Workers’ Control and Workers’ Councils
Class Struggle in the Bolivarian Process
Workers’ initiatives and government measures in Venezuela to increase workers’ participation in the management of their companies sharply contrast with institutional actions that intend to inhibit and reduce such participation. Despite this, the movement for workers’ control in Venezuela has grown in recent years and achieved some important victories in conflicts in state companies.
Las iniciativas de los trabajadores y las medidas del gobierno en Venezuela para aumentar la participación de los trabajadores en la gestión de sus compañías están en fuerte contraposición con las acciones institucionales que pretenden inhibir y reducir esa participación. A pesar de esto, el movimiento por el control obrero en Venezuela ha crecido en los últimos años y ha logrado algunas victorias importantes en varios conflictos en las compañías estatales.
Democratization of the management of the means of production has been one of the most controversial and conflictive issues of Venezuela’s Bolivarian process. Both policies on forms of collective ownership and administration of the means of production and the business models they promote have changed over time (see Azzellini, 2011; 2012a; 2012b; 2012c). At the beginning of 2005, President Hugo Chávez announced his support for workers’ control, and in 2007 he took up the workers’ groups’ proposal to establish socialist workers’ councils and publicly launched them. In state companies and institutions, however, the decisive participation of workers remains hampered. Workers’ experiences in the past decade have fueled their politicization. While in 2005 the demand for workers’ control was confined to a few groups of workers, recuperated companies, and President Chávez, today there is a broad movement of workers for workers’ control. Since mid-2013 there has been a wave of conflicts in state companies, most of them not about wages or strictly labor issues but about the management of the companies. Workers are demanding and taking control of factories—a step toward socialism and the fulfillment of the needs of the masses. This article analyzes the movement for workers’ control and some of the more significant struggles over workers’ control in state companies of this period.
In 2005 the Venezuelan government officially declared a socialist orientation and began to expropriate and nationalize industries, companies of strategic importance, and unproductive companies (beyond the nationalizations of the oil sector and the early expropriations of landed estates). Although the first companies were occupied by workers during the management strike (or, better, lockout) of 2002–2003, during the first years the government considered the occupation of companies a legal problem and left it to the courts to handle. It was only in 2005, and still not systematically, that it began to treat the recovery of companies by their workers as a political issue.
When in 2006 the government under Chávez took up the proposal of workers’ control, it was supported by small groups of workers. Since then, public debate and workplace experiences have contributed to the growth of a movement. Although workers’ control is part of the government’s discourse, there is increasing institutional resistance to allowing control of the means of production to pass into workers’ hands, and this resistance is the greater with regard to workers’ participation in the institutions themselves. Mainly through Chavez’s initiative, the government promoted some cases, such as the aluminum smelter Alcasa and the paper factory Invepal, from co-management to workers’ control (Azzellini, 2011; 2012b; 2014; Azzellini and Ressler, 2006), and in many other companies the workers took the initiative in establishing councils and achieving greater participation. In the majority of cases, however, workers’ control was hampered and aborted by the responsible institutions. The reasons for this were multiple, among them classist mistrust on the part of ministry employees of workers’ participation and management, a state-centric view of workers’ control as infeasible or undesirable, political positions with regard to liberal-bourgeois capitalist labor development, inefficiency, and private economic interests and corruption.
Labor Vice Minister Elio Colmenares has identified workers’ control as a way of ensuring the realization of state policies that are supposedly generated by the common interest and for the common benefit (interview, Caracas, January 17, 2010). This view, which calls to mind the failed “state socialism,” represents an important current in the Ministry of Labor, which since the failure of co-management has focused on promoting medium-sized factories under institutional management. However, it is not shared by the entire ministry, much less by the entire government and its other institutions. There is no common position in the government regarding workers’ control, and the situation is constantly changing because of the different positions of the left in this respect and the fact that the government and its institutions are riddled with contradictions and class struggle. On the one hand, the government calls on workers to recover factories that are unproductive or mismanaged by their owners. Chávez’s and Maduro’s discourse, along with the official political orientation, is in favor of workers’ control, and the expropriations and nationalizations show the political will for structural transformation. On the other hand, the institutions leave very little room for workers’ initiatives and tend to maintain control over administration and production. The great expectations linked to the state, historically very present in Venezuela, have been fading, and it has become ever clearer that, as Poulantzas (1978: 131) pointed out, “a change in state power is never enough to transform the materiality of the state apparatus.” Almost all of the recuperated or expropriated companies had obsolete machinery or had been sacked by the owners since their closure and needed huge investments to resume production. Beyond the private sector, which obviously does not invest in a factory occupied by its workers, only the state has that much capital, and although these companies may manage to go back into production, without the support of the state they will be totally exposed to the capitalist market. Only a few have the productive and administrative capacity to survive capitalist competition on their own.
