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Worker-Run Factories Spread in Venezuela

Ewan Robertson Sep 25

Walking into the plush corporate- style boardroom, I greeted workers from the Grafitos del Orinoco factory before sitting down to conduct the interview. On the white board next to the door, the latest decision of the workers’ factory assembly was still in evidence: whether to pay themselves an end-of-year bonus. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the workers had reached an almost unanimous consensus, with only one of the factory’s 55 employees not in favor.

The sound of meat sizzling on the barbecue, salsa music and laughter drifted in from the yard below. It was the December 2011 Christmas party for workers and their families, and they had plenty to celebrate. By their own admission, after a long struggle against the former boss and a trial-and-error learning process in self-management, the workers at Grafitos had succeeded in consolidating one of the most advanced and successful worker-run factories in the Guayana region in eastern Venezuela. I had previously visited the factory with activists in April 2011, and as part of an investigation into the worker control movement in the region, had returned to see how the workers at Grafitos were getting on.

The struggle for worker control in Grafitos began in early 2009, when the former boss refused to negotiate a new contract with the workers’ union and tried to close the factory, taking the machinery with him. In response, the workers began a factory occupation that lasted eight months before the Venezuelan labor ministry released a “decree of temporary occupation for the reactivation of the company,” which in effect awarded the factory to the workers to manage as they saw fit.

The workers then debated how the factory should be run, and decided that the aim should be a model of collective self-management, says Henry Escalon, the elected company president. Escalon’s position exists only to fulfill the legal obligation of having a company president, as he himself likes to make clear.

Worker Councils

In September 2010 a workers’ council was installed to decide how to organize the workers’ control of the factory. Escalon and the other workers described to me how at first they had been unprepared for self-management. One of their mistakes was the attempt to make every decision in a factory assembly with all the workers, which is the “sovereign” decision-making body at Grafitos. This proved inefficient and “wore workers out,” with Escalon emphasizing that “holding an assembly to agree to buy a screw, no, that’s falling into the abyss.”

Through this process of trial and error, the Grafitos workers arrived at their current model of collective management. While the factory assembly of all workers remains the decision-making body, committees are created to focus on specific aspects of running the factory, such as finance and production. A committee can also be set up to look into a particular issue or problem. Escalon himself has a committee of eight workers watching over his actions to ensure accountability. Every three months the factory assembly holds a meeting at which the committees and the company president report back to the general assembly, and the factory trade union can also introduce proposals, for example on pay and conditions.

The key decisions are made in the assembly, and every worker has a voice and a vote. Decisions include buying a bus to transport workers and agreeing on prices for the graphite parts the factory produces for the nationalized Sidor steel plant, Grafitos’ main client. “It’s to say that here, nothing is done without the workers, all the workers have a minimum or maximum level of participation,” explained committee member Cesar Barreto. Also, every worker is paid the same salary, from the “president” to the cleaner (before, the factory boss earned 15 times that of a worker), and workers can change positions if they wish, helping to overcome the divide between manual and intellectual labor.

Indeed, the workers feel they have developed a management model that allows workers to organize themselves democratically. “There are other experiences of fellow comrades on the national level, [but] I think we are one of the most important worker-controlled companies in Venezuela, and we are available to accompany fellow workers in the same struggle to keep advancing this idea [of worker control],” said Barreto.

Sitting comfortably in the boardroom they could previously enter only with the permission of the factory owner, workers described economic, psychological and community benefits of the democratic worker control model of factory management. Spurred on by a sense of common ownership, the workers have been able to increase the rate of production (they informed me in April 2011 that they had just broken their production record). With this, and equal and rising pay enjoyed by each worker, their material quality of life has increased. Workers have, for the first time, managed to get mortgages for houses or own cars, and have enjoyed new benefits such as Christmas bonuses and benefits to buy toys for their children.

