; and on the other hand, obliging society to legitimize the emergence of different collective actions, renewing its tools for struggle.

The phenomenon currently includes thirty recovered productive enterprises, which involve more than 3,000 workers, with cooperativism being the legal option chosen by the large majority of associative processes (with the exception of three cases), and their productive activity is predominantly industrial.

In this context, recovery processes emerge, in most cases “out of a situation of ideological and organizational anomie.”2 This means that the workers who led these recoveries did not propose to make inroads on capital by appropriating the means of production out of an ideological-political project, but rather, their collective actions emerged as a response to the threat of exclusion resulting from the closure of their workplace in a context of widespread crisis.

The fact that the context from which these collective actions emerged in the socioeconomic crisis was more defensive than offensive does not mean that they were any less intense experiences, or that we find any less profound transformations in subjectivity in them.3 By taking ownership of the venture, the workers redefine their general conceptions of work and their status as workers, while the new decision-making mechanisms also modify positioning among peers,4 given that in most cases, in the collectives, they learned about assembly practices that did not exist in their prior culture.

In a country that is historically reformist, state-centric, and understated in social conflicts, as Uruguay is, the recovery of the productive venture by the workers emerges, at first, as a kind of direct action, which is to say, the conflict wasn’t institutionalized, which is why the toolbox of struggles is renewed.

The importance of approaching and understanding these self-managed experiences in the productive sphere must not be reduced to the number of enterprises and workers involved. The core of their importance is in the symbolic impact of “worker self-management” as a possibility.

It is these cultural ruptures that bring out certain latent contradictions,5 sparking new debates that represent potential for political renewal in our society.

Ten years after the socioeconomic crisis that exploded in our country, now under the second government of the Frente Amplio, the phenomenon of the recovery of businesses by their workers, no longer in a context of emergency, has been growing slowly, finding a new framework of opportunities.

A key point to understanding the new context is the creation of the Fund for Development (FONDES), which was created with the objective of giving assistance and financial support to productive projects, prioritizing enterprises with the participation of their workers in the leadership and capital of the businesses, and in particular to models of self-management. The FONDES had 115 million dollars to award in 2012, coming from the 30 percent profits of the Banco República (BROU) in 2010 (45 million) and in 2011 (70 million), and has 70 million dollars to award during 2013.

The emergence of new recoveries in contemporary Uruguay will have to be understood in this new political context, added to the consolidated experience that the recovered businesses have been accumulating for a decade, which poses worker self-management as a “possibility” based on a productive, visible, concrete reality with social recognition.

Profile of the workers and characteristics of recovery processes

The heterogeneity of the phenomenon is high, given that the organization that becomes of recovery is always a dynamic process, that depends on the number of people, the branch of the business, conformation of the group, the history of the previous business, etc. The backbone is industrial enterprises with 40-plus years of experience, the large majority from the stage when the development model the country practiced was “import substitution” (prior to the application of neoliberal measures).

Analyzing the profile of the workers in these experiences, we find that 70% has an age between 40 and 60 years, the average being 48 years. With respect to education, most of the workers (56%) started secondary education or technical education without being able to finish. The average work experience in the previous business is 18 years and 60% of the workers were associated with their union at the time of the closure of the business.6

While the majority of productive units come from strong union organizations, none of these workers’ associations previously disputed the management of the company. With only a few exceptions, mobilizations and collective actions carried out were in defense of salaries and working conditions.

We can characterize the organizational culture prior to the recovery process as highly vertical. The workers were like gears in a machine to which they had to submit in exchange for an agreed salary, but they did not know about or take part in the organization of the larger unit.7 Work was experienced as something they had to adapt to, and the worker’s activity was done with a disengaged attitude.8

Beyond subjects and the individual interest/commitment to recovery, the workers must start to create a collective subjectivity that can allow for collective action. Through this participation that tries to modify their surroundings, a timid change in the old, disengaged attitude can be observed. They begin to psychically and existentially influence events—no longer “observers,” but becoming constituent and active parts of them. Individual paths are not automatic or homogeneous. Taking ownership of the productive and political project happens with discussions, differences, and internal struggles that can, at times, be arduous, but that are creating an intersubjective attitude, where individuals begin to recognize themselves as part of a “we.”

The search for autonomy happens in these processes of recovery, with a permanent tension between the economic and social dimensions, where it is usual to find knots of contradiction. To give an example in economics, some of the workers who live by their labor, and do not receive a salary in exchange for their work, still find more abstract ways where part of the fruit of their work is expropriated when their goods are sold on the market.