The Movement for Workers’ Control
The workers’ control movement has developed slowly but steadily and experienced some qualitative leaps. Venezuela had no movement of company occupations at the level of, for example, that in Argentina (CDER, 2014; Rebon, 2006; Ruggeri, 2010; Sitrin, 2006; 2013). For a long time, occupations were very isolated. The first coordination that emerged was the Frente Revolucionario de de Trabajadores de Empresas en Cogestión y Ocupadas (Revolutionary Front of Workers of Co-managed or Occupied Companies—Freteco). Freteco was born in 2006 as a Marxist alliance of factories and activist workers from Inveval (industrial valves, Carrizal, Miranda), Invepal (paper, Morón, Carabobo), Invetex (textiles, Tinaquillo, Cojedes), Siderorca (plastic tubes, Zulia), Tomatera Complejo Agroindustrial Socialista de Altagracia (tomato sauces, Altagracia, Guarico), and Indústria Nacional de Artículos de Ferretería or INAF (hardware, Cagua, Aragua), among others, and activists from Venirauto (automotive assembly, Maracay, Aragua), General Motors (Valencia, Carabobo), Alcasa (aluminum, Ciudad Guayana, Bolívar), and the sugar refinery at Cumanacoa, Sucre. Freteco served as a forum for the debate on the socialist organization of production and maintained a solidary but critical position toward the government. It was through Fredeco that workers organized their own education with respect to the history of the co-management of workers’ control (José Quintero, Ineval worker, interview, Carrizal, November 23, 2006):
We are currently workers who, through Fredeco and all the co-managed companies, are studying Yugoslavia’s socialism and that of each of the countries in which co-management or experiments in workers’ control have occurred. We’re undertaking this task of sociopolitical education ourselves so that instead of some reformist sociopolitical development we’ll have a sociopolitical education that leads to the changes this country really needs.
The first workers’ council was formed in Sanitarios Maracay, a ceramic bathroom-fixtures factory in Maracay, Aragua, which was abandoned by its owner and occupied by its workers in November 2006. After more than four years of struggles for nationalization and conflicts with the former owner, Chávez ordered the factory’s expropriation in December 2010. Since then, production has increased because of significant government investment. Workers’ councils are operating within the factory, though they do not have total control of the plant.
In 2007, councils emerged in the faucet and pipe factory INAF and in the textile factory Gotcha of Maracay, both occupied by their workers in 2006. Both had formed cooperatives at first. At the end of 2014 Gotcha was still producing, organized into councils and taking the form of a cooperative. INAF’s earlier contract with PDVSA had been canceled, but its workers continued producing without legal status until August 2011. The factory was expropriated by Chávez’s direct order in June 2010, and in September 2011 a provisional board of directors took over that renovated the factory and machinery with considerable investment. The factory remained closed for a year and seven months, and according to the workers only part of the money was invested and some of the machinery was stolen. When a new board put the plant into production again, reestablishing the workers’ councils against the will of those responsible in the government, the ministry began to harass the new director and the workers. At the end of 2014, it blocked the financing obtained through a production contract with PDVSA (Prensa Lucha de Clases [Aragua], 2014).
Ineval workers, along with those of other factories, established councils at the beginning of 2007 (Richard, 2011):
In the absence of an institutional framework, the class has had to educate itself. Four or five years ago the workers initiated processes of self-development and research that allowed them access to a body of history with Venezuela as a referent—a very rich discussion on the workers’ councils of the 1970s. This research led them to the Marxist classics—Rosa Luxemburg, Antonio Gramsci, Pannekoek, and others—and they began to construct their own critique of representative democracy as opposed to protagonist and participatory democracy with regard to the company. A series of very interesting experiments emerged from that critique that is the source on which we draw in the current process of formation.
