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Revolución on the Cookie Factory Floor

The new owner of Argentina’s de facto national treat stopped paying his majority-female workforce — so they seized control of the entire operation.

Revolución on the Cookie Factory Floor

The alfajor cookie being assembled at La Nirva factory in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

It was a rainy night, and the striking workers took refuge wherever they could — some huddled under a small canopy tent; others beneath beach umbrellas. They were frightened and cold, but this is what they’d voted to do. They were camping outside of La Nirva factory, where they’d all worked long hours for years, each playing their own small part in producing the Grandote alfajor, or “Big One,” a gargantuan chocolate-coated caramel cookie sandwich, and arguably the most popular confection in Argentina. But for more than five months now, the Grandote had disappeared from the market. And the laborers who’d spent much of their lives making these cookies were not happy.

None of them had ever done anything like this before, but the situation was critical. Roughly 80 percent of the workers at the factory were women, and most were the main providers for their families. Many had been with the company for more than a decade. But lately, they were struggling to put food on the table. It had been months since they’d received a full paycheck. Now, in May 2020, as the coronavirus crept into the country, a strict nationwide lockdown was underway. While most of the country hunkered down indoors to stay safe from the virus, these workers were camping out in a last-ditch effort to demand what was due to them.

They did not yet realize the many twists and turns their collective journey was about to take.

 

La Nirva factory is a three-stories-tall, half-a-block-wide behemoth on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. Between alfajores and other cookies, the factory, which employed around 120 people in 2018, has a production capacity of 1.6 million daily units. Since most of the employees live in the capital city or nearby towns, they commute to the factory by train, bus or car. For 22 years, Carmen Gómez, a 42-year-old cook and operator, commuted for an hour to work every day. The alfajor factory was Carmen’s first formal job after dropping out of high school to provide for her family. Soon after starting here, she got married and had her first kid, who is now 20 years old. She has often said that La Nirva is “like my second home.”

In 2017, Argentina was headed for yet another in a long line of economic crises. Market-friendly reforms introduced by the new presidential administration had failed to spark the economy, instead leading to record-high inflation and unprecedented levels of debt, as well as a sharp rise in poverty and unemployment. Between December 2015 and December 2019, 24,505 Argentine businesses folded. After operating the factory for more than 30 years, La Nirva’s original owners sold the company in 2017 to Grupo Blend, a conglomerate owned by two businessmen, Matías Pérez Paradiso and Marcelo Iribarren.

“The first months, it was the same as before. We didn’t have payment issues,” says Marcelo Cáceres, a 36-year-old La Nirva employee who started there in 2008, shortly after finishing high school. He worked in the factory’s laboratory until a back injury forced him to move to the cleaning department. He’s also been the workers’ union delegate since his second year at La Nirva. Why? “I am a little crazy and I do not like injustices,” he says.

During Marcelo’s first decade at the factory, those injustices were usually limited to standard union concerns, like lunch breaks not being long enough. Things changed, Marcelo says, shortly after Grupo Blend took over — they started cutting work hours, overtime and bonuses. By the beginning of 2018, the employees say they were only working three days a week. Things went downhill from there.

Mónica Moyano, an employee who has worked at the factory for 22 years, noticed that the merchandise wasn’t going out. “We kept producing, but the product would just stay in the warehouse,” she tells us. “Sometimes we’d have to open up boxes of alfajores and throw them away because they’d gone bad.” In her two decades at the factory, she’d never seen that happen.

Left, Lorena Pereira is a machine operator who has worked at La Nirva for 22 years. Right, Mónica Moyano has also worked at La Nirva for 22 years.

Then the building’s electrical power, gas and running water stopped working. Apparently, the new owners hadn’t been paying the bills. For nearly a year, the workers couldn’t produce anything. They were still paid during this period, but only about 4,000 pesos (roughly $140 at the time) every 15 days, a fraction of their normal salaries.

“We started to notice the factory decaying,” says Noelia, a packing employee who’d worked for the company for 12 years. “That’s when we started to really worry about the situation: ‘He can’t pay the bills, how is he going to pay us?’ we asked ourselves.”

Noelia’s worries were more than justified. Soon after, Grupo Blend not only stopped paying their employees but also their suppliers. Meanwhile, their customers weren’t happy either. La Nirva had long produced alfajores for supermarkets and gas stations, which paid for their shipments in advance. When Grupo Blend took over, those stores continued handing out advance payments — but now they weren’t getting their cookies in return.

