Caracas—Last weekend the Co-managed and Occupied Factories’ Worker’s Revolutionary Front (Freteco) held its annual conference in Caracas. They are a small but vocal and radical movement for worker’s control of Venezuelan industry. As the name suggests, its members are drawn from factories that have achieved some degree of co-management and others where workers are occupying theirs in the hope of achieving the same. Despite being a small gathering, it was a splendid example of the kind of independent grass roots activity that is a daily occurrence in Venezuela.
The main reasons for the meeting were, firstly, to discuss and agree on concrete proposals that would take them forward in their goal of achieving worker’s control of industry. The second reason was to decide a strategy to put the workers and the occupied factory movement at the forefront of the campaign for 10 million votes for Hugo Chávez in the upcoming presidential election on December 3. They had some radical proposals.
Freteco was formed in February 2006 and was initiated by the workers of Inveval, a state/worker co-managed factory just outside of Caracas. They felt that despite the successes in 2005 of bringing factories under some form of Cogestión (co-management/worker’s control): Inveval, Invepal, Alcasa, etc., there were many others which had been occupied by the workers where the government, or better said, elements within the state had been less than enthusiastic about. And then there was the rest of the economy where multi-nationals and private firms still predominate.
Article 1 of the Freteco constitution gives an idea of their position on the economy,
“The Co-managed and Occupied Factories Worker’s Front declares its principal objective the extension of the expropriation and nationalization of Venezuelan industry and its placement under control of its own workers. Its goal is to develop the process that started in 2005 with the expropriation of Venepal by the president of the Republic and to extend it to the rest of Venezuelan industry so it leads to the practice of socialism in the nation of Bolívar.”
60 delegates from 10 different factories in Venezuela were joined by another 40 invited guests. These included government representatives from the Ministry of Work and the Ministry of Light Industry and Trade, a delegation from the Ezequiel Zamora Rural Worker’s Front (FCEZ), members of the Revolutionary Marxist Tendency (CMR), guests from Cipla, a Brazilian occupied factory and a Chilean activist involved in the factory movement under Allende between 1970-73.
The meeting was divided into four inter-related themes that formed the basis of discussion. Jorge Paredes, the President of Inveval,[i] introduced the first theme, Worker’s Control & 21st Century Socialism.’ It was clear from the discussion that the delegates had very definite ideas as to what steps needed to be taken to create 21st Century Socialism. They were in agreement that worker’s control of industry would have to be an integral part of any kind of socialism. Jorge argued that socialism and capitalism could not co-exist. He rejected private ownership of factories and plants and he rejected the market where the competitive pressures between producers means the inevitable exploitation of the workforce. Consequently, Jorge argued for the full nationalization of industry as a stepping stone towards 21st Century Socialism.
This exploitation is accentuated in a country like Venezuela where there is only a small number of people employed in the formal sector. The high unemployment means there will always be a line of unemployed workers waiting to take the place of anyone who demands higher wages or better conditions. And relying on the market to set the price of goods often means pricing the poor out of basic necessities. The legal minimum wage in Venezuela is about $270 a month, but if you go to a supermarket in Venezuela you’ll find the cost of things not much cheaper than in more economically developed countries and cars and other imported goods more expensive
The second and third themes were entitled, “The 10 Strategic Axes for the Law for Cogestión” and “Statutes of Co-managed Factories.”[ii] The 10 axes are really a manifesto of the policies Freteco thinks necessary to move from a capitalist economy that includes co-managed factories to a socialist economy with worker’s control. The axes revolve around the inter-relationship between the state, the workers, and the local community.
Whilst a market economy still exists, Freteco wants the state, when it is in co-management with workers, for example in Inveval or Invepal, to desist from measuring the factory’s performance on how it performs in the market. It should be measured according to its ‘social benefit,’ they say. An example of what they mean is illustrated by the following example: Invepal is a factory that produces paper products such as student note-pads. It could be, that if they are sold at the market price then children from a poor community would not be able to afford them. No matter, if the factory’s performance is measured purely by its performance in the market then achieving maximum profit is all that counts. Why sell them to poor kids cheap if you can make more elsewhere? But, according to Freteco, selling note pads cheap to poor kids would be a social benefit and society as a whole would gain.
Present at the conference were delegates from a group of workers fired by Invepal in Maracay. The happenings at Invepal shed light on what can go wrong if the workers are forced to operate in the market and become ‘owners.’ Required by the government to prove himself in running the company, the newly elected president employed contracted management which then proceeded to hire contract workers whose conditions were much worse than ‘worker-owners.’ The massive protests within the factory in reaction to this resulted in equally massive firings: 120 workers were fired in November 2005. They are still manning the barricades 11 months later.
The final theme was, “Strategies for the Workers to be at Forefront of the Campaign for 10 million Votes.” This was an interesting topic given that, unusually for a society where significant social change is taking place, the workers and labor unions have played a minor role, largely due to divisions within the UNT (National Union of Workers). Most of the suggestions that came out of the meeting were generally mobilizing mechanisms for workers, such as a sporting event, for example. What is important is that they all agreed that the re-election of President Chávez is essential for their movement to have any chance of achieving its goals.
Movement from Below
The proposals of Freteco are quite radical. They are based on a Marxist analysis of capitalism. Not everybody will agree with them and, even if in principle they are the way to 21st Century Socialism, it may be that Venezuela’s economy is not yet ready for such a radical program. However, the Venezuelans involved in Freteco are grassroots activists. They have a political program that they want to put forward as part of the 21st Century Socialism debate and it should be heard. Most of the time, the voices heard debating the meaning of 21st Century Socialism are senior politicians or academics.Those involved in Freteco are also Chavistas. People at the grassroots in Venezuela support Chávez not only because his government is using oil wealth to improve health, education etc. They also support him for the spaces that have been opened up in society that allow them to make their own realities rather than everything being a gift from above. Chávez in his speeches encourages movements like Freteco to organize and they take his words seriously. They aren’t in awe of him like the ‘populist’ portrait often painted by those opposed to the process. Those who call Chávez a populist say more about their attitude towards his supporters than about him. His supporters are more than capable of formulating their own ideas about the kind of Venezuela they want.
[i] Inveval, a valve manufacturing and repair plant is itself state-owned. The Chávez government agreed to take it on after 3 years of struggle by the workers. Jorge is himself democratically elected president of the company having been elected by the Inveval Worker’s Assembly.
[ii] The latter concerns the same issues as the 10 axes so it isn’t discussed here.