In 2008 a new, broader initiative emerged: the socialist workers’ councils. For two years they were a central forum for discussing models of horizontal council organization in companies and issues of socialist economic administration (CST, 2009; MINTRAB, 2008: 15). From the start of the process toward workers’ control of basic industries of the Bolivarian state through the Guayana Socialist Plan for 2009–2019 and in reaction to the strong attacks on the process of workers’ control, activists from Alcasa, Sidor, and other companies organized the First National Meeting on Workers’ Control and Workers’ Councils, held in Sidor’s auditorium in Guayana City May 20–22, 2011. The meeting brought together more than 900 participants from workers’ councils, occupied companies, and labor unions for roundtable discussions (ENCO, 2011). The roundtables addressed three probing questions:
(1) What are the fundamental contradictions that are present in the political experiences and practices of the Venezuelan working class in the construction of workers’ control and workers’ councils. Why do they emerge, and what should be the role of workers in overcoming them? (2) What ideas or principles are necessary to guide the Venezuelan working class’s political action with regard to workers’ control and the workers’ councils? (3) Given that the construction of socialism in Venezuela is conditioned by the anticapitalist and antibureaucratic struggle, what are the proposals in the political, organizational programmatic, judicial, economic, social, and other aspects?
The discussion focused on analysis of the current situation, theoretical support, particularities, and the plan for the struggle—strategies (action criteria), actions, and organizational proposals (ENCO, 2011). For workers’ control, three great blocks of obstacles were identified: first, attacks by the opposition on anything that had to do with revolution; second, the existence of sectors that “conceal their real interests with a supposed revolutionary discourse, their idea [being] not to definitively eliminate the capitalist way of life but to change its personification” (ENCO, 2011), with the result that workers’ control was being sabotaged from within the Bolivarian process itself and lacked any regulatory or legal basis; and, finally, workers’ depoliticization, apathy, skepticism, individualism, and consumerism, the fragmentation of the labor movement at the regional and national levels, and the absence of strategic planning (ENCO, 2011). Despite all the “contradictions, obstacles, and deficiencies” in the process of construction of workers’ control identified in the discussions, there were positive evaluations, among them the following: “The correlation of forces is still favorable to workers. . . . The working class is determined to change the old model; we want to participate in management. The call that has led us to organize into councils of workers and struggle for workers’ control has come from the President of the Republic himself” (ENCO, 2011).
The workers’ control movement connects with peasants and communities and supports the construction of communes aimed at the creation of a communal state (see Azzellini, 2013a; 2013b; Azzellini and Ressler, 2011). The operative proposals made at the meeting began with “If one of the main obstacles to workers’ control is bureaucracy, we should target bureaucracy” and included “categorically rejecting the bureaucracy’s persecution and harassment of the working class, the social sectors, and the peasantry” (ENCO, 2011). The need to strengthen autonomous structures and create a network of self-education, diffuse and discuss a workers’ council law, develop new forms of ownership, and radically democratize management was recognized. In the area of organization the recommendations included thematic local and regional meetings; the creation of a workers’ parliament; encouraging different types of organization for addressing grievances and social, political, and ideological problems; the establishment of a multifactory directive committee made up of organized workers, organized communities, the state, and suppliers of raw materials as an integrative way of making decisions to combat bureaucracy and corruption; creating workers’ councils by industry in different municipalities and states to strengthen the national and regional organizations that defend the project of workers’ control; holding periodic meetings with workers for the evaluation and constant monitoring of what has been done to advance the workers’ control experience; and establishing a fund for the self-management of the working class’s meetings (ENCO, 2011).
Despite the fact that the positive points were very few compared with the contradictions and obstacles, the tone of the meeting was not at all pessimistic. On the contrary, the meeting was a success and marked an important step in the direction of workers’ control. The movement went on to organize as the National Collective for Workers’ Control and, together with the workers’ councils, held a national demonstration in July 2011 that was attended by thousands of workers from all over the country. Many came from state companies and government institutions, but workers from private companies also participated. The majority of companies present had some conflict over workers’ participation in their management. The march crossed the center of Caracas and ended at the National Assembly, where the workers delivered a resolution in favor of workers’ control. Other mobilizations and regional meetings continued, and in June 2013 the First Workers’ Congress: Balance and Challenges of Workers’ Control and the Workers’ Councils for the Construction of Socialism was held at Sidor in Guayana City and drew 450 workers from 81 companies. The congress had 215 speakers in various sessions and agreed on new initiatives for the struggle for workers’ control (PCTT, 2013).
