Over the weekend of October 26
to 27, several hundred people attended a two day conference on Worker's
Management: Theory and Practice, as part of a program, "Human Development and
Transformative Praxis," run by Canadian Marxist academic Michael Lebowitz at the
Center in Caracas. The first day addressed the theory
and historical experience of worker's control and attempts to build socialism,
with presentations by Pablo Levin, the Director of the Center for Planning and
Development at the University of Buenos Aires, British Marxist economist
Patrick Devine (the author of Democracy
and Economic Planning), Michael Lebowitz, and sociologist Carlos Lanz
Rodriguez, a former guerrilla and now president of CVG-ALCASA the state owned
co-managed aluminum factory. The second day of the conference focused on the
various practical experiences of worker occupied factories in Latin
America. Speakers included, Carlos Quininir (Zanon) and Jose
Abelli (FACTA), from the recovered factory movement in Argentina, Serge Goulart
from the Occupied Factory Movement in Brazil, as well as spokespeople from
various examples of state owned companies under workers control or workers
co-management and worker run cooperatives in Venezuela, including the Tachira
Textile Cooperative, Inveval – an expropriated valve manufacturing company
under workers control, ALCASA, and Cemento Andino in Trujillo, one of the most
recent examples of workers control in Venezuela.
During his opening
presentation Lebowitz said, "On May Day 2005 I marched with workers in Caracas and the slogan
workers were chanting at the time was, ‘Without co-management there is no
"Indeed, the main slogan of
that march organized by the UNT [National Union of Workers] was "Co-management
is revolution and Venezuelan workers are building Bolivarian socialism."
From its beginning, the UNT,
which came together in December 2002 when the old corrupt Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV) supported the
bosses lockout and sabotage of the oil industry and has functioned essentially
as an alliance of trade unions and union leaders and is characterized by
Despite the million strong May
Day march in 2005, the UNT was unable to organize a united May Day
demonstration in 2006 and at its second congress
shortly thereafter, in the context of simmering factional divisions, fractured over the question of whether to hold elections
or wait until after the presidential elections in 2006 in order to focus on
supporting Hugo Chavez's campaign for presidency.
Since then the
UNT has remained divided and although union leaders Orlando Chirino from the Current for Revolutionary
Class Unity and Autonomy (C-CURA), and Marcela
Maspero, of the Collective of Workers in Revolution (CRT), the two principal
currents involved in the split, agreed in July to organize elections within the
UNT before the end of this year, this has still not occurred. Although the UNT
continues to organize on a regional level, it does not function as a united
union federation and at the national level, it could be argued, its existence
is nominal only.
Problems of Worker Management
As Lebowitz pointed out, we
don't hear much talk of co-management or workers control coming from the UNT
anymore. "We don't have masses of workers saying, ‘without worker management
there is no socialism' or ‘that you cannot build socialism without worker
management.'" Nevertheless, Lebowitz argued, "I think we have to recognize the
essential truth of this proposition"
Framing the discussion,
Lebowitz said it is useful to look at the different dimensions of what
President Chavez has called "the elementary triangle of socialism," – units of
social property, social production organized by workers, and production for the
needs of communities. "You can't separate these in socialism" he argued.
Capitalism is based on a different triangle he said; private property,
exploitation of labor, and production for profit.
Lebowitz then drew on the
lessons of the experience of worker self-management in the former Yugoslavia. He
pointed out that although the enterprises were state owned and were viewed as
social property, they functioned in the market and were driven by one thing,
self interest of the workers in an individual enterprise; there was no concept
of solidarity, that is, production for the needs of communities.
In order to maximize the
income of workers in each individual enterprise, they invested in automation to
increase production, rather than take on new workers. By 1971 there was 7%
unemployment in Yugoslavia,
plus 20% of the workforce worked outside the country as guest workers in Western Europe.
"Legally these enterprises
were social property, but social property means that everyone in society has
equal access to the means of production and benefits from it, the unemployed
though, had no access to the means of production."
"In fact, what happened in the
context of the market," Lebowitz said, was "a new productive relation had
emerged in these enterprises, group ownership, group property."
"Of course" Lebowitz
continued, "all members weren't really equal – it was the managers and
technical experts that had the knowledge about marketing products investments,
banking, and establishing links with other enterprises, creating mergers."
There was no sustained effort
in the workplace to truly educate workers on how to run the enterprises, he
added, "the result was that the distinction between thinking and doing
Workers became dependent on
the managers and technical experts "and in the end it was the managers who
emerged as the capitalists, leaving the workers as wage laborers."
