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Opinion and Analysis: Bolivarian Project | Labor and Workers' Control | Participation

Without Workers Management There Can Be No Socialism

Over the weekend of October 26 to 27, several hundred people attended a two day conference on Worker's Management: Theory and Practice, as part of a program, "Human Development and Transformative Praxis," run by Canadian Marxist academic Michael Lebowitz at the International Miranda Center in Caracas. The first day addressed the theory and historical experience of worker's control and attempts to build socialism, with presentations by Pablo Levin, the Director of the Center for Planning and Development at the University of Buenos Aires, British Marxist economist Patrick Devine (the author of Democracy and Economic Planning), Michael Lebowitz, and sociologist Carlos Lanz Rodriguez, a former guerrilla and now president of CVG-ALCASA the state owned co-managed aluminum factory. The second day of the conference focused on the various practical experiences of worker occupied factories in Latin America. Speakers included, Carlos Quininir (Zanon) and Jose Abelli (FACTA), from the recovered factory movement in Argentina, Serge Goulart from the Occupied Factory Movement in Brazil, as well as spokespeople from various examples of state owned companies under workers control or workers co-management and worker run cooperatives in Venezuela, including the Tachira Textile Cooperative, Inveval - an expropriated valve manufacturing company under workers control, ALCASA, and Cemento Andino in Trujillo, one of the most recent examples of workers control in Venezuela.

During his opening presentation Lebowitz said, "On May Day 2005 I marched with workers in Caracas and the slogan workers were chanting at the time was, ‘Without co-management there is no revolution!'"

"Indeed, the main slogan of that march organized by the UNT [National Union of Workers] was "Co-management is revolution and Venezuelan workers are building Bolivarian socialism."

From its beginning, the UNT, which came together in December 2002 when the old corrupt Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV) supported the bosses lockout and sabotage of the oil industry and has functioned essentially as an alliance of trade unions and union leaders and is characterized by internal divisions.

Despite the million strong May Day march in 2005, the UNT was unable to organize a united May Day demonstration in 2006 and at its second congress shortly thereafter, in the context of simmering factional divisions, fractured over the question of whether to hold elections or wait until after the presidential elections in 2006 in order to focus on supporting Hugo Chavez's campaign for presidency.

Since then the UNT has remained divided and although union leaders Orlando Chirino from the Current for Revolutionary Class Unity and Autonomy (C-CURA), and Marcela Maspero, of the Collective of Workers in Revolution (CRT), the two principal currents involved in the split, agreed in July to organize elections within the UNT before the end of this year, this has still not occurred. Although the UNT continues to organize on a regional level, it does not function as a united union federation and at the national level, it could be argued, its existence is nominal only.

Problems of Worker Management

As Lebowitz pointed out, we don't hear much talk of co-management or workers control coming from the UNT anymore. "We don't have masses of workers saying, ‘without worker management there is no socialism' or ‘that you cannot build socialism without worker management.'" Nevertheless, Lebowitz argued, "I think we have to recognize the essential truth of this proposition"

Framing the discussion, Lebowitz said it is useful to look at the different dimensions of what President Chavez has called "the elementary triangle of socialism," - units of social property, social production organized by workers, and production for the needs of communities. "You can't separate these in socialism" he argued. Capitalism is based on a different triangle he said; private property, exploitation of labor, and production for profit.

Lebowitz then drew on the lessons of the experience of worker self-management in the former Yugoslavia. He pointed out that although the enterprises were state owned and were viewed as social property, they functioned in the market and were driven by one thing, self interest of the workers in an individual enterprise; there was no concept of solidarity, that is, production for the needs of communities.

In order to maximize the income of workers in each individual enterprise, they invested in automation to increase production, rather than take on new workers. By 1971 there was 7% unemployment in Yugoslavia, plus 20% of the workforce worked outside the country as guest workers in Western Europe.

"Legally these enterprises were social property, but social property means that everyone in society has equal access to the means of production and benefits from it, the unemployed though, had no access to the means of production."

"In fact, what happened in the context of the market," Lebowitz said, was "a new productive relation had emerged in these enterprises, group ownership, group property."

"Of course" Lebowitz continued, "all members weren't really equal - it was the managers and technical experts that had the knowledge about marketing products investments, banking, and establishing links with other enterprises, creating mergers."

There was no sustained effort in the workplace to truly educate workers on how to run the enterprises, he added, "the result was that the distinction between thinking and doing remained."

Workers became dependent on the managers and technical experts "and in the end it was the managers who emerged as the capitalists, leaving the workers as wage laborers."