The Workers’ Councils
In 2007, Chávez advanced the idea that workers should organize into councils. These councils would not be unions or replace them: “The purpose of labor unions is to help workers sell their labor power as advantageously as they can. Unions will always be needed for this purpose. But while unions are necessary, they are not sufficient” (Lynd and Lynd, 2000: 1). At first only a few factories responded to Chávez’s call (among them Invepal). A forum was created to share experiences and discuss possible models of socialist administration (CST, 2009: MINTRAB, 2008). In time the pressure from below to form socialist workers’ councils (as they came to be called) led some institutions to begin as of 2010 to allow or even encourage their establishment, although there was as yet no law in that regard. Although the call to form them came from the president himself, these initiatives were hampered and attacked by many state institutions and companies. Most institutions tried to prevent the constitution of workers’ councils. Some of them attempted to distort the meaning of the councils, reducing them to representative bodies of workers protesting the bureaucracy. This turned the workers’ councils into a new field of conflict. As Stanley Aronowitz (1991: 426–427) pointed out,
Workers’ councils or committees can only become serious expressions of working class interests when they challenge authority relations in the enterprise, are based on some understanding that the prevailing division of labor reinforces these relations, and when they possess the power and the desire to transform the workplace in accordance with a new conception of the relations between work and play and between freedom and authority. Workers’ control demands that are instruments of trade union and bureaucratic institutions merely reinforce the powerlessness of workers because they sow the seeds of cynicism concerning the possibility of actually achieving the vision of a self-managed society.
Although by the end of 2013 there were hundreds of workers’ councils, there was no regulatory law on their participation in company management. The majority had no real participation in decision making, but they did develop struggles over wages and performance and working conditions and call for a social audit and more participation in the companies (Martin, 2011). Many workers’ councils were involved in the movement for workers’ control. The Communist Party of Venezuela proposed a law on workers’ councils in July 2007, and it was supported by the Bolivarian Socialist Workers’ Front. An organic labor law that would cover the councils has been under discussion in the National Assembly for several years, but there were powerful political interests that had managed to stall the process (Richard, 2011). The bill had also been criticized as insufficient and biased toward the interests of the unions (León, 2013). In March 2011 a new proposal for a law on workers’ councils developed by the Platform of Struggle for Socialist Workers’ Councils of Greater Caracas was presented for deliberation before the National Assembly’s Permanent Committee for Integral Social Development.
Mobilizations in favor of these laws increased after 2011, and the Assembly committee responsible for them held various meetings with representatives of workers’ councils, workers’ control groups, and unions. On April 30, 2012, President Chávez decreed the Organic Law of Labor and Workers (LOTTT, 2012), Article 497 of which reads as follows: “Workers’ councils are expressions of Popular Power for protagonist participation in the social process of work, with the aim of producing goods and services that satisfy the needs of the people. The forms of workers’ participation in management and the organization and operation of the workers’ councils will be established in special laws.” Article 498 clarifies that the workers’ councils have “their own attributes, different from those of the labor union organizations contained in this law.”The absence of a legal framework for the formation of workers’ councils has hampered their development (Richard, 2011). Although they are following the guidelines established by Chávez himself, many workers who have been involved in the establishment of workers’ councils have been persecuted and accused of counterrevolutionary activities by their company directors (Martin, 2011). This was reported of the Madres del Barrio (Neighborhood Mothers) Mission, the state television channels VTV and Avila TV, and even the Ministry of Labor and branches of the Ministry for Communes such as.the National Institute of Socialist Training and Education, which should instead be at the forefront of the formation of workers’ councils
Alberto Bonilla, a sociologist, popular educator, teacher at the Center for Studies of Political Economy of the Universidad Bolivariana of Venezuela, and co-founder of the Ministry of Labor’s first workers’ council under José Ramón Rivero, has pointed to the obstacles and contradictions on both sides (quoted in Richard, 2011):
On the workers’ side, there is an important gap in the exercise of participatory democracy, workers’ control, and frequent delegation of individuals’ autonomy to representatives. Our past is full of instances in which we were taught to delegate—a practice that is perfectly consistent with capitalist logic, grounded in private ownership and the division of labor, a division between those who know and those who do not. We were trained to obey and not to participate but to delegate. We are the product of social relations of production that assigned us a subordinate, passive role. . . .