Then almost half of the workers were laid off. Marcelo, the union rep, made noise and tried to defend his fired colleagues, but he says one day he received an ominous phone call: “Stop bothering or you’re gonna get shot,” he heard on the other end of the line.

By October 2019, after almost a year with the factory closed and the workers only receiving portions of their salaries, they went on strike. “We were on asamblea permanente,” says Marcelo. That translates to “permanent assembly,” meaning they were in the factory discussing their situation. Paradiso, the new co-owner and majority shareholder, promised to restart production, vowing that he would pay all of the delayed salaries.

He kept half of his promise: Before the end of the month, the factory reopened, and the workers stopped the strike and made lots and lots of alfajores. The company finally agreed to pay the workers their past-due salaries, handing out checks for as much as 300,000 pesos ($5,000 USD). The workers went home for the holidays with hope — but it wasn’t over yet.

The banks were closed, so many of the workers held on to their new checks. Others needed the money immediately, so they cashed theirs with private exchangers or gave them to friends or relatives in exchange for cash. Eventually they all found out the same thing: The checks had bounced. The company had no funds.

According to Argentina’s official record of debtors, there are at least 290 declined checks on La Nirva S.A.’s record, amounting to 52.2 million Argentine pesos, or roughly $1.2 million at the time. Not only was the company indebted to its employees — they also owed $6 million to the previous owners and $370,000 to banks and other financial institutions.

“I was appalled,” says Carmen, who had asked her sisters for money to buy food, planning to repay them after cashing in her check. Marcelo had cashed his check with a friend, then had to sell off a car and other belongings to pay them back. His friend gave him some time to repay, but others were less lucky. “I have a colleague who had a serious problem because he cashed it with street exchangers. People that don’t mess around,” Marcelo says solemnly. “They threatened to kill him.”

It was a stressful Christmas for the workers. Some looked for new jobs, but many feared they’d aged out of the market, especially as the economic crisis made jobs in Buenos Aires scarce for everyone.

In February 2020, the employees decided they could no longer sit by and wait. They decided to protest right in front of the factory. As news of their fight spread, local schoolteachers, neighbors, university students, members of leftist political groups, and others all turned out to support them. Many also donated money to the workers’ fondo de lucha, or “fight fund.”

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A La Nirva worker holds a box asking for “funds for the fight” during a protest.

It was supportive neighbors who alerted the workers to a key piece of new information: They’d noticed a truck coming in at night and people taking out pieces of equipment. It seemed that Grupo Blend wanted to sell the machinery and close the factory altogether. The workers weren’t willing to let that happen. That’s when they decided to guard the factory at all times. Their daytime protests expanded into overnight encampments.

La Nirva workers take to the streets in a protest march.

The workers at La Nirva weren’t just defending their livelihoods. They were defending a national emblem. Perhaps no one has documented the cultural relevance and intricacies of alfajores better than Facundo Calabró, or “the Alfajor Taster” (@alfajorperdido) as he is known on Twitter, where he samples and posts his takes on different version of the beloved cookie.

Alfajores arouse irrational passions similar to those generated by other elements of culture, such as soccer teams and religion,” Calabró tells us. He says that the love and devotion people have for various brands of alfajores is deeply connected to Argentinian identity. Regions across Argentina have their own local brands; there are fancy alfajores you’d eat at a restaurant, and simple ones you’ll find at a corner store. There are ones you’d get at a school cafeteria, and ones you make at home.

A La Nirva factory worker arranging the baked cookies to be filled and coated.

“An alfajor can define a person, their neighborhood or even their childhood,” says Calabró.

La Nirva produces two of these identity-defining alfajores: La Recoleta, their high-end alfajor, and Grandote (“Big One”), the alfajor of the people. That’s the one informal vendors sell on trains and buses to commuters on their way to work, its triple layer of cookies and double layer of dulce de leche easily filling any hungry belly. Even if it’s not their preferred alfajor, generations of Argentinians recognize this oversize cookie and recall its tongue-in-cheek jingle: “Ya probaste el chiquito, ahora probá el Grandote.” (“You’ve tried the small one, now try the Big One.”)

For Calabró, it’s the Argentinian people at large who are at risk of losing part of their identity if the Grandote were to cease to exist. “When a product like this disappears, Argentine culture loses something valuable,” he says.

 

The workers took turns manning the protest station throughout the night. Their families also helped out: Antonella Llanos, a 31-year-old single mother who works at the factory, joined the protest, and when she had to go home to take care of her newborn daughter, her father stood in for her at the factory. Supportive neighbors offered their houses for bathroom breaks, along with cookies to eat or yerba maté tea — a very Argentinian way to infuse some heat and energy into the body.

