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Opinion and Analysis: Labor and Workers' Control

Venezuelan Unions March to Control Companies, Throw Out “Reformist” State Management

Mérida, October 28th 2010 (Venezuelanalysis.com) – Worker unions from a range of state-owned and private companies in Venezuela plan to march on November 9th in favor of a new labor law, the resolution of collective union contracts, and the empowerment of worker unions in the management of their companies.

Most of the unions, affiliated with the National Union of Workers (UNETE), favor the government’s program of nationalizing key industries that are deemed strategic for achieving domestic food sovereignty and economic diversification – key components of the construction of what government supporters call “21st Century Socialism.”

However, many unions openly oppose the moderate or “reformist” state functionaries who obstruct the establishment of worker control in their companies, and in some cases, blatantly take the side of the private management against the workers. Several such unions have taken up the motto of supporting “neither capitalists nor bureaucrats.”

Coffee workers at Fama de America, which was nationalized in November 2009 after the private management was accused of hoarding Venezuela’s culturally iconic beverage, say the state management is opposed to the involvement of worker councils in the management of the company.

“The company management has a clear desire to put an end to the union,” said union leader Gustavo Martinez in recent public declarations. “We were the ones who confronted the private management; we are not red-shirted functionaries with a roundabout discourse... It is necessary that it be the workers who manage these companies and direct them toward a new model of production and true participation,” Martínez stated.

Eliezer Abreu, also a union leader at Fama de America, called on President Hugo Chavez to take action on the side of the workers. “Commander [Chavez], without worker control there is no socialism and you should fully examine the reality of the different nationalized companies, you should know who the real revolutionaries are,” said Abreu.

Similarly, workers at the state television station VTV called on the government to fire the station’s vice president, Jose Miguel Avendaño, and human relations manager, William Fernández, for alleged “management terrorism.”

Last week, Igor Alcalá, general secretary of the Union Movement of Organized Audiovisual Media Workers (MOTORMAV), said that the VTV management’s infractions included unjust firings, the non-renewal of the workers’ collective contract, interference in union autonomy, and non-responsiveness to union demands.

In the food sector, Mercal workers said the management has delayed the signing of their collective contract for five years, and abandoned the negotiations again in early October, affecting 8,500 workers. Mercal is the government’s flagship subsidized food market that has served tens of thousands of communities nation-wide over the past seven years.

“The workers have had to suffer the most aberrant violations of our human and worker rights, to the extent that today, Mercal is one of the Venezuelan companies with the most violations,” declared the leadership of the Mercal workers union, SUNTRABMERCAL, in an official statement in June. The union referred to Mercal as “an organization of Socialist and Revolutionary character,” and called for a restructuring of the company to establish “protagonistic and emancipatory participation by the workers in order to advance toward the construction of a company of social property and thus guarantee food security.” The statement called for the ouster of the managers “who, from the time of their arrival, have tried to conduct [Mercal] like a typical company in the capitalist system.”

In another case earlier this year, workers at La Gaviota sardine factory, which was nationalized in May 2009 following alleged workers’ rights violations by the private management, said state managers were responsible for a drop in production this year. While the state managers have improved the pay, working conditions, and treatment of the workers, they have also ignored the workers’ calls for investment in new machinery and unduly stored 55,000 boxes of canned sardines rather than putting them on the market, according to the La Gaviota worker union.

In an atypical worker strike earlier this year, the workers at La Gaviota took over the plant and refused entry to the management while they maintained production inside. In subsequent negotiations, the management agreed to sell the stored goods and spend the income on needed repairs and purchases of supplies. The workers described the event as an initial step toward the ultimate goal of having worker councils be elected to manage all state-owned companies.

Despite the criticisms of state functionaries who maintain a hierarchical and profit-driven management style, the vast majority of worker unions in nationalized companies remain very pro-government. In June, thousands of workers from nationalized food, electricity, oil, and mining companies as well as cattle ranches and farms marched to the headquarters of Venezuela’s largest private business chamber, FEDECAMARAS to express their opposition to the irresponsible behavior of private company owners. They also lauded President Chavez for leading “the only government that has truly given the workers their collective contracts, their job security, and their pay,” in the words of one participant in the march.

Moreover, workers in private companies often rally for nationalization of their company as an effective option to guarantee fair pay, job security, vacation time, pensions and other benefits. Last Friday, 300 workers in natural gas company EMEGAS in the southwestern states of Barinas, Táchira, and southern Zulia state marched to demand the immediate nationalization of their company, which in the case of Táchira state supplies 90% of natural gas used in homes, according to Aporrea.org. The workers said the company receives a subsidy from the government and earns large profits, but has refused to cede to the workers’ collective contract demands.

President Chavez has publicly declared himself in favor of worker control of companies on several occasions. In May 2009, the president sat down with worker representatives in the state-owned heavy industries in the Guayana region of Bolivar state to draw up a long-term “Socialist Guayana Plan” that included the establishment of worker control. One year later, company directors were chosen by the workers and sworn in by Chavez himself. Also, the president remains an open critic of what many of his supporters call the “right-wing within” the pro-Chavez camp, and his administration has taken steps to halt corruption by investigating and arresting several Chavista allies as well as opposition adversaries.  

Nonetheless, Chavez makes pragmatic – and problematic – decisions amid imperfect circumstances. The Socialist Guayana Plan has suffered constant interference by state bureaucrats who oppose the empowerment of the workers, in defiance of the president’s official policy. These opponents, combined with the US-backed right-wing opposition outside of the Chavez government, present the persistent threat of debilitating lockouts and management-led shutdowns such as those carried out in 2002 and 2003 with the aim of ousting Chavez from power. It is speculated that in order to avoid the materialization of this threat in the lead-up to last month’s National Assembly elections, Chavez fired his trade minister, Eduardo Samán, in February as a compromise with moderates who opposed Samán’s staunch pro-worker and socialist position. The president never explained the decision, but he did tell Samán personally that it was a question of “strategy.”

Following a bittersweet electoral victory in which pro-Chavez candidates won a strong but weaker than expected majority in the National Assembly last month, President Chavez called for his supporters to “revise, rectify, and re-start” in order to correct errors that may have caused the decline in voter support. Since then, revolutionary worker unions, many of them affiliated with UNETE, and other pro-Chavez officials have published a number of supportive critiques of the government bureaucracy aimed at setting the “Bolivarian Revolution,” as Chavez’s supporters refer to his policy program, on what they say is the true path toward “21st Century Socialism.”

Chavez appears to be continually seeking a way to overcome obstacles and accelerate the advance toward “21st Century Socialism.” While the parameters of this system are not yet fully defined, there is a strong bloc within the Chavez administration that sees it as, at least in part, the establishment of democratic worker and local decision-making bodies to replace both the capitalist market economy and communist state planning that were prevalent in the 20th Century.

Recently, worker unionists held a conference in Anzoátegui state that was centered on a discussion of the theme, “What is Worker Control?”, in order to develop a deeper understanding of their own alternative vision for the nation’s economic structure. The conference was one among many regional gatherings of UNETE branches that are being planned to bolster the march planned for November 9th.