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May 4, 2005

On the Road to a New Society: Venezuelan workers debate workers control of industry and government enterprises

By Bill Burgess

Vancouver, Canada—The working class and its leadership in the Bolivarian movement of President Hugo Chavez is making huge strides in its efforts to forge a new country based on human solidarity and social justice. That’s the conclusion I draw after returning from two weeks observing political and social life in Venezuela.

I was a participant in the delegation from the Vancouver and District Labour Council that attended the Third Global Gathering of Solidarity with the Bolivarian Revolution. The gathering took place in Venezuela from April 13 to 17 and featured numerous workshops and plenary sessions in which Venezuelans active in the social transformation of their country heard reports and discussed the most pressing social and political challenges facing the country. International delegations like ours had the privilege to observe those sessions and add our points of view.

I was particularly impressed by a three-day, roundtable discussion in the city of Valencia on “The Role of Workers in the Management of Companies”. It was organized by Venezuela’s new, pro-revolution labour federation, the UNT (National Workers Union), and attended by about five hundred union members. The UNT unions strongly support the Chavez government. They are backing its efforts to extend social programs and land reform and to foster producer coops and “endogenous” economic development (economic programs that use and promote resources in Venezuela).

[In our Documents section: A translation of the final resolution approved by participants of the roundtable.]

UNT members are increasingly taking up the cause of workers control over state-owned enterprises. The term most often used during the roundtable was “co-management” of enterprises, but it was clear to me that the direction of this movement is toward “workers control”, that is, a management of enterprises in which workers have a decisive voice.

Federation of Electrical Workers’ leader Angel Naves told the roundtable that enterprises under workers control must serve their surrounding communities and society at large. He argued that the union movement should reject any notions that such enterprises belong only to the workers employed. The final resolution approved by the roundtable characterized the co-management as “Bolivarian, revolutionary and anti-capitalist.”

The remarkable experience of oil workers in keeping that vital industry running during the lockout by oil company managers in December 2002 and January 2003 was an important experience related at the roundtable. The workers were able to restore production in several key refineries, and the bosses strike failed to drive the government of President Hugo Chavez from office. Although the oil workers did not institutionalize a direct participation in the direction of the state-owned oil company PDVSA, some 400 striking managers were dismissed. Other speakers said the class consciousness of all workers was raised by the example of oil and other workers who mobilized to keep their workplaces running during the bosses strike. (This contrasted sharply with the old union federation, the CTV, that the UNT has now largely replaced. It supported the bosses strike, and the failed coup against President Chavez in 2002.)

The most extensive experiences with co-management are in the state-owned electrical companies, CADAFE and CADELA, and the state-owned aluminium company, ALCASA. “Co-management” in the former emerged from efforts by the workers to block privatization of the electrical distribution sector. The Chavez government halted the privatizations and appointed union representatives to the companies’ boards of directors. A variety of workplace assemblies and “transparency” policies have been instituted.

Most of the unionists attending the roundtable were electrical industry workers with rich first-hand experience with this process of “co-management”. Loud cheering was common for speakers like Angel Naves when they sharply distinguished their “Bolivarian co-management” from co-management in countries like Germany or Argentina. Naves argued that in the latter, union leaders are simply co-opted into existing management structures and methods.

The co-management process at ALCASA was described by the recently-appointed president of the Company, Carlos Lanz, as a model that the Chavez government intends to implement in all state-owned firms. This one-time guerrilla and self-described Marxist revolutionary explained that newly-created permanent assemblies of workers and managers would have decision-making power over all questions. Lanz and other speakers argued for radical “flattening” of traditional management structures in state-owned companies.

Overcoming the resistance by some wearers of red hats and red shirts (that is, people falsely identifying as supporters of the revolution) was cited repeatedly in the roundtable discussions. Many speakers discussed the need to establish a special school to better equip workers for advanced co-management responsibilities.

Another important experience discussed was occupation of the VENEPAL paper mill by its workers. About 600 of the original 1600 workers took over and operated this mill for several months until raw materials were exhausted. The government nationalized the company in January 2005, and it has now been re-opened as INVEPAL, a joint venture between the state and a cooperative formed by the occupying workers.

This experience paved the way for 100 or so workers at the CNV valve factory that had also been shut down by its coup-supporting owner. The workers occupied the plant and it was nationalized by the government in April 2005. It is now named INVEVAL.

President Chavez has urged other workers to follow the example of the VENEPAL and CNV workers. When announcing the nationalization to the CNV workers, he said that other companies that abandon their factories should likewise be taken over and reopened.

The union at VENEPAL was disbanded when the new INVEPAL was formed, and this was an obvious source of concern for a number of speakers at the roundtable. Similar concerns were raised by Serge Goulart of Brazil, coordinator of the CIPRA and INTERFIBRA occupied factories in that country. He cited experiences of how cooperatives in Brazil had been used to undercut independent unions and to outsource work. Goulart underlined the very positive contrast between the nationalizations by the Chavez government and their inability to convince the Brazilian government to nationalize occupied factories there.

An important feature of the roundtable was a panel discussion by representatives of four different currents within the UNT. A general point of agreement among the UNT currents was the need to extend co-management from state-owned enterprises into the private sector. However, few concrete proposals were offered for how this could be achieved.

One proposal raised in the discussion was for legislation requiring transparency in financial information, that is, to open the company books. The final resolution adopted by the roundtable also endorsed the proposals by the unions in the electrical and aluminium industries for a law to “establish the effective functioning” of  the right to “[P]articipation and involvement of people in… social and economic affairs…[through] …self-management, co-management, [and] cooperatives in all forms” (clauses in Article 70 of the new Venezuela Constitution).

Workers control was a central theme at the May 1 rally and march in Caracas. This was a massive outpouring of support for the government of President Hugo Chavez. Hundreds of thousands of people took part. Many banners and union contingents called for increased self-management of industry and public enterprises. Chants of “Without co-management, there is no revolution” were occasionally complemented with “Without revolution, there is no co-management.”

In his speech to the rally, Chavez said, “We invite all industry to be part of the new society … we will help every industry to expand production and will provide the funding to do so, however the only condition is that workers be allowed to be part of the management.” Chavez also said if industry was not being used or had been abandoned then the government would move to expropriate them. The aim, said Chavez, was to “move from a revolutionary democracy to socialism this year … and that it was critical for political parties to be consolidated in this process.”

A description of the Marxist program for workers control is contained in the Transitional Program, the 1938 founding program of the Fourth International. Written by Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, it reads, “…workers control becomes a school for planned economy. On the basis of the experience of control, the proletariat will prepare itself for direct management of nationalized industry when the hour for the eventuality strikes.”

“The task is one of reorganizing the whole system of production and distribution on a more dignified and workable basis. If the abolition of business secrets be a necessary condition to workers control, then control is the first step along the road to the socialist guidance of economy.”

This is the direction of the discussions and debates I observed in Venezuela. The actions so far by the Chavez government in responding to and promoting the early stages of workers control in Venezuela are preparing the necessary conditions for further encroachments on the prerogatives of capital. I gained the powerful impression that a socialist revolution is under way in Venezuela.

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