According to Lebowitz, the
Yugoslav case "demonstrates that the existence of workers councils, even with
the legal power to make decisions, is not the same as worker management."
Additionally, "It demonstrates
that the focus upon the self-interest of the workers in an individual
enterprise is not the same as focusing on the interest of the working class as
Lebowitz then came back to the
elementary triangle of socialism; "Of course it can't all be put into place
once there is a long process of struggle to develop each side of that triangle,
but if we are not actively building each side we inevitably infect the whole
process. How can you build socialism without real workers management? How can
you create real developed human beings, without protagonistic democracy in the
workplace and the community?"
In his introductory
presentation Devine said that the question of how to organize production had
been the subject of fierce debate since the time of Marx and the two principal
ways of achieving this had been either through the market or the system of
central planning adopted in the Soviet Union, where there was no democracy and
workers had no power to make decisions.
Devine agreed with Lebowitz
that worker managed enterprises, which are truly autonomous, function as a form
of "group private property" and he said by seeking to maximize income, "they set
up pressures against the participation of workers"
In order to develop socially
oriented production he argued that production decisions cannot be made solely
by workers in an individual enterprise, but must be made with the participation
of all the social owners of an enterprise, that is all the social groups
affected by the activities of an enterprise, including suppliers, consumers,
and environmental groups and so on, to determine what counts as social
In small-scale enterprises,
Devine contended, it is fairly easy to determine what counts as social
production. However, in much more complex and large-scale industries that
involve production and distribution on a national or even international level
and do not correspond to a single community, it is therefore more difficult to
ascertain what can be determined as production in the social interest.
Therefore Devine suggested, "A
model of bottom-up planning involving part of the social owners at each level
through a process of coordinated negotiation, applied up to the national level
and at an international level a coordinated set of activities that meet social
needs at that level."
"This is neither the anarchy
of market forces, or top down planning, but participatory democratic planning
from below, initially directly, then indirectly through elected and recallable
In this context, key debates
in the discussion of how to build workers democracy and socialism, throughout
the conference, included; not only the question of state owned enterprises
under workers control vs. worker owned cooperatives and how to overcome the
social division between intellectual and manual labor, but also how to build
links with communities and the role of the trade unions in relation to the
different experiences of workers' participation. Different perspectives on
these issues were reflected through the various examples from Argentina, Brazil
Experiences of Worker Management in Latin America
Jose Abelli from FACTA, a
network of independent workers cooperatives, explained that the recovered
factory movement in Argentina, which is composed primarily of independent
worker cooperatives with few ties to the traditional trade unions, developed as
a defensive mechanism, "as a form of resistance to harsh neoliberalism" and was
born directly out of the need to defend employment in the context of the
economic crisis of 2000.
Abelli said that the 220
recovered and self managed factories in Argentina have generated 300
million dollars in the Argentine economy this year and generated 2,000 jobs
since the economic crisis.
What the recovered factory
movement in Argentina shows, Abelli argued, is that not only can workers manage
factories, but also the economy and that, "we can administrate society in a
manner more just than private capital." "We have demonstrated that economy is
not the property of a few powerful, important men," he added.
However, for Abelli, it is
important that the worker cooperatives in Argentina "are independent of
political parties and the state." This reflects a different political context.
"We obviously don't have a government like here in Venezuela," he said.
Abelli also pointed out that
the Venezuelan government was supporting the worker's cooperatives in Argentina and
had recently signed an agreement with FACTA for the purchase of 2,000 tractors.
Goulart, a spokesperson
for the Occupied Factories Movement in Brazil,
which works closely with the unions and is part of the CUT (Central Union of
Workers) said the Bolivarian revolution, is the "oxygen" of the workers
movement in Brazil.
He explained to the conference how the Venezuelan government is helping out the
Flasko plastics factory in Sao Paulo, closed in
2003 and subsequently occupied by workers, by supplying raw materials in exchange
for technology to produce plastic housing in Venezuela.
For Goulart, in contrast to
Abelli, it is important for workers to demand 100% state ownership under
workers control, because, "We don't want to become small capitalists."
However, Goulart explained
that unlike many cooperatives in Argentina or the example of Inveval in
Venezuela, where all workers are paid exactly the same, the occupied factories
in Brazil had a policy of paying workers on the basis of award rates for
different types of work, this is because, he explained, if skilled workers are
not paid a higher rate they would look for work elsewhere and not stay with the
Goulart also warned of threats
to workers management, not only by the governments and capitalists in Argentina and Brazil,
but also from the state bureaucracy in Venezuela. He referred to the
example of Sanatarios Maracay, where although the Venezuelan National Assembly
has approved its expropriation, sections of the state bureaucracy have sided
with a parallel union supported by the boss to remove occupying workers from
the main installations of the factory.