And on the side of the decision makers, whether they be senior officers or administrators in public service, they are imbued with the ideology of capitalism, which is authoritarian, dictatorial, and unanswerable, and therefore it is difficult for a public decision maker to allow the protagonist participation of workers when it does not suit his interests.
In the face of increasing initiatives for the establishment of workers’ councils, many institutions have changed their strategy and begun to take the initiative in establishing them in an effort to control the process. The workers’ councils established in this way are more organizations of representation against company management on issues of claims and work organization than the councils originally proposed. This is the case with the private companies occupied in the process of being nationalized (Rafael Enciso, researcher and economist for the Ministry of Science and Technology, interviews, Caracas, August 2, 2010, and July 26, 2011).
This in itself does not constitute a contradiction between the unions and the workers’ councils or other workers’ control organizations, and the union movement has for the most part maintained independence of the government parties and the state (Ellner, 2006: 82) and not spoken out against the workers’ councils. However, while the National Workers’ Union, which is not associated with the party or the state, officially supports workers’ control and workers’ councils, many opposition unions are opposed to any form of workers’ control or more direct participation in the workplace. Even the Bolivarian Socialist Workers’ Front, the union that is closest to the government, in practice opposes workers’ control in many workplaces, especially in the basic industries in Guayana City, where this labor sector is linked with the state government, deputies, and former ministers and even the chancellery. When Chávez named the worker Elio Sayago president of Alcasa on May 15, 2010, Alcasa’s union M21, which belongs to the Bolivarian Front, immediately issued a statement rejecting the appointment and continued to sabotage the process of workers’ control (Elio Sayago, interview, Guayana City, September 14, 2011).
The fact that the unions, by their logic, operate within the system has been repeatedly noted by Marxist theorists from Marx to Gramsci as well as activists. The organizational structure of the union is not usually well suited to transformation from the bottom up. As the Alcasa worker Elio Sagayo pointed out in the film 5 Factories (Azzellini and Ressler, 2006),
What we need now is that our union leaders understand, the other colleagues, that now the union leaders have to seek the leadership roles of the workers. Such as facilitating that the knowledge of workers really guarantees the control. We as union leaders achieve that the knowledge of our people in these moments transcend the traditional unions’ claim-making. And at this time we have the historic opportunity of constructing society, of defining our own destiny.
In Venezuela this tendency that is inherent to unions is strengthened by the fact that in the Fourth Republic many unions were corporative structures for the private appropriation of goods and public funds and the culture has survived in many places. In the construction sector there are many unions that literally function as mafias and engage in armed conflict among themselves for control over job contracts and work.
The New Struggle Over Workers’ Control
In the majority of state companies there are conflicts over issues of participation and working conditions. Protests and allegations of abuse and irregularities are increasing. The most important case is that of the cooking-oil producer Aceites Diana in Valencia. Aceites Diana is a state company managed with broad worker participation through a workers’ council. When the minister of food, Felix Osorio, named a new general manager on July 26, 2013, without consulting the workers, they rejected the appointment and kept up production while mobilizing against it until a new manager was named (Aporrea.org, 2013a).
Aceites Diana is the largest national producer of oils and margarine and supplies 35 percent of the national demand for margarine, along with mayonnaise, sauces, and soups. Eighty percent of its production is distributed through state marketing networks. Aside from the central factory, it has five others. It was nationalized and put under state management with workers’ control in 2008 after the owners had gradually reduced it to bankruptcy. At the time of nationalization, monthly production was 200,000 liters of oil, and there were 300 workers. With broad worker participation through the workers’ council, it currently produces a total of 7,000 tons of food annually and has 2,000 workers. It plans to build another factory and increase production to 37, 000 tons annually. Aceites Diana is one of the few nationalized companies that is largely self-sufficient; it has raised workers’ salaries, paid dividends to the state, and developed the capacity for investment (aporrea tvi, 2013a).