According to Lebowitz, the Yugoslav case "demonstrates that the existence of workers councils, even with the legal power to make decisions, is not the same as worker management."

Additionally, "It demonstrates that the focus upon the self-interest of the workers in an individual enterprise is not the same as focusing on the interest of the working class as a whole."

Lebowitz then came back to the elementary triangle of socialism; "Of course it can't all be put into place once there is a long process of struggle to develop each side of that triangle, but if we are not actively building each side we inevitably infect the whole process. How can you build socialism without real workers management? How can you create real developed human beings, without protagonistic democracy in the workplace and the community?"

In his introductory presentation Devine said that the question of how to organize production had been the subject of fierce debate since the time of Marx and the two principal ways of achieving this had been either through the market or the system of central planning adopted in the Soviet Union, where there was no democracy and workers had no power to make decisions.

Devine agreed with Lebowitz that worker managed enterprises, which are truly autonomous, function as a form of "group private property" and he said by seeking to maximize income, "they set up pressures against the participation of workers"

In order to develop socially oriented production he argued that production decisions cannot be made solely by workers in an individual enterprise, but must be made with the participation of all the social owners of an enterprise, that is all the social groups affected by the activities of an enterprise, including suppliers, consumers, and environmental groups and so on, to determine what counts as social production.

In small-scale enterprises, Devine contended, it is fairly easy to determine what counts as social production. However, in much more complex and large-scale industries that involve production and distribution on a national or even international level and do not correspond to a single community, it is therefore more difficult to ascertain what can be determined as production in the social interest.

Therefore Devine suggested, "A model of bottom-up planning involving part of the social owners at each level through a process of coordinated negotiation, applied up to the national level and at an international level a coordinated set of activities that meet social needs at that level."

"This is neither the anarchy of market forces, or top down planning, but participatory democratic planning from below, initially directly, then indirectly through elected and recallable representatives"

In this context, key debates in the discussion of how to build workers democracy and socialism, throughout the conference, included; not only the question of state owned enterprises under workers control vs. worker owned cooperatives and how to overcome the social division between intellectual and manual labor, but also how to build links with communities and the role of the trade unions in relation to the different experiences of workers' participation. Different perspectives on these issues were reflected through the various examples from Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela.

Experiences of Worker Management in Latin America

Jose Abelli from FACTA, a network of independent workers cooperatives, explained that the recovered factory movement in Argentina, which is composed primarily of independent worker cooperatives with few ties to the traditional trade unions, developed as a defensive mechanism, "as a form of resistance to harsh neoliberalism" and was born directly out of the need to defend employment in the context of the economic crisis of 2000.

Abelli said that the 220 recovered and self managed factories in Argentina have generated 300 million dollars in the Argentine economy this year and generated 2,000 jobs since the economic crisis.

What the recovered factory movement in Argentina shows, Abelli argued, is that not only can workers manage factories, but also the economy and that, "we can administrate society in a manner more just than private capital." "We have demonstrated that economy is not the property of a few powerful, important men," he added.

However, for Abelli, it is important that the worker cooperatives in Argentina "are independent of political parties and the state." This reflects a different political context. "We obviously don't have a government like here in Venezuela," he said.

Abelli also pointed out that the Venezuelan government was supporting the worker's cooperatives in Argentina and had recently signed an agreement with FACTA for the purchase of 2,000 tractors.

Serge Goulart, a spokesperson for the Occupied Factories Movement in Brazil, which works closely with the unions and is part of the CUT (Central Union of Workers) said the Bolivarian revolution, is the "oxygen" of the workers movement in Brazil. He explained to the conference how the Venezuelan government is helping out the Flasko plastics factory in Sao Paulo, closed in 2003 and subsequently occupied by workers, by supplying raw materials in exchange for technology to produce plastic housing in Venezuela.

For Goulart, in contrast to Abelli, it is important for workers to demand 100% state ownership under workers control, because, "We don't want to become small capitalists."

However, Goulart explained that unlike many cooperatives in Argentina or the example of Inveval in Venezuela, where all workers are paid exactly the same, the occupied factories in Brazil had a policy of paying workers on the basis of award rates for different types of work, this is because, he explained, if skilled workers are not paid a higher rate they would look for work elsewhere and not stay with the occupied factories.

Goulart also warned of threats to workers management, not only by the governments and capitalists in Argentina and Brazil, but also from the state bureaucracy in Venezuela. He referred to the example of Sanatarios Maracay, where although the Venezuelan National Assembly has approved its expropriation, sections of the state bureaucracy have sided with a parallel union supported by the boss to remove occupying workers from the main installations of the factory.