An example of this “indirect” expropriation is a façon production, a process by which a businessperson provides raw material and seed capital, the cooperative enterprise processes it, and the same businessperson takes charge of its marketing.

While the units recovered by their workers have been and are under suspicion because of having gone from being employed workers to “owners” of the means of production, this does not mean that they become “proprietors" or "businesspeople.” The phenomenon must be understood historically and in a specific class structure. Taking ownership of the means of production is not the end of the actions undertaken, which, on the contrary, were formed as a worker mechanism to avoid and resist underemployment or unemployment.

Once the business is recovered, the processes can split. Gaining control of the means of production could favor moving to another social class if the workers reproduce the previous business culture by exploiting others, or moving to new class struggles where the workers make more gains in ownership. We clearly found several initiatives that consolidated the second tendency, given that in most cases, the existence of wage hiring is zero (or up to 20%) and the remuneration of partners is, in 50% of cases, egalitarian (based on hours worked and not hierarchy), and in 50% of the cases, according to hierarchical categories according to qualifications and/or responsibilities, with surpluses divided equally in all cases.

The most important thing to analyze in the phenomenon may be the collective consciousness acquired in the process, which will be able to be identified in the renewal (or not) of demands in the public sphere, the generation/reproduction of new/old relationships of dependence, and the ability to create social alliances and new social struggles from within the working class. In this regard, the ability to influence and create an autonomous relationship, but one that co-manges public policy, appears as a key topic when it comes time to analyze the new social context.

General characteristics of Public Policy: relationships between

collective subjects and government

We will start from a conception of public policy (PP) that uses the proposal of Hintze,9 who understands PP as conditioning, and at the same time conditioned by, the economic activity in which it is developed and emerges, immersed in a certain, specific, particular society. That is, the characteristics of PPs should be understood not as an abstract issue, isolated from societies, but within them and their broadest characteristics of production/reproduction.

At the same time, the author characterizes them as a group of actions and omissions, that would be “expression of the particular relationship between society/economy and State in a given situation.”10 This way, while the relevance of State action is reasserted, this space is transcended, emphasizing the public nature as a relational result of politics with collectives, balances of power, the capacities for action towards the systems of political and social representation, and the disputes that make up the social fabric. So, according to the author,11 PPs oriented towards advancement and sustainability of the Social and Solidarity Economy (SSE) demand a view centered especially on the spaces of interaction between State institutions and civil society.

The characteristics of these PP would be12: a) they constitute PP in a broad sense, transcending social and labor policies, b) they are intersectoral, which is to say that are created from different interventions from different sectors, c) they are dynamic and dialogue-based processes that can be defined according to variable degrees of verticality or horizontality, d) socioeconomic solidarity organizations are characterized by being territorially situated, whether or not they are involved in specific development processes.

From an analysis of how to manage PPs, in the search for dialogue-based and participatory conceptions, challenges for organizational change include, in the first place, consciously addressing the strong inertia/cultural inheritance, which is often times characterized by being vertical, welfare-based, cronyist, paternalist, asymmetric, and technocratic, by building a new, shared culture that is capable of institutionalizing values, standards and assumptions that allow for a renewed perspective on management. So, in this new conception, three basic issues are highlighted: the symmetry of the bonds between public agents and actors of civil society (that allow a true dialogue and collective construction), autonomy (as a conquest of greater degrees of decision and definition based on their own strength) and cooperation (relationships based on transparency and trust that enable a true integration into the processes).

From this general theoretical focus, we propose to analyze the new policy of FONDES, addressing it from the space and concrete territory into which it emerges.

For this reason, will be necessary to return several general details at the level of PPs in our national configuration and contextualize them for self-managed work. In this regard, to address PPs in Uruguay, it is necessary to look back to various authors13 to propose at the global level that the Uruguayan welfare system had been characterized by an early emergence, whose origins date back to the beginning of the nineteenth century, and whose expansion is processed in the first decades of the twentieth century, making it pertinent to understand how the early modernization of the political order, the expansion of the Welfare State and democratic consolidation took time, and happened as part of a single process. The fusion of the process of institutionalization and democratization establishes a symbolic fusion, recognizable through the present, granting political institutions a strong social legitimacy in civil society.