A spokesperson from Inveval,
Nelson Rodriguez, explained to the conference how the workers council
functioned there. He said the highest decision making body is the general
assembly of workers in the factory but also there are a number of elected
permanent commissions, including finances, social and political formation, a
technical commission, administration, discipline, security and control and services.
However, to ensure democratic accountability within the factory, Rodriguez said
any person elected to a commission could be recalled at any time through a
general assembly of the workers council.
In order to overcome the
division between intellectual or administrative labor and manual labor, they
also rotate different types of work within the factory, combined with political
discussion within the workers council, education for collective development,
and technical training.
On the question of cooperatives
vs. state ownership with workers' control, Rodriguez told Venezuelanalysis.com
that factories should be 100% state owned under worker control, because,
"Cooperatives have a capitalist structure in reality."
Also key to the experience at
Inveval are the links between the workers council and the local community. Not
only does the factory provide a space for health and education missions, but
the workers council also participates in the local communal council.
Rodriguez presented to the
conference an explanation of a delegate system developed by workers at Inveval
based on their own experience, where workers councils send delegates to
communal councils and vice versa, but which could be applied on a much broader
scale to federations of workers councils and communal councils in order to
construct structures of popular power.
A battalion of the new United
Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) also functions out of Inveval. Rodriguez
told Venezuelanalysis.com, "The PSUV is a huge political school, to drive
forward the revolution, and together with the construction of popular power
proposed in the constitutional reform – through workers, students, campesino
and communal councils, the aim is to create a socialist state, because the
state is not socialist."
"We participate in the
battalion as workers, not as citizens, but from the point of view of workers."
explained that the workers council at Inveval developed largely outside the
framework of the organized trade union movement in Venezuela. And in February 2006,
the workers in Inveval initiated the Revolutionary Front of Workers in Occupied
and Co-managed Factories (FRETECO), because, "We saw that here in Venezuela the
unions were not supporting the struggle for occupying and taking over factories
through the UNT."
According to Rodriguez, the
leaders of the UNT were more interested in factional struggles and winning
elections, rather than putting forward a strategy that corresponded to the
political reality of Venezuela.
"Therefore we saw the necessity
to organize a way that we could support workers in taking over factories and
support factories in the same situation," he said
FRETECO held its first
congress in October 2006 with workers from 15 occupied factories participating.
However, it is open to all groups of workers involved in conflicts over
occupied factories and is now comprised of approximately 20 factories, with
workers from newly occupied factories regularly coming to them for advice and
The conference also heard from
Alcides Rivero a spokesperson from ALCASA, arguably the most important
experiment of workers co-management in Venezuela. In 2005, at the behest
of President Chavez, a process of worker's co-management was initiated in
ALCASA, a company that had been owned by the state for 38 years, but had been
run down by previous governments in order to prepare it for privatization.
Rivero outlined the first
stage of co-management in ALCASA, "the construction of the political viability
of co-management," which was characterized by the initiation of open workers
assemblies and discussion of an 18-point plan to re-launch the company and a
process of electing a new management through secret ballot. Of the 2700 workers
in ALCASA 95% participated in these elections. The workers also elected 36
spokespeople to work together with the management in making decisions.
"This revolutionary proposal
of Chavez," Rivero pointed out, "was an extraordinary experience, never before
had workers been able to participate in making decisions."
However, Rivero contended,
there are obstacles. One of the obstacles is the culture within ALCASA, and
"Every workplace has its own culture. In ALCASA there was a culture where
workers only worked to get money, and didn't have a vision of creating a new
Related to this question of
culture was the sharp polarization between different unions within ALCASA,
principally the conflict between union leaders Trino Silva and Jose Gil. "The
confrontation within the Chavista political movement within ALCASA is amazing,"
Rivero said. According to Rivero, the unions in ALCASA, "have a monetarist
view," and "are concerned with power. They view the elected spokespeople as a
"This is a culture from the
fourth republic," Rivero argued. In order to overcome these cultural problems,
Rivero said that political formation is essential; for this reason the Negro
Primero Centre for Political and Social Formation was set up in ALCASA in 2005.
However, not only is political formation necessary he said, but also technical training
and education. "Together with workers from PDVSA we have created the Bolivarian University of Workers. I study there."
Rivero also spoke of the
challenges posed by the technocracy of the CVG industrial complex for
co-management, "because the CVG is a monster." "ALCASA is the only section of
the CVG industrial complex that has co-management, there is also Venalum,
Carbonorte Feromineria, but there is no line to push forward with co-management
in these other sections," he said.