A spokesperson from Inveval, Nelson Rodriguez, explained to the conference how the workers council functioned there. He said the highest decision making body is the general assembly of workers in the factory but also there are a number of elected permanent commissions, including finances, social and political formation, a technical commission, administration, discipline, security and control and services. However, to ensure democratic accountability within the factory, Rodriguez said any person elected to a commission could be recalled at any time through a general assembly of the workers council.

In order to overcome the division between intellectual or administrative labor and manual labor, they also rotate different types of work within the factory, combined with political discussion within the workers council, education for collective development, and technical training.

On the question of cooperatives vs. state ownership with workers' control, Rodriguez told Venezuelanalysis.com that factories should be 100% state owned under worker control, because, "Cooperatives have a capitalist structure in reality."

Also key to the experience at Inveval are the links between the workers council and the local community. Not only does the factory provide a space for health and education missions, but the workers council also participates in the local communal council.

Rodriguez presented to the conference an explanation of a delegate system developed by workers at Inveval based on their own experience, where workers councils send delegates to communal councils and vice versa, but which could be applied on a much broader scale to federations of workers councils and communal councils in order to construct structures of popular power.

A battalion of the new United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) also functions out of Inveval. Rodriguez told Venezuelanalysis.com, "The PSUV is a huge political school, to drive forward the revolution, and together with the construction of popular power proposed in the constitutional reform - through workers, students, campesino and communal councils, the aim is to create a socialist state, because the state is not socialist."

"We participate in the battalion as workers, not as citizens, but from the point of view of workers."

Significantly, Rodriguez explained that the workers council at Inveval developed largely outside the framework of the organized trade union movement in Venezuela. And in February 2006, the workers in Inveval initiated the Revolutionary Front of Workers in Occupied and Co-managed Factories (FRETECO), because, "We saw that here in Venezuela the unions were not supporting the struggle for occupying and taking over factories through the UNT."

According to Rodriguez, the leaders of the UNT were more interested in factional struggles and winning elections, rather than putting forward a strategy that corresponded to the political reality of Venezuela.

"Therefore we saw the necessity to organize a way that we could support workers in taking over factories and support factories in the same situation," he said

FRETECO held its first congress in October 2006 with workers from 15 occupied factories participating. However, it is open to all groups of workers involved in conflicts over occupied factories and is now comprised of approximately 20 factories, with workers from newly occupied factories regularly coming to them for advice and support.

The conference also heard from Alcides Rivero a spokesperson from ALCASA, arguably the most important experiment of workers co-management in Venezuela. In 2005, at the behest of President Chavez, a process of worker's co-management was initiated in ALCASA, a company that had been owned by the state for 38 years, but had been run down by previous governments in order to prepare it for privatization.

Rivero outlined the first stage of co-management in ALCASA, "the construction of the political viability of co-management," which was characterized by the initiation of open workers assemblies and discussion of an 18-point plan to re-launch the company and a process of electing a new management through secret ballot. Of the 2700 workers in ALCASA 95% participated in these elections. The workers also elected 36 spokespeople to work together with the management in making decisions.

"This revolutionary proposal of Chavez," Rivero pointed out, "was an extraordinary experience, never before had workers been able to participate in making decisions."

However, Rivero contended, there are obstacles. One of the obstacles is the culture within ALCASA, and "Every workplace has its own culture. In ALCASA there was a culture where workers only worked to get money, and didn't have a vision of creating a new society."

Related to this question of culture was the sharp polarization between different unions within ALCASA, principally the conflict between union leaders Trino Silva and Jose Gil. "The confrontation within the Chavista political movement within ALCASA is amazing," Rivero said. According to Rivero, the unions in ALCASA, "have a monetarist view," and "are concerned with power. They view the elected spokespeople as a threat."

"This is a culture from the fourth republic," Rivero argued. In order to overcome these cultural problems, Rivero said that political formation is essential; for this reason the Negro Primero Centre for Political and Social Formation was set up in ALCASA in 2005. However, not only is political formation necessary he said, but also technical training and education. "Together with workers from PDVSA we have created the Bolivarian University of Workers. I study there."

Rivero also spoke of the challenges posed by the technocracy of the CVG industrial complex for co-management, "because the CVG is a monster." "ALCASA is the only section of the CVG industrial complex that has co-management, there is also Venalum, Carbonorte Feromineria, but there is no line to push forward with co-management in these other sections," he said.