In addition to objecting to the unilateral appointment of the manager, the workers rejected the particular designee, David Mendoza, as being a private businessman rather than someone aligned with the interests of the revolution. In their view, “the person who assumes responsibility for leading the company should come from the very heart of it, with experience of production and with a political commitment to the founding premises on which it was established by the Comandante, that is, to workers’ control and the revolution.” To support the mobilizations, a community radio station was set up in the factory. Mendoza and his team did not take the protests seriously and made themselves at home in the offices, but the workers threw them out (Consejo de Trabajadores, 2013). The food minister criticized the workers, arguing that Chávez had made a mistake with regard to the workers’ councils and that they were incapable of managing a company (León, 2013). In an effort to break the workers, he froze the payroll accounts. On August 15, President Nicolás Maduro confirmed the designation of Dester Rodríguez as general manager of Aceites Diana. Rodríguez had previously worked in the coordination of community contacts of the food distributor PDVAL (owned by the state oil company PDVSA) and had the approval of the workers. Hector Mieres, a worker at Aceites Diana and part of the workers’ council, declared, “The most important part of this achievement is General Rodríguez’s willingness to respect the decision-making mechanisms and participation that we workers have achieved as part of workers’ control” (Aporrea.org, 2013b). This example is important because efforts at workers’ control in other state companies had been aborted without major resistance on the part of the workers.
Another very important case from the same period is the victorious struggle of the workers of Lácteos Los Andes, which produces milk, cheese, yogurt, and juices and feeds millions of Venezuelans every day. After renovations, the company had three main factories (Cabudare, Caja Seca, and Machiques) and 37 smaller units. President Chávez had nationalized it in 2008 to counter the scarcity of milk and dairy products intentionally caused by private industry. Supposedly, control was to be handed over to the workers gradually. When there was no definitive progress on participation, the workers’ formed a workers’ council and committees for all parts of the company. Since March 2013 they had been calling attention to a decline in production that ultimately amounted to 40 percent. Maintenance of the factory had been neglected, and the money to pay for it had disappeared. The workers blamed the management, which they accused of corruption, and the food minister. Months of investigations followed, and an audit produced no results. The workers argued that officials from several institutions were covering up the mismanagement of the company. In August they intensified their struggle, demanding the firing of the management and progress toward workers’ control. According to one worker, “We have no response from the management, which has done nothing. The solution is to remove the management and open an administrative investigation, civil and criminal. That’s good, workers’ control resolves it” (Aporrea.org, 2013c).
After various workers’ meetings with representatives of the president in which they presented their complaints and proposals, President Maduro removed the directors of Lácteos Los Andes. The workers’ proposal of changing to a model of workers’ control and appointing a manager elected by the workers remained under discussion (Aporrea.org, 2013c). In the following weeks such a restructuring of the management model was agreed on. The functions of the comptroller were to be performed by the workers, and Luis Moreno, elected by the workers, assumed the position of general manager. Moreno was a member of the national political command, the highest authority in the company, made up of 25 spokespersons for the various plants elected by the workers directly by secret ballot. The spokespersons—as the name suggests—do not make decisions; they are only the voices of the workers in their assemblies. It was also agreed to have regional political commands and to subdivide the company’s organization into six territories with their own political administrations. All this was based on the experiences and decisions of the workers (Gómez, 2013).
At the end of August 2013, workers occupied the state-owned Pedro Camejo Socialist Company, near Urachiche in Yaracuy, which provides specialized machinery and transport services for the agricultural sector. The workers had the backing of the peasantry and Urachiche’s mayor (who belonged to the governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela). The workers had accused the management of disrespect and questioned the whereabouts of large sums of money when many agricultural machines were in disrepair for lack of parts. Carlos Gudiño, one of the workers, said, “This is not a takeover but workers’ control because of mismanagement” (aporrea tvi, 2013b). The workers repaired the machinery and placed it at the peasants’ disposal. The workers of the neighboring company Leguminosas del Alba occupied the company in support of the Pedro Camejo workers (aporrea tvi, 2013b).
In the private sector, there were half a dozen new occupations. Among these was the chicken processing plant Aves Barquisimeto in Barquisimeto, which was occupied by 28 workers after the company announced its immediate closing on August 21, 2013, laying off 180 workers. The workers who occupied the factory declared the layoffs fraudulent and illegal, arguing that the factory was in perfect condition and could go back into production at any moment. With the takeover, the workers wanted to keep the owners from dismantling the plant. They demanded that the company be nationalized and transformed into a socialist production company managed jointly with the surrounding communities (Radio Tamunangue Libre, 2013a).