Despite these challenges the
process of workers co-management in ALCASA has resulted in significant
achievements, including increased production, improved working conditions, and,
according to a report on May 8 2007, "Balance and Perspectives on Co-management
in CVG ALCASA" by Carlos Lanz Rodriguez, is now entering the "third stage of
co-management" (the second stage being a focus on developing co-management and
a new strategy for the company), which involves a debate and discussion on the
humanization of labor, including the reduction of the working day, the
democratization of knowledge to reduce the social division of labor within the
factory and the decentralization of decision making through the construction of
Another question for the
development of workers democracy and socialism in Venezuela is the issue of worker's
management in strategic industries. During a report back session from a series
of workshops on how to move forward with the struggle for workers management
and socialism, workers asked, "Why can't we have workers management in PDVSA?"
They pointed to the example of
the guide committees, organic workers organizations that sprang up within PDVSA
during the bosses lockout and sabotage of the oil industry in December 2002 to
January 2003, saying these showed that workers could run strategic industries.
Not only is it necessary for
the means of production to be socially owned, but that it is necessary for
workers to be able to participate and make decisions in strategic industries,
not just small factories, "if we are truly to advance to socialism" they
asserted. In addition to making decisions in the factories, they argued,
workers also need to make decisions within the institutions of the state, which
are also very vertical.
The key task, they determined,
is to build on and strengthen the existing examples of workers control, workers
cooperatives, and workers organizations, and in particular to strengthen
political consciousness of workers to deepen the struggle for socialism.
"The political formation of
the workers is essential, but not only political formation, also ideological
and technical formation and training are necessary for workers to run factories
and society," one woman said.
In his closing presentation
Lebowitz questioned the lack of confidence in workers to manage strategic
industries such as PDVSA, saying "the same logic that
say's there's no place for co-management in strategic industries would also
extend to the position that there's no place for workers' strikes in those
Lebowitz also pointed out that
while cooperatives don't fundamentally break with private property, they could
act as an "important school for socialism" showing that workers do not need
bosses. "This is obvious when we hear the workers here and see the sense of
pride and dignity that they have."
Similarly, he said that the
example of Yugoslavia
showed that state owned enterprises under workers control in and of themselves
were insufficient to create socialism, but could be viewed as Lenin described
them as a "threshold" on the path to socialism.
What is necessary, Lebowitz
argued, is to shift the focus from the self-interest of workers in an
individual state enterprise or workers cooperative to the general interest of
society as a whole. "This cannot be achieved by a distant state telling the
workers ‘you must serve society'" he continued, but conversely, what is needed
is a strong community voice. Lebowitz then pointed to the example of the
communal councils in Venezuela
as an essential tool, together with the workers cooperatives and state
enterprises under workers control or co-management, to push forward the
struggle for socialism.
A key weakness in the struggle
for workers management and socialism in Venezuela, Lebowitz pointed out, is
the lack of a political strategy and the economism of the trade unions. "Their
whole orientation towards higher wages and their tendency to act like a labor
aristocracy in a society where so many people are poor." This is not just a
case of bad policy Lebowitz argued, "There are in fact structural reasons for
the way they behave."
What is happening to the UNT
he said "is the reproduction of the privileges of the trade unions in the Fourth Republic."
Therefore, Lebowitz concluded, "Not only do you need a revolutionary state, you
also need new revolutionary trade unions."
Summing up, Devine argued that
the logic for state owned enterprises under workers control as opposed to
worker owned cooperatives is compelling because it, "at least formally,
represents the society as a whole" where as cooperatives represent a form of
"group private property."
But, he said, that depends on
two things; firstly, "the nature of the state, the extent to which it remains a
capitalist state, the extent to which it is a socialist state, the extent to which
it is a state in transition." In Venezuela, Devine contended, there
is "a state in transition." "If it is
the case that Venezuela
is in a transitional phase, then of course you either go forward or you go
Devine suggested, that "One
way of thinking about the way forward in Venezuela is to think of transforming
state property into social property, to create a structured system of
democratic participatory planning, which is built up from below, but results in
an integrated plan that has been created by the localities and the enterprises
"The immediate task facing
revolution," he added, "is the development of participatory worker councils and
communal councils. Without these, together with education programs and the
human transformation they enable, nothing else is possible, this is an immense
task and will take place over a long period."
"One thing that is clear from
historical experience is that, without active participation of workers, the
community and other groups in civil society there can be no socialism."
However, Devine concluded, "I am inspired by the enthusiasm, the
knowledge, the commitment of the people here, and I have great confidence that
you will succeed in moving things forward, but it will obviously not be easy."