Joint Responsibility and Confidence in Venezuela’s Worker Co-Managed Industries

Joint management does not only require a new type of manager, it requires a new type worker, a new type of union leader. An internal cultural revolution is required of all. The new man is not born automatically when the process of co-management is initiated.

The struggle of the electrical workers to assume responsibility of the company in which they work and to calm the chaos caused by neoliberal, privatizing politics was not born with the triumph of President Chávez. As Angel Navas, president of the Electrical Industry Workers Confederation (Fetraelec) says, the idea of joint management was born among the workers of Cadafe in the 1990’s, during their struggle against privatization.

As a result of the work and the mobilizations carried out during those years, sectors of the left faired well in the union electoral process of 2001 and subsequently played a key role in the popular victory over the attempted coup d’etat of December 2002 to January 2003. A year before, on April 1, 2001, the process of joint management had been finalized in Cadafe with the approval of the Declaration of Principles elaborated by the new Executive Board of Directors. A full half of his new board was comprised of workers for the first time. But the process really began to gain strength fundamentally as a result of the coup attempt and the managerial strike organized by the opposition.

It must be clarified that for the electrical workers, joint management does not only mean having representatives on the Executive Board. That is not enough. What they seek is real participation that promotes a sense of ownership; that will rescue the business from the chaotic state it was in, and that will allow the company to provide a quality service. “Maybe there are other joint management endeavors that are vertically structured, where those on top participate and where the workers only hear about the features that were discussed above,” stated Angel Navas, adding, “But our formula is to have a management committee in each department and then, at the next  level, a process committee and  general management committee where participating delegates from the lower level will rotate.  A delegate will not be elected indefinitely; everyone must participate.  It is difficult for some managers and directors to understand that they must sit down as equals with the workers to discuss budgets, and make administrative and financial decisions.”

The Workers Know How to Elect

The process has advanced furthest at Cadela-Mérida, a Cadafe subsidiary in the Andean zone, where there has been joint participation among workers, business executives and the organized community.  Carlos Sánchez, the president of Cadela was nominated by and elected by the majority of workers at this location. 

“We have an excellent relation with him,” says Zaida Gil, general secretary of the Cadela Electric Union of Mérida. “A true camaraderie exists.  He has supported many of the workers’ initiatives, and what’s more he has a great team.  At times, of course, we do not share the same views, but then he invites us to converse, to debate.  This is how things should be done.  There are those who criticize us, they call us “bosses”, but I believe this criticism is in correct, because in this process we all join hands: the president, board of directors, managers, professionals, technicians, workers, unions.  We all strive toward the same goal of joint management. Therefore we have been successful.”

When Zaida is told that some oppose joint management arguing that workers do not know who are the better administrators, He answers categorically, “We workers know who are truly good, who are the better technicians, the better engineers, because we see them perform their work. How are they, over there in the headquarters, going to know who are the better workers when they never visit the subsidiaries? We know, because we are with the engineers and technicians day after day.  There are people prepared to assume the business leadership without so much bureaucracy, without being so technocratic. People competent to assume the challenge and showing the world what we are capable of.  We are not going to select a lunatic to direct the business; we are going to elect people who are prepared!”

Alirio Gerardo, former director of Social and Communications Management of Cadafe maintains in turn, “Joint management needs a new kind of manager, with social links, who talks to people, and who does not believe in the division between intellectual work and manual work.”

Joint management signifies co-responsibility. This requires the worker to trust in the business leaders. If that confidence does not exist, the worker will not be committed, “How are we going to accept sharing responsibility if we see bad things happening that we have no way to circumvent!” expressed Angel Navas.

Handing Over Managerial Power to the Workers: A Risk?

But joint management does not only require a new type of manager, it requires a new type worker, a new type of union leader.  An internal cultural revolution is required of all.  The new man is not born automatically when the process of co-management is initiated.  The ideological load of the past, the union style of the Fourth Republic, the constant ideological bombardment through the opposition media, are all factors that weigh heavily and many times halt or roll back the co-management process.

In light of this crude reality there are those who question whether the risk of handing over an important part of the managerial power to the workers, as they are demanding, should be run.  This author fully agrees with the president of Cadela’s assertion, that in order for co-management, in a sector as strategic as electricity, to fulfill its noble objective of serving the country it must not be diverted “to serve personal interests, nor the interests of any political party or social group.” It is fundamental that a formula be sought for integrating the organized community among the actors of joint management in addition to the workers and the administrators. Because when all is said and done, the electric plant does not belong to just the employees, it belongs to all Venezuelans. Their voice should reach the business through the communities that receive service. They should be able to point out deficiencies and suggest solutions: to collaborate. 

Cadela is not limited to consulting with the communities, creating sources of employment through the promotion of cooperatives, and supporting the Missions in diverse ways. Through its Coordination of Social & Communication Management, among other things, Cadela will offer advice, “to help communities organize themselves, to promote the constitution of neighborhood associations, cooperative counsels, parochial counsels, and to assist in the preparation of elections for a local planning-council representative,” as director, Iván Cañas explains.

The electric workers that before were looked down upon today are respected. A united action by managers, workers and communities has reversed the critical situation that existed at the company. The service has improved, the profits are higher, and work has been granted to many cooperatives (more than 375 cooperatives by the end of 2004) instead of contracting services to private companies. Electricians that were held in contempt by the population for the bad service the company provided, are respected today and honored by Merida inhabitants.

“Their behavior was extraordinary after the natural disaster in February,” says Zaida Gil. “Everybody calculated it would take two months to reestablish power in Santa Cruz, but let me tell you that mister Carlos Sanchez, engineer Raul Arocha, the transmission workers and almost 275 linemen, with astonishing team work capacity, walking, climbing hills, and carrying water, reestablished power in less than 48 hours. I’m very proud of their performance. It is the result of the workers’ effort and the community’s support. Even the priest of the community blessed them! The boys called me almost crying and told me: ‘It is very touching what we are experiencing here, within this tragedy people applaud us and thank God that the light has returned.’”

Note: Testimonials included here are part of a work recently published, The challenges of congestion: Cadafe and Cadela’s experiences, Popular Library, Colection Testimonials Nº2 , La Burbuja Editorial, Caracas, April 2005

Translated by Dawn Gable and Yosvany Deya