In addition to material advancement, there is an improved work environment and less tangible gains, such as a growing sense that the workers are part of a common project linked to the wider industries in the region. “We no longer come just to sell our labor power for eight hours. We’re part of a hub that boosts the production of the basic industries [of Guayana] … . We have raised consciousness, and gained a sense of belonging,” said Escalon. Barreto conveyed how the relationship between workers had changed, saying “before there was persecution by the boss. Now there is freedom. The sense of fellowship, in comparison with other companies, has been strengthened.” To illustrate their point, the workers recounted the story of one of their colleagues who suffered an accident in November 2011. All the workers gave two days salary to help him with his recovery, a gesture “from the heart,” as one worker put it. In the opinion of Barreto, “this solidarity and comradeship is really valuable and important” for working life in the factory.

Another change has been the role of the factory in the community. As Barreto explained, “Apart from improving the workers’ quality of life, we want to contribute to society, seeing that the resources we produce are geared toward society.” Along with supplying Venezuela’s nationalized industries and politically supporting other worker control projects, Grafitos allocates a portion of its resources to various community and social causes. These include grants to community groups, funding for school equipment and donations to international causes such as helping refugees in Haiti after the January 2010 earthquake.

Beyond the sometimes tricky process of developing a worker control model, the factory has faced economic, political and legal challenges. The plant needed a great deal of renovation after the former owner neglected to invest in upkeep for years. Politically, Escalon explained that as a result of ordinary workers “from below” assuming overall responsibility for running the factory, outside figures dealing with the plant have often failed to give workers recognition and respect. “They practically said to us, ‘Get lawyers [to deal with legal or administrative matters], you aren’t capable of this.’ Well, we showed them otherwise. This is one of the most successful factories and experiences in Guayana,” Escalon said, to murmurs of agreement from around the table.

The legal issue for the workers was that their position ultimately rested upon a temporary decree from the government’s labor ministry, even though it had been renewed several times. If the decree was allowed to expire, it would create the possibility of a takeover by a private owner. What the workers wanted was full nationalization: a situation in which the factory was owned by the state to prevent buyout, but run by the workers without interference. As chance would have it, this measure was announced by the government a few days after my December 2011 visit to Grafitos. Afterward, the workers said that they were satisfied with the arrangement. Indeed, with continued legal protection from the state, the factory is now running strong under its worker control model.

Bolivarian Revolution

The worker control movement forms one of the most radical social movements in Venezuela, pushing for a transformation of the existing mode of production and class relations, the division and hierarchy of labor, and decision-making within the economy. In fact, the movement has emerged as a political force, helping to spur on Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution, the process of social, political and economic change led by President Hugo Chavez since his election in December 1998.

In 2005, Chavez began to promote the idea of worker control as a means of restoring productivity to factories closed by recalcitrant members of the business class. His initiative, “company closed: company occupied,” was part of a left turn by the Bolivarian movement after it defeated numerous destabilization attempts by the country’s right-wing opposition, with Chavez announcing in 2005 that the goal of the Bolivarian revolution was the construction of socialism. His government then set about nationalizing strategic sectors of the economy such as telecommunications, energy and food production and promoting grassroots organization through communal councils, among other mechanisms of participation.

Since 2005 more and more factories have been occupied and put under various forms of worker control in Venezuela. Not every model established since 2005 survive, and the process has been fluid and at times uneven, yet the idea of worker control has grown in popularity among Venezuela’s working class. Thus, despite the number of factories under worker control representing only a small part of Venezuela’s economy, by mid-2011 the Bicentenary Front of Companies Under Worker Control (FRETCO) was able to declare: “The Bolivarian revolution has entered a critical point in which the bourgeoisie has lost control over the exploited. The workers have been acquiring an ever greater level of political consciousness and are organizing themselves to respond to the capitalists’ attacks.”

Key battleground

The relationships between the Venezuelan state and different sectors of Venezuela’s organized working class have been key factors in Venezuela’s worker control movement. Nowhere has this been more marked than in Guayana. This region, sitting alongside the great Orinoco River, enjoys a wealth of natural resources that have spawned a set of heavy industries extracting and manufacturing iron ore, steel, aluminum, bauxite, gold and more. The most strategic of these industries are owned by the state, and the majority are overseen by the government’s Venezuela Guayana Corporation (CVG), and the (former) Ministry of Basic Industries and Mining (MIBAM). With around 30,000 workers, the extracting and manufacturing industries is second only to oil in financial clout.

