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Opinion and Analysis: Labor and Workers' Control

Venezuela: Workers’ control to solve power problems

Following nation-wide assemblies involving more than 10,000 electricity workers to collectively discuss solutions to the sector's problems, 600 delegates gathered in Carcasas on April 8-9.

The delegates presented Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez with their proposals to restructure the industry.

The electricity sector has been in crisis, with demand for power outstripping supply and blackouts resulting.

For more than two hours, Chavez and various government ministers listened intently as workers read out their proposals, developed over the two-day meeting.

Angel Navas, president of the (Fetraelec), said: “We hope that together with the revolutionary government, supporting the struggle of the workers, we can attack the capitalist model that is in crisis.”

Navas pointed out the real protagonists in Venezuela’s revolutionary struggle have been the workers themselves.

Worker proposals

Representatives from the 12 workers’ roundtables read out proposals, including: the introduction of workers’ control and participation in management; measures to eradicate corruption and bureaucratism; the elimination of casualisation by shifting workers onto permanent jobs; provision of ideological and technical education; and the fusion of the various existing electricity companies into one state company to facilitate the creation of a truly socialist electricity company.

Addressing the workers, Chavez declared: “The electricity revolution has begun!”

Chavez urged workers to push forward with their proposals as part of the transformation of the electricity sector.

“We can not affect change in the electricity sector without the workers playing a leading role, without their passion, their love for what they do, their pain, fury and knowledge.

“We are building a socialist homeland, with workers’ democracy.”

Chavez said that only through socialism, “with the participation of the communities and the workers, will we be able to definitively and profoundly solve all the problems”.

In order to “speed up the transition to socialism” and the fusion of the existing electricity companies, Chavez said workers in each company should elect a workers’ management committee and incorporate themselves into the existing board of directors, with voice and vote.

In 2007, as part of a process of “renationalising” privatised companies, six private electricity companies were brought under state control. A 2007 decree was passed to fuse the renationalised companies with the existing state company to found the Electricity Corporation of Venezuela (Corpoelec).

This decree set July this year as the date for the process’s completion. However, little progress has been made, as managers in each company have continued to operate separately, in many cases to defend their privileges.

One example was management’s refusal to sign a unified collective contract with workers across the electricity sector to equalise pay and conditions. Clearly viewing this as a step towards the fusing of the existing companies, management held out for 18 months, until forced to sign by the workers’ struggle.

Chavez said workers should elect direct representatives to the Electricity Chief of Staff, which includes representatives from the cabinet, management and the Armed Forces, so that within a month the first decisions could be taken towards creating a socialist electricity company.

Chavez asked workers to immediately resolve the issue of casualised labour by clarifying how many workers were casual in order to start eradicating the scourge.

The atmosphere was electric as workers chanted: “This, this, this is how to govern!”

Sabotage

Echoing workers’ statements, Chavez warned counterrevolutionary elements remained in the sector, including in key posts.

Recalling how socialism failed in the Soviet Union because power was not in workers’ hands, he called on the workers to prepare for big battles as the process of transforming the sector moved forward.

“Some people told me now was not the time to make these changes, but I believe this is the right time. Of course, internal sectors against the transformation will step up their sabotage, but if they do, I will make the necessary decisions.

“There are saboteurs occupying high posts and we know who they are. This does not mean we will carry out a witch hunt, but we will carry out changes on the side of the working class.”

Chavez spoke of “strange” occurrences in the sector, such as three recent fires in the important Central Plant in Carabobo state.

The government also announced on April 6 that eight Colombian spies had been arrested for secretly photographing and collecting information on Venezuela’s electricity system.

Comparing the situation to the sabotage by privileged managers of the state oil company, PDVSA, in late 2002, Chavez said: “It is the same bourgeoisie from the oil strike in PDVSA that is promoting sabotage in the electricity sector.”

At the time, the corrupt management of PDVSA and the electricity sector, both aligned to the right-wing opposition, carried out a two-month long lockout aimed at strangling Venezuela’s economy and bringing down Chavez’s government.