Left, Antonella Llano, 29, is a single mother and family provider who has worked at La Nirva for 7 years. Right, Sergio, a La Nirva worker, holds a sign reading “No to the eviction of Nirva.”

Things took a turn on the night of May 10. The workers had been protesting peacefully for a week when local police patrols decided to pay them a visit.

“Police cars came out of nowhere. There were like 10 of them,” recalls Marcelo. They pointed guns at the workers and told them they couldn’t be there because of the COVID-19 lockdown. The workers insisted they had no other choice. “We argued with the police chief,” remembers Noelia. It didn’t do any good.

Eventually, the police cars chased the workers out. “One group ended up in a park nearby, another one on the road,” says Marcelo. “And I ended up in the police station.” After a couple of hours, Marcelo was released and the workers defiantly returned to their protest.

Two days after the encounter with the police, Barrios de Pie, a nongovernmental organization that does community work in low-income neighborhoods, helped organize an olla popular at the entrance of the factory. Olla popular roughly translates to “communal cooking pot,” and it is meant literally and figuratively: The local community comes together and shares food, usually for a social cause. They helped the workers fuel their spirits and fill their stomachs with hot chocolate for breakfast and a traditional pasta stew for lunch.

For many, the food was more than a gesture; it was much-needed sustenance. “Some would take whatever was left over from the olla popular back home to feed their families,” says Paula Rojas, a 32-year-old worker who had only been at the company for two years when the conflict started.

 

While the workers rallied the community to their side, the owners took things even further, suing the workers for causing a public disorder outside of the factory. That only incited the workers to turn the pressure up. They marched toward the Ministry of Labor in protest. It took them three months of protesting before a hearing was even held at the Ministry, and even then the owners didn’t bother to attend.

Finally, after months of fruitless negotiations, the government, the workers and the owners reached a deal. It was a better one than the workers ever thought they’d get: Paradiso (the executive the workers had had the most interactions with throughout this situation) promised to pay back half the amount they were owed. And better yet, the deal stipulated that if he didn’t pay up, he would have to give the workers the keys to the factory so they could run the business themselves.

After the cookies are baked, workers manually arrange them to proceed to the final assembly of the alfajor.

The deadline came and went, and Paradiso didn’t pay one single peso. And he didn’t hand over the keys to the factory either. The workers, exhausted and frustrated, wanted to get back to work, even if they had to take the factory over and start making and selling the cookies themselves.

So that’s exactly what they did.

“Our lawyers told us we could enter the factory and keep protesting inside,” says Noelia. So they went in. Everything was still there, more or less as they remembered it: The three assembly lines, the oversize ovens, the chocolate and sugar coater, even their white aprons.

“We thought: Well, we made it back in. What now?” says Paula.

There was enough remaining raw material for them to get back to work, and they had all the labor they needed to restart production. So they started making cookies again. Of course, they still needed clients. So La Nirva’s workers became not only their own bosses but also their own salespeople. “We each took alfajores to resell on our own,” Paula says. “I would take them to stores around my neighborhood and put up signs outside my home so people would know that I was selling.”

The idea of turning the factory into a worker cooperative slowly started to become a reality. They rummaged through old archives and paperwork, trying to find the names of clients and resellers so they could sell to stores again. With the help of the Movimiento Nacional de Empresas Recuperadas (National Movement of Recovered Companies), they started an application with the government institution that regulates worker cooperatives. Getting official recognition from the government would be a major step toward their goal of legally taking control of the factory.

In July 2020, they finally received the news: They were legally recognized as a worker cooperative.

“All that sacrifice, all that effort, was worth it,” Noelia says.

The workers voted to name Marcelo president of the cooperative. Then they got their first big client. A seller who used to work with La Nirva contacted the newly formed cooperative and asked them to produce alfajores for a new brand. That company would even provide the raw materials, meaning the workers really had a path to getting the business back up to full production.

“Everyone had lived through very ugly situations,” says Noelia. “We thought everything was lost, and to recover our jobs [was] indescribable.”

La Nirva is not the first business in Argentina to be “recovered” by wronged workers, but it’s the latest in a movement that catalyzed in the late 1990s. At the time, Argentina’s foreign debt was at an all-time high, and the country increasingly relied on cheap imported goods, causing local factories to fold left, right and center. It was not an uncommon sight to see business owners empty out their factories, sell the machinery and lay off all of their employees.