Guayana has become the key battleground for Venezuela’s worker control movement over the last three years due to the launch of Plan Socialist Guayana (PGS), a joint project between the Venezuelan state and organized workers in the CVG industries to develop worker control for the entire state-owned industrial complex in the region. President Chavez supported the plan, uttering his now famous cry “I play on the side of the workers!”

Under the PGS, the aluminum, iron and steel workers of Guayana, working in tandem with the Venezuelan government, were to take direct control of the production of the region’s heavy industries. The move would integrate all of the CVG industries into two mega-companies, one comprising the iron and steel production process, the other, the aluminum process. Decision-making would be exercised through factory-floor-level worker councils and various coordinating bodies.

Opponents of Worker Control

This endeavor and the wider worker control movement challenge existing power relations and have provoked opposition from a range of groups — from the country’s right wing and transnational companies to corrupt or reactionary politicians, mafias, trade union bureaucrats and state managers within the Bolivarian camp.

Members of Venezuelan state institutions, including MIBAM and CVG, have also resisted the implementation of PGS.

Some labor bureaucrats and reformist unions have also opposed PGS. According to pro-PGS activists, this sector of the union movement has employed tactics such as collaborating with state bureaucracies, overtly attacking worker control experiments and setting up alternative “working groups” to usurp the process from within. Writer and activist Jorge Martín argues that many union bureaucrats oppose worker control because it undermines the power, privileges and access to key information they enjoy under the current system.

Mafia networks within the basic industries are also resistant to PGS because the greater accountability and openness entailed in the plan threatens their profits from selling contracts and stealing products to sell on the black market. Opposed to any and all efforts at worker control are the influential multinational corporations that buy primary materials from the CVG companies. This is unsurprising, as the PGS aims to obtain better terms from multinational companies and aspires to reduce exports to transnationals overall.

Conflict intensifies

The conflict over Plan Socialist Guayana (PGS) has intensified in 2012. This reflects in particular the exacerbation of the struggle within the Bolivarian revolution between the bureaucracy and reactionary political sectors and those forces genuinely committed to further radical transformation.

In a surprise announcement Feb. 25, Venezuelan Vice President Elias Jaua said that, by order of President Chavez, Elio Sayago , worker-president of the state-owned aluminum plant CVG Alcasa, was to be replaced by Angel Marcano. Chavez was in Cuba undergoing treatment for cancer at the time.

Alcasa workers reacted with fury to the news, designating the move a “state coup” against PGS by reactionary forces within the Bolivarian process led by United Socialist Part of Venezuela (PSUV) governor of Bolivar state Francisco Rangel Gomez. They called upon organized communities and social movements in Guayana to resist what they termed as a “disastrous” strategy by the government.

In response to Sayago’s dismissal, a large network of organizations and individuals representing the more radical wing of the Bolivarian revolution formed a coalition called Patriotic Collectives of Popular Revolutionary Resistance in Guayana.

In a packed press conference on Feb. 29, a spokesperson for the group accused the Rangel faction of having “taken advantage” of Chavez’s absence in order to regain control of the Guayana industries. The spokesperson further argued that the decision by Alcasa not to sell more aluminum to transnational companies was the “sin” that cost Sayago his post.

The spokesperson, Yasmin Chaurán, an Alcasa worker herself, also reported that since taking the Alcasa presidency Angel Marcano had already begun undermining the structures of worker control in the factory, not attending factory working group meetings, and instead setting up a “parallel apparatus” with six vice-presidents who were naming other posts “at their fingertips.”

The conflict spilled over into national level in late March when PSUV deputy Adel El Zabayar asked Venezuelan Attorney General Luise Ortega Diaz for a psychiatric examination of Rangel Gomez, on the grounds that Rangel’s attack on El Zabayar and the Patriotic Collectives represented “an abuse of power, xenophobia and exclusion” toward those with views differing from his.