Also in Barquisimeto, on August 31, 2012, the owner of Interceramic C.A., which produces ceramics for floors, facades, and roofs, informed its workers by Skype from Spain that the factory had ceased operations and they were all fired. The workers decided to take over the factory, and during the ensuing struggle the idea of reopening it under workers’ control was increasingly suggested. The workers initiated another production cycle under workers’ control on October 29, with the output to contribute to the construction of low-income housing under the Vivienda Venezuela Mission (Radio Tamunangue Libre, 2013b).
In recent years, struggles for workers’ control have been strengthened by workers’ participation in their workplaces, and the demand for workers’ control is gaining momentum. Previously, the industrial workers’ sector had been one of the weakest social sectors in the Bolivarian process in terms of the capacity for development of a societal alternative. Workers have increasingly assumed a leading role in the Venezuelan process of transformation. Together with communities, they have an interest in production for the common good and can expose irresponsible practices, lack of planning, and corruption. What Marx proposed in his analysis of the Paris Commune applies to the Venezuelan case. The councils are “the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economic emancipation of labor” (Marx, 1975: 334). The Venezuelan workers’ councils are instruments that have been created and promoted from below, accepted by government agencies, and turned into a site of struggle—an area of conflict between the vision of advancing toward self-management and workers’ control and the institutional logic of categorizing social processes and their limits in order to neutralize them, as in the attempt of certain unions to get the workers’councils to assume their function as intermediaries between the rank and file and management. Especially in institutions, workers’ councils are used to resist the growing Bolivarian bureaucracy (Martín, 2011), and their experiences of obstruction are leading to their radicalization and self-organization.
President Nicolás Maduro has been much less inclined toward workers’ control than Hugo Chávez. Maduro is a unionist from the Bolivarian Socialist Workers’ Front, which has actively opposed workers’ control in various specific cases, for example, the basic industries of the Venezuelan Corporation of Guayana, among them Alcasa. Whereas Chávez advanced workers’ control with personal initiatives, the topic has had little presence in Maduro’s speeches. Nevertheless, as a unionist Maduro has known when to intervene, accepting the workers’ legitimate demands, such as in the cases of Lácteos Los Andes and Aceites Diana.
At the end of April 2015, Maduro designated Juan Bautista Arias commissioner of the new system of occupied, recuperated and nationalized companies. Some months earlier, Bautista had been involved in the development of a plan for resuming production in 150 occupied, recuperated and nationalized companies with the support of their workers. It is no coincidence that the plan was named the Hugo Chávez Frías Plan for Economic Growth and Expansion. The grave economic crisis that hit Venezuela in the second half of 2014, caused by the sudden drop in oil prices, had led the Venezuelan government to recognize the serious faults of many occupied, recuperated and nationalized companies and the necessity to intervene in the situation. Bautista had traveled throughout the country for several months visiting factories and speaking with workers and had already been trying to find concrete solutions. While the right and part of the administration blamed the workers for the companies’ problems, Bautista said, “The workers are outraged at being blamed for the mismanagement of the companies when in reality the majority of these occupied companies are not operating under any socialist model and are functioning with imposed managers who do not come from among them” (quoted in Majano, 2015). He went on to say that the rescue plan had to come from the workers themselves: “Those who know best what should be done to relaunch these companies are the workers, because they recognize the potential that is there” (Rangel, 2015).
Whether these new government initiatives are successful in broadening workers’ control or are again boycotted from the heart of these institutions, it does not seem overly daring to suggest that we are witnessing a qualitative advance in the workers’ struggle in Venezuela. Workers have succeeded in raising substantial ideological and political issues to the level of national debate while at the same time remaining deeply rooted in the territory, weaving alliances with communal councils, communes, community media, and grassroots organizations. All this is based on unity among the workers and a high degree of organization. Through this combination, the workers have achieved what, despite the official discourse in favor of workers’ control, state institutions had denied them.
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|Aporrea.org2013b “Trabajadores de Diana celebran victoria, tras semanas de lucha: dan la bienvenida al nuevo gerente.” Aporrea.org, August 15. http://www.aporrea.org/endogeno/n234542.html (accessed December 22, 2015).|
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