But not all workers were willing to pack up and go home. Across the country, former employees occupied all kinds of companies (even a four-star hotel in downtown Buenos Aires) with the aim of revitalizing the shuttered businesses and preserving their jobs. They were ignored by the authorities — if they were lucky. When they weren’t, the police brutally thwarted their protests. “Back then, it was very hard for the workers to get any kind of recognition,” says Juan Pablo Hudson, a sociologist and journalist who spent seven years with recovered businesses while writing the book Acá No Me Manda Nadie: Empresas Recuperadas por Obreros (No One’s the Boss Here: Businesses Recovered by Workers).

But the movement gradually gained momentum, and by 2001, says Hudson, “the phenomenon got [a lot of] political and public attention.” And 2001 was a tumultuous year in Argentina, to say the least. The mere mention of it evokes that year’s December 19 and 20 riots, when thousands of protestors from almost every social class took to the streets to demand political and economic change. Protesters clashed with police, then-President Fernando de la Rúa declared a state of siege, and 39 civilians were killed. The streets had not yet calmed down when de la Rúa resigned in disgrace before the year ended.

Two years later, the new center-left administration of President Néstor Kirchner started creating policies in response to the demands of the 2001 protests. In 2004, the Ministry of Labor created a program for self-managed worker cooperatives, and it has since built a structure to legalize recovered companies. Still, getting a cooperative recognized is no piece of cake. The legal procedures workers have to go through are arduous, and of course the business owners never let go easily.

 

On the night of December 7, 2020, the workers got a group text from the weekend guard at the factory. He’d just been kicked out by a “gang of thugs” whom, he assumed, had been sent by the owners. Word of the break-in spread, and the workers descended on the factory, assembling out front once again. And once again, they weren’t alone. Neighbors, leftist group members and even their lawyer showed up at the gates.

The urgency of the moment was clear. Paradiso was not going to respect the verbal agreement they had reached at the Ministry of Labor, and the legalities of this agreement were murky enough that it would be hard to evict one party or the other. “Our lawyer told us, ‘You either kick them out or they’ll take back the factory,’” Marcelo says. They had to get in.

The factory was locked from the inside, and the description the night guard gave of the men inside didn’t exactly paint them as feeble. As the workers discussed what they should do, they suddenly realized Marcelo was no longer by their side.

He had gotten into his Fiat 147, backed up and rammed his car into the corner of the warehouse’s gates.

“It was like a movie,” Marcelo tells us. The rest of the workers watched the whole ordeal in shock: They never imagined he would do something like that. But there he was, crashing his car into the gates over and over until he created a way in. Immediately, the workers and their neighbors ran inside, the women leading the way. Marcelo was behind them with a piece of steel in hand.

“You don’t think about fear in those moments,” Noelia says. “You don’t know what you will find inside. It was about going in and fighting or losing it all.”

Then they saw their opponents. “They were like bouncers in a disco,” remembers Paula. “Enormous.” But the workers had a weapon that their opponents did not. As Paula puts it: “We know the factory like the backs of our hands.”

Noelia, left, Marcelo and Antonella, right, lead La Nirva workers’ recent protest march.

The workers had chosen their entry points strategically to execute their plan, and they soon had the others cornered and outnumbered. Fueled by the adrenaline of the whole situation, the workers and their neighbors chased the thugs right out of the factory, where a fervent crowd of more workers and supporters were waiting outside, defiantly chanting, “Unidad de los trabajadores, y al que no le gusta se jode, se jode,” which roughly translates to: “Workers united, and screw those who don’t like it.”

 

More than a year after that confrontation on the factory floor, La Nirva is still operating as a worker cooperative, and things have visibly changed inside the factory. Out of the 10 offices that were used by the owners and managers, all remain empty except for the one the workers use for meetings. Many of them have taken on new tasks and responsibilities. Noelia, the cookie packer who now serves as a member of the executive committee, says that learning to administer the company was the hardest part of the takeover. “We were employees who never knew how to make a sale or do a balance sheet,” she says.

Paula, who used to work only on the cookie assembly line, is now also in charge of payments —something she says she does a lot better than the previous administrator. How did workers with no prior experience in fields like accounting learn to do such things? “It’s a little bit of everything. You just have to throw yourself into it,” Paula says. “We asked workers from other cooperatives … and watched a lot of online tutorials.”