Faced with the socioeconomic crisis that exploded in the country during 2002, the recovery of productive units by their workers, by not focusing on plans and labor subsidies, but rather on reconstructing the jobs themselves, looks like a promising ‘zone’ to explore for public policies as civil resistance to the cyclical crises of the economy, without creating relationships of dependency and/or public assistance. The reconstruction of social ties and the tendency towards territorialization that these enterprises represent, can revalue the productive knowledge of the workers, recognize their capacity for initiative and creativity, implant new forms of organizing, promote the decentralization of power and guarantee more equitable distribution.

FONDES was created by a Presidential decree with the objective of giving assistance and financial support to productive projects, prioritizing enterprises with the participation of their workers in the direction and capital of the businesses, and in particular to self-management models. As of right now, financing has been provided to the Dairy Producers’ Association of San José, the September 7th Cooperative-FUNSACOOP (producers of tires and protective clothing), ENVIDRIO (glass containers) and URUVEN (tannery)14, Ceramic Workers Cooperative of Empalme Olmos (CTC), Worker Cooperative of Popular Food Entrepreneurship (CTEPA) and COTRAPAY Cooperative. On the other hand, there is a wide variety of projects presented waiting to be evaluated (Farm Florida, COOTAB, PROFUNCOOP, “El Águila” Cooperative, COTRADUR, COOTAX, Bella Vela Worker Cooperative, COMURE, La Diaria Cooperative, and COTRAYDI). While not all the enterprises are recovered businesses, we find that those that are occupy an important place both in the number of benefiting enterprises, as well as representing the largest units.

If we approach FONDES’ policy by focusing on the spaces of interaction between State institutions and civil society, we can observe that a complex institutionality has been created to regulate and control this fund with very little overlap or connection with other government bodies or connection to other—smaller—policies for the sector.

On the other hand, another criticism of the design and implemention of the policy is that it was defined without having included in the debate the enterprises and collective, self-managed organizations that, in principle—and over the long term—it is intended to strengthen.

In the design of the policy itself, the public sphere and the participatory building of regulation has been limited to different State settings or personal connections to particular leaders. The autonomous path of self-managed enterprises and their representative organizations has not been recognized as a qualified participant, with a kind of training and specific knowledge of crucial importance to think about the viability of the project at the global level.

However, the organizations linked to self-managed experiences were not passive, and began to connect with each other and demand spaces for dialogue and interaction. Today, a dialogue between the Presidency and the most important organizations in the sector (ANERT, FCPU and PITCNT) has been arranged. This space has a non-institutional nature and is more informative than deliberative.

In this regard, beyond intentions, the organizational change necessary to conceive of PPs from a mainly participatory and interactive perspective comes up against verticalist inheritances. As Marsiglia argues,15 the prevailing centralism in our country has effects on public policies that are heirs of a vertical and sectoral logic, built on a uniform vision of the territory, ignoring local details and collective subjectivities. The State, and particularly the central State, has been the great operator of public policies from a homogeneous—and therefore homogenizing—view of the different territories that conform our nation.

The balance between autonomous collective actions and public policies must be enhanced through dialogue, debate, and mutual re-creation (though differentiated), and not through imposition or colonization by one of the other. While self-organization at the local level may encounter limitations for the design of public policies of a universal nature, running the risk of reinforcing a certain corporatism or asymmetrical power relations (we find, in this case, a rivalry between organizations to position themselves as the “legitimate representation of the self-managed sector,” and they often do not cooperate with other organizations), is only out of recognition of these territories that the policy creates effective mechanisms for dialogue to be constituted as a reflective and inclusive policy with a capacity for reconfiguration, given the diversity of processes.

The “recognition” of concrete collective subjects, not only for the implementation of policies, but in the whole cycle of public policy (design and planning), is what enables the construction of participatory mechanisms where groups feel integrated and active in policies that set the conditions for their future. So, in debates that organizations are holding in civil society, certain demands and concerns about FONDES are arising with respect to its vulnerable institutionality and dependence on the government. The organizations are asking for it to be changed from a Presidential decree to a state law with corresponding legislation that sustains it beyond the current government, among other demands proposed today.

Reconfiguration of the self-managed social sector and new collective subjects

In Argentina, the opposition to classical unionism is clear, and we find the formation of several networks where these enterprises are grouping, like the National Movement of Recovered Businesses (which later divided), the National Movement of Factories Recovered by the Workers, the Organizations of Argentine Workers, etc.; in Uruguay, the repertoires of collective action that emerged from these experiences begin to connect in the Board of Coordination of Recovered Businesses in the Department of Industry of the PIT-CNT (Inter-union Plenary of Workers – National Convention of Workers), which split off in 2007 to become an independent organization: the National Association of Businesses Recovered by their Workers (ANERT).