Resistance by workers, the armed forces and the poor majority defeated the lockout and PDVSA was brought under government control.

Following the defeat of the lockout in the electricity sector, workers initiated a process of workers’ control. However, this push was rolled back by the bureaucracy in the electricity companies, who fought to defend their privileges and corrupt dealings.

“Just as PDVSA was overflowing with capitalist values, that is how the electricity companies are today”, Chavez said.

“I have spoken with the National Guard so that the army can support the workers, because we cannot allow this sabotage to continue.”

Chavez emphasised the need to organise workers’ militias in the electricity sector.

An important feature of this new push for workers’ control is that, unlike previous experiments, the process can count on a united and organised workers movement led by some of Venezuela’s most politically conscious unionists to combat counterrevolutionary forces.

Fetraelec has long campaigned for worker participation as a solution to problems in the electricity sector. The leadership was first elected in 1998 after its leading role in the fight against privatisation.

During the anti-privatisation struggle, these unionists raised the need for workers’ control.

In 2001, Fetraelec signed a collective contract with Cadafe, one of the main components of Corpoelec, which included a clause on the right of workers to participate in managing the industry.

After defeating the bosses’ lockout at the end of 2002, workers began to organise committees across the industry to implement their collective contract. However, they encountered fierce resistance from company managers and sections of the government.

By 2005, the experiments in worker participation, called “co-management”, had been rolled back, with the exception of the Merida branch of Cadafe. There, workers had elected their own representative, Raul Arocha, as the local manager.

Chavez has recently appointed Arocha as Cadafe president.

Fetraelec continued to push its demands and achieved an important victory against the bureaucracy at the start of this year with the signing of the new collective contract.

The contract again included a clause on worker (and community) participation in running the industry.

By the end of last year, workers in different areas, such as Central Plant, had already begun removing corrupt bureaucrats and implementing workers’ control.

Plan Socialist Guayana

The same day Chavez addressed electricity workers, the new minister for basic industry and mining, Jose Khan, met with union representatives from steel, aluminum, iron ore and mining companies in the industrial state of Bolivar.

Khan listened to workers talk about the impact on production of energy rationing, caused by problems in the electricity sector, as well as other problems caused by the global economic crisis.

The Venezuelan Corporation of Guayana, which involves about 80,000 workers in different state-owned steel, aluminum, iron ore and mining companies, has also been undergoing a process of transformation.

In March 2009, an event similar to the electricity workers gathering was organised with 400 representatives from all factories in Guayana.

In response to workers’ demands, Chavez announced the nationalisation of a number of companies and called on workers to design a plan to restructure the industrial complex under workers’ control.

As a result, thousands of workers organised themselves into roundtables in most plants to discuss and develop Plan Socialist Guayana 2009-19, which was approved by Chavez in July.

The plan raises the need for workers’ control —to not just direct production, but decide what is produced and for whom.

Acknowledging the process had not moved forward as quickly as wanted, Khan said: “The workers’ roundtables in Guayana are already detecting what the problems are, and the necessary solutions and resources.”

He said there is now workers’ control over investment and commercialisation in some companies, but that workers are demanding the process of worker control over production move forward.

“The only thing missing now is to know who will be in charge of these companies.”

Khan pointed to the example of Fetraelec and called on workers to put aside personal and petty differences. He said the “Guayana union movement needs political maturity; it has to understand the priority is unity in order to rescue the companies”.

“The only way to rescue these basic industries is with the participation of the workers”, said Khan. He said it was vital “these basic industries are directed by the workers themselves”, with workers electing managers.

He also said his ministry was investigating creating two new vice ministries for commercialisation and production. The vice ministry of commercialisation, “which has to run by a competent worker who knows the area”, would ensure greater transparency and that prices were equally set across the different companies.

Jose Melendez, finance secretary of the Sidor steel plant workers’ union, said Khan’s appointment as minister was “a great opportunity” to relaunch Plan Socialist Guayana.

Melendez said: “The workers are going to put on our boots once again in order to re-launch the roundtables, which are vital and important for the development of the country.”

[Federico Fuentes is part of the Green Left Weekly Caracas bureau.]