Crossroads

The worker control movement in Venezuela, and in Bolivar state in particular, is at a key moment. Progress made by workers threatens those who only support Chavez for personal gain and political opportunism and who see worker control as a threat to their privileges and vested interests. It also undermines those who hold a more restrictive view of what socialism is and argue that workers are not ready to operate factories themselves. Indeed, there are those in the government that hold socialism to be little more than state ownership of industry and central planning from above, with little participation from workers. Regardless, workers at Grafitos del Orinoco and other worker controlled factories continue to develop new systems of power, and several CVG factories are holding elections in order to establish workers’ councils. In others, this reactionary faction is successfully undermining the PGS. This is particularly evident in Alcasa, which was considered by many as the most advanced of the CVG factories in implementing the PGS.

The role of President Hugo Chavez has also been contradictory. Through both his discourse and actions, Chavez has given important ongoing institutional and moral support for the PGS and worker control in general, and it is not for nothing that he enjoys strong support among worker control activists. However, Chavez has also made decisions in response to differing political pressures and depending on the balance of forces in a particular situation. In light of the presidential elections on Oct. 7 (see sidebar), and an opposition united behind candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski, it is quite possible that Chavez has his eye focused on the strategic objective of keeping the right-wing opposition out of power.

another world is possible

The worker control movement is one part of a varied and exciting process under way in Venezuela, encompassing community councils; communes; community media; women’s, LGBT, afro-descendent and indigenous groups; and radical government policies domestically and internationally, from social programs to solidarity-based international alliances such as the Alliance for the Bolivarian Peoples of our America. The political spaces available to push the worker control movement forward will be determined not only by workers’ ability to organize and struggle but also by the general direction the revolution takes in the coming months and years.

Based on what has been achieved so far, Venezuela’s worker control movement demonstrates to the world that workers can indeed collectively self-manage their factories and workplaces, and that capitalist ­hierarchies and divisions of labor are not the only, nor best, way of organizing economic life. Running production in a collective democratic manner addresses problems of’ workers’ alienation from their labor and the unfair distribution of produced resources, while leading to the greater education and consciousness of workers. Such a model can also benefit society as a whole, as production is geared toward the needs of society and not profit for capitalists, and lays the basis for deeper economic and social transformation. In the context of austerity being imposed by the elite across Europe and North America as a result of the latest crisis of capitalism, worker control in Venezuela is another example of not only how another, better, world is possible, but also what that world could look like.

 

Ewan Robertson is a journalist and activist based in Mérida, Venezuela. This article is adapted from a longer version that originally appeared on venezuelanalysis.com.


Chavez, Again?

Right-wingers from Washington, D.C., to Caracas aren’t going to like it, but Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez appears to be headed for another landslide victory in his country’s Oct. 7 elections.

Throughout the summer, various polls have consistently shown Chavez leading his conservative opponent Henrique Capriles by 10 to 20 points. In early September, Datanálisis, Venezuela’s leading private pollster, projected a Chavez victory with 56 percent of the vote — about equal to his current approval rating.

A victory for Chavez and his “Bolivarian Revolution” (named for Simón Bolívar, a 19th-century independence leader and Venezuelan national hero) would mean a third six-year term in office for the former Army paratrooper.

Chavez has vowed to continue his drive to use Venezuela’s vast oil wealth to build a 21st-century socialist society. Earlier this year, he released a detailed roadmap of his plans for 2013 to 2019, which includes bringing more sectors of the economy under public ownership, breaking up large rural landholdings and expanding the role of communal councils, the community-based organizations that carry out many of Chavez’s programs on a local level.

“There is no question that the proposal seriously aims to eradicate the old capitalist institutions and market, and replace them with grassroots control and organization and ‘alternative’ production and distribution methods,” writes Tamara Pearson of Venezuelanalysis.com

 

—Indypendent Staff