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News: Labor and Workers' Control

Venezuelan National Workers Union Calls for Greater Worker Control

Mérida, July 19th 2010 (Venezuelanalysis.com) – Venezuela’s principal union federation, the National Union of Workers (UNETE), recently circulated a document calling for broader nationalizations, a revolutionary labor law, and a radical shift toward a democratic, worker-led management model to stave off state bureaucracy.

The statement was released earlier this month and coincided with a series of worker assemblies and worker education programs initiated by unions in state-owned and private companies, indicating that the movement for worker control – and the clash between the bureaucracy and the rank-and-file in the Bolivarian Revolution – is alive and well.

The statement is directed at “the working people of Venezuela,” and aims to be “a draft in order to continue discussion” and “not a definitive document.” It includes a total of 21 policy proposals by UNETE and other worker, peasant, and indigenous organizations.

Chief among the proposals is the full nationalization of the banking and finance sectors and of all foreign commerce related to essential foods, the gradual reduction of the sales tax, and a national re-adjustment of wages and prices in accordance with real costs of living and production.

The statement also demands the passage of a “Revolutionary Labor Law” before the National Assembly elections in September, and says a Ministry for Worker Control and Social Production should be created and directed by worker councils.

The document also suggests that two national constituent assemblies be formed. One assembly would form a plan to re-ignite the cooperative economic sector which avoids the pitfalls of the cooperative boom of 2004-2006, in which private companies took advantage of state-financed cooperative businesses as sources of non-unionized labor and cheap credits. The other assembly would serve as a forum to share experiences of worker control in state-owned and private companies.

In addition, the document proposes an increase in worker control of public sector management, and demands that the national government strictly regulate the prices of private health care services as a step toward establishing a single national health system as well as a universal and obligatory national social security system.

Other proposals include a national maximum wage or salary, reduction of the work day, and the passage of an Industrial Transformation Law that guarantees the transfer of idle companies and land to worker or peasant collectives. The document also advocates measures to protect both peasants and workers from hired killings which have taken the lives of more than 220 peasant leaders and 100 worker organizers in recent years, and the prioritization of the demarcation of ancestral indigenous lands over the interests of transnational mining companies.  

The national coordinators of UNETE, who authored the document, frame these proposals in the context of a “structural crisis of the capitalist system” that has “opened up enormous opportunities for true political alternatives [that are] consequently classist, revolutionary, anti-capitalist, and socialist.” They call on “all exploited peoples of the world” to join the struggle for this new system.

UNETE praises the Venezuelan state for making many well-conceived efforts to guarantee food security, bring strategic industries under national control, and put a halt to speculation in financial markets, but says these efforts have been damaged by “bureaucratism, indolence, and corruption of functionaries who act like a fifth column... in the entire structure of a bourgeois state that refuses to die.”

Also, the majority of Venezuelan production remains in private hands, and in many industries that were partially nationalized in recent years, the state controls only the processing of raw materials, not the finished products, the document points out. It adds that state-mandated wage increases have been offset by inflation driven by private speculators.

The empowerment of worker councils and unions is key to overcoming these obstacles, the UNETE leaders say, but “from the top management of state companies, ministries, and institutions, there is a policy directed toward subordinating these organizations to the discretion and interests of a new managerial caste that does not believe in the working class, in worker control, and much less in socialism,” the UNETE leaders say.

Ongoing Worker Control Initiatives

Last year, President Hugo Chavez made a direct appeal to promote worker control of companies in Venezuela’s heavy industries in the Guayana region, many of which are now controlled by the state. Workers and government bureaucrats drew up the “Socialist Guayana Plan” to convert the country’s largest steel, aluminum, and coal companies into socialist, worker-controlled operations by 2019. In May of this year, Chavez swore in worker-elected workers as company presidents in these key industries. 

Since then, the worker-led administration of the steel factory Sidor, which was nationalized in 2008, has organized educational workshops on worker control. 6,000 workers – a little less than half the company’s total workforce – have participated, according to Jhonny Hernández, a member of one of the working groups that crafted the Socialist Guayana Plan.

In addition to educating the workforce about worker control, the workers are compiling a manual of ethical and political norms for a “horizontal management model” that will help “democratize administrative decision-making” in the company, and more and more workers are joining the movement, Hernández said.

Sidor workers set up a Bolivarian Workers’ University last year to provide weekly classes in crucial technical skills as well as politics and theory to the approximately 1,300 workers who have registered so far.

In recent months the Sidor workers also organized a rally supporting the Socialist Guayana Plan and another to demand an increase in production at the plant following state-mandated cutbacks due to a a prolonged electricity shortage.

The principle of worker control appears to be popular among Venezuelans. According to a national poll conducted by the Social Investigation Group (GIS XXI) in May, 80% of Venezuelans from the lowest income strata and 64.1% from the highest income strata are in agreement with the participation of workers in company decisions.

Published on Jul 19th 2010 at 9.05pm