Despite these challenges the process of workers co-management in ALCASA has resulted in significant achievements, including increased production, improved working conditions, and, according to a report on May 8 2007, "Balance and Perspectives on Co-management in CVG ALCASA" by Carlos Lanz Rodriguez, is now entering the "third stage of co-management" (the second stage being a focus on developing co-management and a new strategy for the company), which involves a debate and discussion on the humanization of labor, including the reduction of the working day, the democratization of knowledge to reduce the social division of labor within the factory and the decentralization of decision making through the construction of workers councils.

Another question for the development of workers democracy and socialism in Venezuela is the issue of worker's management in strategic industries. During a report back session from a series of workshops on how to move forward with the struggle for workers management and socialism, workers asked, "Why can't we have workers management in PDVSA?"

They pointed to the example of the guide committees, organic workers organizations that sprang up within PDVSA during the bosses lockout and sabotage of the oil industry in December 2002 to January 2003, saying these showed that workers could run strategic industries.

Not only is it necessary for the means of production to be socially owned, but that it is necessary for workers to be able to participate and make decisions in strategic industries, not just small factories, "if we are truly to advance to socialism" they asserted. In addition to making decisions in the factories, they argued, workers also need to make decisions within the institutions of the state, which are also very vertical.

The key task, they determined, is to build on and strengthen the existing examples of workers control, workers cooperatives, and workers organizations, and in particular to strengthen political consciousness of workers to deepen the struggle for socialism.

"The political formation of the workers is essential, but not only political formation, also ideological and technical formation and training are necessary for workers to run factories and society," one woman said.

In his closing presentation Lebowitz questioned the lack of confidence in workers to manage strategic industries such as PDVSA, saying "the same logic that say's there's no place for co-management in strategic industries would also extend to the position that there's no place for workers' strikes in those sectors."

Lebowitz also pointed out that while cooperatives don't fundamentally break with private property, they could act as an "important school for socialism" showing that workers do not need bosses. "This is obvious when we hear the workers here and see the sense of pride and dignity that they have."

Similarly, he said that the example of Yugoslavia showed that state owned enterprises under workers control in and of themselves were insufficient to create socialism, but could be viewed as Lenin described them as a "threshold" on the path to socialism.

What is necessary, Lebowitz argued, is to shift the focus from the self-interest of workers in an individual state enterprise or workers cooperative to the general interest of society as a whole. "This cannot be achieved by a distant state telling the workers ‘you must serve society'" he continued, but conversely, what is needed is a strong community voice. Lebowitz then pointed to the example of the communal councils in Venezuela as an essential tool, together with the workers cooperatives and state enterprises under workers control or co-management, to push forward the struggle for socialism.

A key weakness in the struggle for workers management and socialism in Venezuela, Lebowitz pointed out, is the lack of a political strategy and the economism of the trade unions. "Their whole orientation towards higher wages and their tendency to act like a labor aristocracy in a society where so many people are poor." This is not just a case of bad policy Lebowitz argued, "There are in fact structural reasons for the way they behave."

What is happening to the UNT he said "is the reproduction of the privileges of the trade unions in the Fourth Republic." Therefore, Lebowitz concluded, "Not only do you need a revolutionary state, you also need new revolutionary trade unions."

Summing up, Devine argued that the logic for state owned enterprises under workers control as opposed to worker owned cooperatives is compelling because it, "at least formally, represents the society as a whole" where as cooperatives represent a form of "group private property."

But, he said, that depends on two things; firstly, "the nature of the state, the extent to which it remains a capitalist state, the extent to which it is a socialist state, the extent to which it is a state in transition." In Venezuela, Devine contended, there is "a state in transition." "If it is the case that Venezuela is in a transitional phase, then of course you either go forward or you go back."

Devine suggested, that "One way of thinking about the way forward in Venezuela is to think of transforming state property into social property, to create a structured system of democratic participatory planning, which is built up from below, but results in an integrated plan that has been created by the localities and the enterprises themselves."

"The immediate task facing revolution," he added, "is the development of participatory worker councils and communal councils. Without these, together with education programs and the human transformation they enable, nothing else is possible, this is an immense task and will take place over a long period."

"One thing that is clear from historical experience is that, without active participation of workers, the community and other groups in civil society there can be no socialism."

However, Devine concluded, "I am inspired by the enthusiasm, the knowledge, the commitment of the people here, and I have great confidence that you will succeed in moving things forward, but it will obviously not be easy."