An article by Chris Arsenault about cooperatives in Chiapas, Mexico. Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (November 2005).
It's been more than eleven years since the Zapatistas of Chiapas, Mexico said 'ya basta' or 'enough' to neo-liberalism and initiated a struggle for self-determination.
Today, the Zapatistas are creating a variety of participatory economic institutions to meet community needs: women's artisan co-ops, communal corn farming organizations, fair-trade coffee cooperatives and a non-sweatshop boot cooperative.
On a sunny day last year, myself and a delegation of foreign solidarity activists tramped the muddy hills around Oventic Caracole, in the Los Altos region, to visit the 1st of January boot co-op. Rafael Hedez, a leading activist with the co-op, and several other compañeros welcomed us with Cokes and bowls of snow-tire tough beef soup stewed on an open fire.
Inside the workshop, basically a barn with corrugated iron roof, one of the higher-end buildings in a region of thatched farm cuts, a dozen or so men busily cut leather, stick patterns and heat branding irons, large blue flames erupt as glue is melted to stick on the soles.
After showing us around, Hedez begins speaking proudly about ownership structure at the workshop, "We have no owner. Here we are all equals," he said.
"When there is something necessary, or when problems arise, all jobs have problems, then we have a meeting or a discussion in general. If we want to make something without consulting the rest, we can't do that. We must present that job on behalf of everyone," said Hedez.
The co-op started Jan. 1, 1998, when two activists traveled from Chiapas to Mexico City spending six months learning the trade. The independent workshop that trained Hedez and others has since shut down, due to a huge influx of low-cost footwear from China.
Its first priority is to provide high-quality, low-cost footwear for the surrounding communities. "We sell to the indigenous for 150-220 pesos (approx. US$25), just enough to recuperate the cost of the materials. Here in San Andres there are shoes for 100 pesos, but they will only last for a season," said another co-op member.
With significant national and international interest in Zapatismo, the cooperative decided they could use sales to non-indigenous to help finance the development of the workshop. "We sell high boots to foreigners for 350 pesos and medium for 300. This is the price for those who are in solidarity with us, who are also Zapatistas," said Hedez.
Before ending his presentation, Hedez stressed the praxis of the organization, "This is the factory for everyone. We are all the owners. We are the coordinators who coordinate the workshop."
"We try to organize ourselves along the same principals as the 1st of January Co-op," said Amanda Smith, a member of the Black Star Boot Cooperative, a Canadian organization helping to find markets for the boots and solidarity grants to improve the factory.
"Organizing cooperatively is certainly trying," said Smith, an anthropology student from Halifax. "None of us have experience working with boots. It's a little disorganized, frustrating and often inefficient, but the project came directly from the Zapatistas, and at this point, it seems like the most useful thing we can be doing," she said.
"It's less about selling boots than it is about the example we are trying to set; economic interaction based on international solidarity and workers producing quality goods without bosses," she said.
Since the uproar against sweatshop abuses in the early '90s, major textile corporations have spent millions on public relations to showcase "good corporate citizenry" - as if such a concept were possible.
Some positive examples of non-sweat apparel production have sprung up in the last couple years: Sweat X was paying "living" wages to U.S. workers (until it shut down) and American Apparel, which recently opened a store in Toronto, pays workers in Los Angeles decent wages to produce unbranded high quality t-shirts and other clothing.
Commendable as these examples are, their praxis is fundamentally flawed. They seek a return to the post-war settlement, naively hoping decent-paying 9-5 factory jobs can thrive again in the era of neo-liberalism. And although workers have more say over their lives at the American Apparel factory than in a Nike or Adidas outsourcing operation, the non-sweat factories still operate on a centrally planned hierarchy.
In a sense, the Zapatistas, basically an agrarian movement, have leap-frogged the entire wage system with their forays into 'industry.' Co-op members receive no salary for their labor; all profits are invested back into entire community, mostly for public services, specifically health promotion.
"We have a difficult situation," admits Hedez, who is married with several children. "We sustain ourselves through what little we can grow in our milpas (corn fields). We have two days a week for working in the fields. We also buy various things, but very little."
On the outset, working roughly a 40-hour week as a volunteer seems over-zealous, if not downright exploitative. But factory activists have realized they can't individually pull themselves out of poverty. Key pillars of Zapatismo like health, education, work and dignity demand collective action, cooperation and mutual aid.
While boot co-op activists work in their little factory, other community members cut grass and do repairs on public spaces, provide health care, grow shared food, administer justice and take on other tasks in the public interest. Like most political movements, some Zapatistas end up doing more work than others but all people involved in the movement are expected to contribute as best they can.
The 1st of January Boot Workshop is not a perfect model of economic democracy. The component parts for the boots - soles, laces etc. - are bought from coyotes (middlemen) in San Cristobal de las Casas and are presumably imported from China.
And, in the Chiapas highlands, the 'glory' of worker-self-management exists beside deplorable poverty the Mexican government characterizes as 'acute marginalization'; many of the workshop activists can't afford shoes for their own children.
Poverty is ubiquitous in Chiapas (and most of the world), stifling possibilities for participatory economics; you can't make something from nothing. The workshop wants to expand production but it's unlikely they'll get a bank loan for new capital; a 1994 memo from the Chase Manhattan Bank urging the Mexican army to "eliminate the Zapatistas" elucidates how global capital evaluates those who seek alternatives.
Still, the workshop's production is based on a key principle of Zapatismo, 'Everything for everyone, nothing for ourselves.'
"Those of us with the privilege of a Canadian passport, who are 'also Zapatistas' by Rafeal's definition, have a responsibility to help build participatory structures in re-developing areas," said Black Star organizer Dennis Hale. "Not just for because we're nice guilty liberals, but because we need them more than they need us."
Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (November 2005)
Originally posted: November 2, 2005 at iww.org