The enterprises, mostly formed as cooperatives, also begin to be linked with the FCPU (Federation of Cooperatives of Production of Uruguay) and in many cases also keep their union affiliation.16 In 2010, ANERT also forms the "Board of Self-Management and Collective Building" (MEPACC) convened at the 40th anniversary of FUCVAM (Uruguayan Federation of Cooperativism of Housing for Mutual Aid), where all organizations involved in processes of self-management that would like to use this tool “for social transformation” were invited.

This space also was also formed by the FCPU and the UdelaR (University of the Republic), with the Network of Social Economy and Solidarity added later.

MEPACC began to function in May of 2010, creating a platform of proposals and demands towards which to direct its collective action, seeking to create deep changes through self-management. The organizations clustered there started from the supposition that self-management not only serves to develop occasional businesses, but can be a way of managing reality and society in general. So, they express in the platform: “We begin with the conviction that, starting from the collaborative relationships that are the basis of a true self-management, it is possible to lay the foundation for the building of a more just and inclusive society.” The three main points that have oriented the discussion and action are: 1. The construction of the joint action platform, 2. The need to propose a public debate with government representatives on self-management, and 3. The creation of solidarity networks and of new social relationships through the direct participation inherent to self-managed processes themselves.

Finally, beginning in April 2012, in the framework of a new regulation of FONDES, we find the formation of a space for worker self-management within the PIT-CNT, a space that recovered businesses, associative productive enterprises, and second-tier organizations are actively participating in. The construction of this space in the heart of a federation of unions is interesting, because, as Tarrow argues,17 the mobilization of preexisting social networks can reduce social transactional costs of a call for demonstrations, and keeps the participants united even once the initial enthusiasm of the confrontation has faded.

As in several experiences of self-management in other contries, like in France with the CFDT,[^135] or the experience between worker councils and the Fiat unions in Italy,[^136] the relationship between unionism and self-management has had a permanent tension in the social-political field during these years in Uruguay as well. In synthesis, while the practices of self-management analyzed here emerge as strategies to struggle against unemployment, they begin to cluster (with a marginal and controversial place) within the union federation, soon opting to group together in an independent association. The evolution of the phenomenon has led to the resurgence of alliances as openings and possibilities for these experiences to take a central place in the union movement. In this space of connections, various events have been organized and proposals have developed, like the project for “public purchases by the State” that favors self-managed enterprises.

Faced with the new horizon of public policies focused on the sector, the process is happening in Uruguay in a particular way. Starting from the contradictory nature of the State, as a space in dispute,18 we can contrast regionally how the social relations between State and the collective subjects of the field of self-management came about, to reach several final reflections.

In the first place, in our context, the process of co-construction between public policy and civil society did not happen, as it did in Brazil. Paul Singer19 characterizes the relationship between the National Secretary of Solidarity Economy (SENAES) and the Brazilian Forum of Solidarity Economy (FBES) as “symbiotic,” and at the same time, “confrontational.”

While public policies—with FONDES highlighted among them—cannot be interpreted only as the result of the efforts of social movements to create a national project, in the Uruguayan context, we find that the strong State push—perhaps in contrast to Venezuela—found experiences in civil society with a long history and maturity in the formation of collective subjects in the field of self-management.

By way of reflection, looking towards the future, some challenges can be identified in the need to consolidate the self-managed economy, enhancing a political project of “resistance” to the dominion of capital and enough “autonomy” to propose other values and modes of socializing through the construction of global socioeconomic alternatives.

On this goal, public policy should recognize and dialogue with social forces, seeking to consolidate policies for the State that guarantee their continuity beyond governments that occupy it.


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Carretero Miramar, José Luis (2010). Las empresas recuperadas. Hacia una comprensión de la autogestión obrera real, Nómadas, Núm 25, Madrid, Universidad Complutense de Madrid.

Danani, C. (2004). “Introducción. El alfiler en la silla: sentidos, proyectos y alternativas en el debate de las políticas sociales y la economía social,” en Danani, Claudia (comp.). Política social y economía social. Debates fundamentales (Buenos Aires: UNGS-Altamira-OSDE).