Left, Noelia Romero is a cookie packer who has worked at La Nirva for 12 years. Right, Paula Rojas has worked on the cookie assembly line for several years but she is now also in charge of payments.

“It’s very satisfying,” she reflects. “You learn something every day, but not only for yourself. You learn for each one of your partners.”

“All the production is in our hands,” Paula continues. “There is not just one person giving orders. Each decision goes forward by a majority vote in a workers’ assembly.”

Now that the employees know the inner workings of the company, they often stay past the end of their shifts. “We know this is ours, so we demand more of ourselves,” says Noelia.

Working with only half of their original staff, and on some machines that are badly in need of repair, they are producing approximately 200,000 alfajores a day. That’s barely enough for them to make a living, but they’re hoping to grow. They’ve even added a new product to their catalog: Carmen suggested making panettone, a sweet bread traditionally eaten on Christmas.

Alfajor cookies after being coated with glaze.

As for the alfajores: Can consumers taste the difference between a cookie made by a privately owned company and one that is owned by its workers? Actually, Marcelo says, they can: “We improved the quality of everything compared to the previous owners. They bought the worst of everything. But not us: We buy good chocolate, good dulce de leche; we use good flour.” It’s not just a matter of quality ingredients, he says — it’s a whole different philosophy. “We don’t seek, like a businessman, to make money, money, money. We produce quality,” he asserts proudly.

Calabró, the Alfajor Taster, says that his most recent sampling of the workers’ version of this famous cookie left him positively surprised. “They are more refined,” he agrees. “I think it’s fabulous that it’s being recovered and revived by a cooperative and not a private institution. It’s like the collective nature of the alfajor is being validated.”

Marcelo’s role as president of the worker cooperative comes with many more responsibilities, but he embraces his new role. “It’s my fight. It’s my partners’ fight. And we haven’t won yet. Every day, you wake up and fight. There hasn’t been a quiet day for me or my partners since this started.”

No quiet days, indeed: On December 30, 2021, the workers got a message in a WhatsApp group chat. Judge Fernando D’ Alessandro had served them with an eviction notice stemming from a usurping complaint made by Paradiso. (Grupo Blend and Pardiso did not reply to a request for comment on this article.)

“We’re ending the year with a bitter taste in our mouths,” Noelia tells us as she stands outside the factory in protest once more. “There’s the thought that we could be left out in the streets again, and also the anger of seeing that a man who has scammed many people is getting support from the judicial system.”

The possibility of the workers being expelled from the factory quickly took its toll on the cooperative. Marcelo tells us: “We were on the right track, we had projects to start 2022 strong, but this news puts a brake on [everything]. You start having problems with suppliers and buyers. … They tell you, ‘There’s an eviction notice on you, will you be able to pay? Will you be able to deliver?’”

The cooperative’s lawyers are appealing the eviction, buying them some time. And the workers are out protesting once again, still flanked by their neighbors and supporters.

On January 6, they held an event at the doors of the factory, attracting some 200 people. They followed that on January 29 with a festival featuring musical bands, bouncy castles and buffets. Around 400 people came. On February 10, there was a massive march from the Obelisk, a landmark in the heart of Buenos Aires, to the National Court on Commercial Matters, where the eviction request by Paradiso is being heard. A fervent crowd made up of workers, activists and neighbors stood in front of the building, clapping, hands in the air, jumping and chanting: “Matias Paradiso is a con man. La Nirva’s workers keep producing without a boss! We won’t stop fighting until we win — the eviction is not gonna happen!”

Among all the noise, Marcelo, Paula and a third worker named Lorena Pereira made their way into the courthouse, where they were told that, in the eyes of the law, they were illegally occupying the factory — at least until La Nirva S.A. officially declares bankruptcy.

Painted sign with the words “No to the eviction, La Nirva belongs to the workers” in the reception area at La Nirva factory.

Meanwhile, council members who support the workers submitted an expropriation into the local legislature project that could legally claim the factory for the workers. After leaving the building, Marcelo addressed the crowd of supporters who were standing outside, anxiously waiting to hear what he had to say.

“We had to go through a lot to reach this point,” Marcelo told them. “We suffered through cold, we suffered through hunger. But I see we’re not alone.” He passed the microphone to an initially reluctant Paula, who finally grabbed it and said: “On behalf of the 55 families who depend on this factory, we want to keep fighting. … La Nirva is and will continue to be of its workers.”

The crowd repeated Paula’s last words with yet another wave of chants. Under a striking summer sun that made the workers realize how far they had come from those cold and rainy nights, they felt more ready than ever.