Observations on a Venezuelan Workplace Struggle

The perception of “here the people lead” is what’s crucial.
With Mayela’s firing, that was initially taken away, but then
reasserted. It's the mere fact that people expect to be in control that makes a real difference.

By Paul Lafrack - Solidarity

comedorMerida.jpg

Serving lunch at the comedor.
Serving lunch at the comedor.
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This past April, I had the privilege to participate in a brief
campaign to defend workplace rights here in the Andean city of Mérida,
Venezuela where I currently live. The campaign was to defend a very
well regarded and popular director of the local Comedor Popular (“popular dining hall”) located in downtown Mérida and run by the government of the state of Mérida.

Five times a week, the comedor, like thousands of other
dining halls scattered throughout the country, serves hot nutritious
lunches and dinners at a very low price, or for free to those who can’t
even afford that. Every day, many merideños take advantage of the
tasty, nutritious and ample meals served there. I usually eat lunch
there a few times per week. For five bolivars—the equivalent of less
than a dollar at the “parallel” currency exchange rate, or about $2.50
at the official rate—you get soup, a main course, rice, a salad,
vegetables, yucca or plantain, natural fruit juice, and sometimes
dessert. During the busy lunch hour, you may have to wait a half hour
or more to get served cafeteria-style, but it’s almost always a chance
to see friends, make new ones, and maybe catch up on news of local
political importance. Most, but not all, of the overwhelmingly working
class and poor people who eat there would count themselves as
supporters of Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution.

The case of Mayela Rodriguez

Mayela Rodriguez, the director of Mérida’s flagship comedor
is, in my view, no small part of why the place felt so inviting. I was
introduced to her shortly after first eating there and she truly is a
highly personable human being. You can quickly see why so many in the
community and the 30 or so employees there are so devoted to her.
Anyone who knows her seems to like and respect her. She radiates a
strong sense that she takes her role of guaranteeing high-quality
nutritional food for all extremely seriously.

So it came as a shock to people when Mayela was abruptly terminated from her position as head of the comedor
and told she had to take a cook position in El Vigia, a city about an
hour from here. Workers and community members immediately took to
organizing a campaign for her immediate reinstatement.

The ostensible reason given for her dismissal was that Mayela
lacked a university degree. However, she has had 15 years of experience
in the field and a federal certification that was regarded as an
equivalent. What seemed to be the common speculation was that because
Mayela is an honest administrator, certain powers-that-be high up in
the Autonomous Institute of Nourishment and Nutrition of the State of
Mérida (known by its Spanish initials IAANEM), the administrators of
the facility, likely wanted her out in order to replace her with
someone pliable and corrupt. The director for the each comedor
is in charge of making purchasing decisions where corruption could
easily filter in. I should emphasize that this was merely widely-held
speculation and that there was no direct proof of this. But I have no
reason to believe it’s not true.

After less than 24 hours of a worker-community struggle on this
issue, Mayela was able to win her position back. Upper management who
shared responsibility for either making this unfortunate decision, or
had the unenviable task of trying to explain it publicly, were suddenly
forced to backpedal and apologize to her in a public meeting in which
all the workers and a few dozen community members were present,
including myself.

So how did this happen? What makes Mayela’s story of success so
much different than what usually happens to a worker in the United
States fighting the same kind of thing?

USA: Arbitration behind closed doors

As a union steward
in the U.S., I’ve seen my share of wrongful terminations. First, as an
AFSCME steward in a service and maintenance workers union at the
University of Michigan, then later in a similar capacity in Broward
County, Florida for an OPEIU local representing county “professional”
workers. I’ve seen that even with clear evidence, with union
representation including a union and/or lawyer committed to the case,
and with solid evidence of discrimination or harassment, workers still
end up losing. To win a case often takes several years. Even then—as is
all too familiar to labor advocates—there’s usually little or no
punitive damages to management. Fighting such cases almost always
involve a number of legal and/or labor-management hearings such as
arbitration spread over a very long period of time and can be very
expensive. Quite often, union leaderships simply abandon most cases
given the expense and an overall reluctance to take on management.

It’s a long cumbersome process that usually goes on behind
closed doors and with a deck stacked against working people. That’s how
it is in the U.S.

It was very different with this struggle here in Mérida, Venezuela.

