Workers Building a New Venezuela

Since the 1998 election of President Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s people and government have embarked on an ambitious struggle to transform their society — in which a majority of the population is poor — to one that provides health, education and jobs for all and in which the people are active participants in the decisions that affect their lives and futures.

By Federico Fuentes - Green Left Weekly
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Since the 1998 election of President Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s people and government have embarked on an ambitious struggle to transform their society — in which a majority of the population is poor — to one that provides health, education and jobs for all and in which the people are active participants in the decisions that affect their lives and futures.

Together, the government and workers have begun a process aimed at creating jobs at the same time as ensuring the production that is necessary to meet the needs of Venezuela’s people. Part of this is an experiment in cogestion or co-management, where workers are given a role in the running of their workplaces. The idea of co-management has been around for some time. In Germany, for example, co-management was used to co-opt the workers’ movement by giving workers shares and some nominal decision-making power, aimed at convincing them that their interests lay with increased production and profits for the bosses.

However in Venezuela, co-management is being posed as an alternative to the interests of the bosses, and more fundamentally, to those of capitalism. As Canadian academic Michael Lebowitz, now living in Venezuela, explained at a recent national gathering of workers for the recuperation of factories, “the point of co-management is to put an end to capitalist exploitation and to create the potential for building a truly human society. When workers are no longer driven by the logic of capital to produce profits for capitalists, the whole nature of work can change. Workers can cooperate with each other to do their jobs well; they can apply their knowledge about better ways to produce to improve production both immediately and in the future; and, they can end the division in the workplace between those who think and those who do — all because, in co-management, workers know that their activity is not for the enrichment of capitalists.

“The development of worker decision-making, the process of combining thinking and doing, offers the possibility of all workers developing their capacities and potential.”

The idea of co-management was planted in the new constitution, which was discussed and voted on by the people a year after Chavez came to power. The government and people have promoted people’s participation in decision making through such forms as citizen’s assemblies, community councils and health committees. On the economic front, the government has pushed for the formation of cooperatives and this year, the implementation of co-management.

This has been accompanied by a resurgence of the workers’ movement, which has reclaimed its rights and fought to make the policy of co-management a reality. Workers have struggled to re-open closed factories, but under a new management system where workers are involved in decision making.

Oswaldo Villegas, the general secretary of Sutraprec, which covers workers in the Yaracuay-based Polar Alimentos food plant, told Green Left Weekly: “Now when [the bosses] try to threaten that they are going to close the company, we the workers are no longer scared, we can count on the backing of the president, we can count on the constitution and the laws and the [National Union of Workers, UNT], because now we have an organisation at a national level that supports and defends the rights of workers.”

As is to be expected in any process that aims to fundamentally change the way a society is run, where the people involved have been indoctrinated to believe that only the bosses can run workplaces and workers are only meant to work, problems can arise. For example, although the majority of workers are now in favour of co-management in the aluminium processing plant Alcasa, at first many workers were wary of changing their work situation, as they were afraid of how the changes may affect their secure and relatively well-paid jobs.

In other cases, such as in the state-owned electricity company Cadafe, the old management has resisted and undermined co-management after seeing that its power was being eroded as workers struggle to assume a greater role in running the company.

To tackle some of these issues, Chavez has pushed the idea of “a school in each factory” to equip the workers with the ideas and skills necessary to push forward this change. Most importantly though, workers along with the UNT are beginning to realise what is at stake and are more and more taking up the struggle.

Barreto Nestor, a worker from Rudaveca in the state of Carabobo, told GLW: “Unless this capitalist system is transcended, the workers, regardless of the best collective contract signed, will not achieve our goals. We need to transcend capitalism, and co-management is part of that. It is giving power to the workers, power to us.”