Defaud, Nicolas (2009). La CFDT (1968-1995). De l´autogestion au unionisme de proposition, Paris, Presses de Sciences Po

Fernández, A.(2005). “Notas para la constitución de un campo de problemas de la subjetividad,” en Fernández, A. (ed). Instituciones Estalladas, Pág. 37-57, Buenos Aires, Eudeba.

Hintze, S. (2009). Políticas públicas/Gestión, en Cattani, A.D; Coraggio, J.L. y Laville, J-L.: Diccionario de la otra economía, UNGS-Altamira, CLACSO Coediciones, Buenos Aires.

Hintze, S. (2010): La Política es un arma cargada de futuro: La economía social y solidaria en Brasil y Venezuela, Ediciones CLACSO-CICCUS. Capítulos y anexos de casos Brasil y Venezuela. Disponible en: ar/clacso/novedades_editoriales/libros_clacso/libro_detalle.php?orden=&id_ libro=573&pageNum_rs_libros=1&totalRows_rs_libros=560.

Huertas, Olga Lucía; Guevara, Ricardo Dávila; Castillo, Darío (2011). "Transformaciones en las subjetividades de los trabajadores: casos de empresas colombianas recuperadas," Univ. Psychol, Vol 10, No 2, May-Ag., Pp. 581-594.

Kapron, S. y Fialho, A.L. (2004). Políticas públicas para la economía solidaria.

En Cattani, A.D. (organizador). La otra economía. UNGS-OSDE, Altamira, Buenos Aires.

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Marsiglia, Javier (2007). El nuevo rol de los gobiernos locales como puentes entre el estado y la sociedad civil, Revista Digital La Opinión Independiente, Nº 3, Montevideo, Junio, en:

Mc Adam, D.; Mc Carthy, J.; y Zald, M. (1999). Movimientos sociales: perspectivas comparadas, Madrid, Istmo.

Midaglia, Carmen; ROBERT, Pedro (2001). Uruguay: un caso de estrategias mixtas de protección para los sectores vulnerables; en: ZICCAARDI, Alicia; et al; Pobreza, Desigualdad y Ciudadanía, CLACSO, Buenos Aires.

Panizza, Francisco (1986). Uruguay: Batllismo y después, Montevideo, Ediciones de la Banda Oriental.

Rieiro, Anabel (2011). Gestión obrera y acciones colectivas en el mundo del trabajo: empresas recuperadas por sus trabajadores en Uruguay, Alemania, editorial académica española.

Singer, P. (2009). Relaciones entre Sociedad y Estado en la economía solidaria, en ICONOS, FLACSO-Ecuador, Nº 33, Quito. Disponible en: http://www.redalyc. org/articulo.oa?id=50903305.

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  1. Tarrow, 1997, 1994.

  2. Carretero, 2010, p.3.

  3. We take up the concept of subjectivity proposed by Fernández (2005), who frames it as a social construct of the subject, who is simulataneously product and producer of social, political, and economic relationships of the social fabric in which it is immersed.

  4. Huertas et al, 2011.

  5. McAdam, McCarthy and Zald, 1999.

  6. Data from a survey carried out during the year 2008 with workers in recovered businesses.

  7. The organizational unity of the entire productive process, which is more than the sum of its parts, is transformed under capitalist rationalization into a system of isolated fragments, making the man who is able to make it work into just another component.

  8. The phenomenon of reification was described by Marx as follows: "The mystery of the commodity form, therefore, is simply that it takes the social characteristics of men’s own labour and reflects them back to men as the objective characteristics of the products of labour themselves, as the social natural properties of these things. It thus also reflects the social relation of the producers to the totality of labour as a social relation of objects, one that exists independently of the producers. Through this quid pro quo the products of labour become commodities and natural supernatural or social things." (Lukács, 1969, p.93). [English translation taken from]

  9. 2009.

  10. Hintze, 2009, p. 289.

  11. Hintze, 2009, p. 91.

  12. Hintze, 2009, PP. 291-292.

  13. Panizza, 1986; Midaglia and Robert, 2001 among others.

  14. The last three enterprises had had financing from the government of Venezuela.

  15. 2007.

  16. We found that of 19 cases studied in 2008-2009 (Rieiro, 2011, p.142), all the enterprises declared themselves to be part of ANERT, ten of the Federation, and eight of their grassroots union.

  17. 1994:56.

  18. Danani, 2004; Hintze, 2010; Kapron and Fialho, 2004.

  19. 2009.

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