The comedor is a public institution run by the state of
Mérida. The governor and the most of the governmental apparatus
nationwide is in the hands of the governing party, the United Socialist
Party of Venezuela, or as it’s known by its Spanish initials, the PSUV.
This is the party led by head of state President Hugo Chávez Frias.

Venezuela: Community support for workers

When word spread about Mayela’s removal as head of the comedor,
members of the community and workers quickly mobilized. Petitions were
drawn up during the lunch rush and circulated. Germán Morales, an
artist and revolutionary (who, in the interests of full disclosure, is
also my partner) led the charge, climbing the railing where people had
lined up for lunch, denouncing her dismissal and urging people to sign
petitions. Over the course of the day, he and others had gathered
hundreds of signatures from the public.

That evening, comedor workers met with several
community supporters to plot strategy. A meeting had been planned by
upper management for the next day to try to explain the situation to
the workers. The strategy of Mayela’s supporters was to also get people
there and demand her reinstatement at this meeting which was set for
9am the next day in the main dining hall.

Germán and I arrived at that meeting at 9am. One male security
guard and one policewoman were also present. Initially the idea of
opening up the meeting to the community was resisted. However, they had
to relent in the face of opposition to this and with the acknowledgment
that this was a public issue and therefore constitutionally had to be
considered an open public meeting. Soon more community members trickled
in. Mayela was there along with her husband and all the workers.
Several representatives of upper management were there as well, mostly
wearing red, the official color of the PSUV.

As the head administrator for the location, Mayela is not
represented by a union. Her defense was conducted by herself, her
husband, community supporters, and workers. The workers and community
assembled weren’t buying any official doubletalk. Germán and others
spoke of further actions including a picket/boycott and mass
demonstrations if Mayela was not reinstated. Mayela spoke movingly and
compellingly on her own behalf.

Sensing that the workers and community were united and determined to
continue this struggle with further actions and lots of bad publicity,
the management representatives were forced to back down. Mayela was
promised her job back immediately. Apologies were made to her on the
spot.

We had won.

Pro-socialist government, capitalist state

What was especially interesting to me was that everyone there spoke
in terms of what was best for the revolution and the interests of
“socialism.” This included the workers, community members and
upper management who were either responsible for the decision or were
there to defend it. This is true even of the most self-interested,
opportunist and ultimately pro-capitalist government bureaucrats.
That’s the contradictory reality of Venezuela today: a pro-socialist
government administrating what is still a capitalist state (albeit one
that has been transformed through mass struggle from a more traditional
clientist neocolonial model) and presiding over an economy that
overwhelmingly remains in private hands.

The administrators at all levels of the Venezuelan state run
the gamut from the most sincere and revolutionary-minded to the most
self-interested and opportunistic. Unfortunately, despite good rhetoric
to the contrary, the model of a top-down management still prevails
within the state sector. Thus workplace struggles like this one will
emerge just as they would in any bourgeois state.

“Here, the people lead”

The difference is that here in Venezuela, there is at least a
commitment in stated policy and in the Constitution of the Fifth
Republic adopted in 1999 mandating that “here the people lead”. People
take that seriously. The workers and community members united in this
struggle fully believed that this was part of a revolutionary defense
of their interests, a gain that had to be defended. That we had to go
through this at all shows that there still is a capitalist state at
work here. But the fact that this fight was essentially socialized
from the very start—that those making the decision had to react to the
mobilized workers and community—is something that makes the Venezuela
of today very different. Those responsible for this unpopular decision
had to reverse course immediately and in front of all assembled.

The perception of “here the people lead” is what’s crucial.
With Mayela’s firing, that was initially taken away, but then
reasserted. It's the mere fact that people expect to be in control that makes a real difference.

It’s that sense of self-confidence on the part of the Venezuelan
working class that continues to be so inspiring. This self-confidence
is the key ingredient that can serve to propel the great masses of
people forward to create the organizations needed in order to overthrow
capitalism and democratically administer all the resources of society.
We saw a small example of this in winning Mayela’s job back. We’ll need
more of it to win bigger victories ahead.

In Venezuela, as elsewhere around the globe, it’s this sense of
self-confidence and self-organization on the part of the working class
and all the oppressed that will be the ultimate difference between our
victory and our defeat.