Venezuela, Worker Control, and Self-management

In the middle of the deepest crisis that the capitalist system has ever seen, when it’s already showing its cruellest face, when anger and sometimes impotence spreads among those of us with years fighting and predicting the consequences, the lights of hope that show us that another world is possible pass us by unnoticed.

Venezuela hasn’t had too many “lovers” among the left. It has always been an uncomfortable process for the organisations of the “institutional left”.  Not to speak of the “socialists” who align themselves against Chavez and with the Venezuelan right in an alliance that Felipe Gonzalez sealed with the ex-president Carlos Andres Perez, architect of the neoliberal reforms that lead to the popular insurrection called “The Caracazo”.

From there the popular movement that brought an end to the classic two party system in Venezuela took root and landed onshore with the electoral victory of Chavez. Twelve victorious elections won since then and a lost referendum (the constitutional reform one).

And the other left? For the myriad of guardians of orthodoxy groups, this process, with the unobvious role of the “proletarian” sectors, with the decisive role played by the military, with its heterodoxies and, why not say it, the many incongruities of Chavez, it deserves “excommunciation”.

But despite all this the “process” advances

A “process” is what this revolutionary attempt where everything that makes up the popular classes fits: with Chavez, without Chavez and despite of Chavez, is being called in Venezuela. This is the formula that best defines the resulting contradictory vectors that today are producing a positive result. Those who want to make unreflected readings of solidarity, and nothing more, in reality won’t understand what the protagonists of the Venezuelan process are proposing.

But in the last two years, and especially in the last few months events have occurred that are leading the “process” in a hopeful direction. The response of the government to the hoarding of food by the food multinationals has been expropriation and nationalisation.

In this way sugar and milk plants, rice plants, coffee companies or corn flour plants have been turned into Socialist Production Companies. Two of the most important supermarket chains have been nationalised and put under worker control. The powerful Colombian chain “Exito” has turned into the chain “Bicentenario”.

The response to the energy crisis produced by the historic drought of the Guri dam (which produces 70% of Venezuelan energy) has been the revitalisation of the Venezuelan national company CORPOELEC, putting it under worker control, firing the old bureaucratic leadership who were responsible for the inefficient planning.

But, above all, in an unprecedented event on 13 May self management under workers control was declared of all the Venezuelan extracting and metal industry.

The worker constituent

The Venezuelan Corporation of Guayana (CVG), which groups 15 companies and over 18,000 workers and represents the social and economic centre of a region that includes five states and over 50% of Venezuelan territory, has had all its management restructured. The workers, through meetings, have elected representatives, and later in workshops have proposed management models in areas ranging from production, trade, working conditions and environmental protection.

All management has been revoked and self management under worker control has begun in mining, ecological control and forest exploitation companies, and steel and aluminium plants.

It’s a long struggle. Sidor, the most important company of the corporation, where 25% of Latin America’s liquid steel is produced, was always an example, a “captain” of the Venezuelan working class movement.

The meetings in PORTON were, historically, the scene of union democracy. There, every shift of four or five thousand workers took decisions and more than once the “bases” changed the decisions of their “leaders”. Techint, an Italian-Argentinian transnational, was, until recently, majority shareholder in this company.

In April 2008, after three years of difficulties and thirteen months of discussion, Sidor went on strike over the inflexibility of company and the collaboration of then minister of work of the Chavez government, Jose Ramon Rivero. Rivero tried to impose a tripartite arbitration committee which they cynically called “worker” and “Bolivarian”. At the negotiating table, the government’s proposal was accepted by the company so that the position of the minister and the transnational were formally unified, even though they didn’t even refer to the Work Law.

In the face of the desperate demagogy of the minister and the attempt to impose a referendum with a proposal by the employers, the grassroots assembly decided to extend the work stoppage from 48 hours to 80 hours. In this context there was violent repression against the workers by the National Guard. The balance: 50 detained, over 15 injured, and 43 workers’ vehicles destroyed.

Chavez radicalises with the process…

Through this situation the socialist government was put in doubt, right in the middle of an important debate about the autonomy of the Venezuelan working class movement in which those who supported a strong stance against the privileged class weren’t lacking. In the name of socialism Chavez fired Jose Ramon Rivero, nationalised Sidor, and began the “Plan Socialist Guayana”.

“I’m with the working class,” Chavez said again two years after an event with the workers of the Guayana companies. He announced the nationalisation of more companies: Venezuela’s Norpro, bauxite producer; Materiales Siderurgicos (Matesi); the Iron and Steel Complex of Guayana (Comsigua); and primary material transport companies working with the companies of Guayana. He has explained that it was impossible to reach an agreement to buy those companies (in the case of Matesi, the management made a sales offer that was five times its real value) and as such, there was no other alternative but to nationalise them.

Advancing in a sustainable model in order to stop being a mono-producer of primary material…

It’s a struggle against corruption, wastefulness and inefficiency, it’s a gamble for a model of management where the experience of the workers, the awareness of problems, and the superiority of collective intelligence are on the table. It’s a gamble in a socialist direction.

But there are decisions that elude the framework of the company. The majority of the exports of these companies are primary material that will be transformed into a range of other things in other industrial countries, that are later bought at high prices by the Venezuelan population.  The companies of Guayana should be suppliers of processors of manufactured products, so a restructuring of Venezuelan industry is necessary. With this in mind, the creation of socialist companies that produce all the manufactured products that are currently imported, is urgent, in order to have sovereignty in this area and break with dependence. Chavez has already announced such a project, that will be carried out near the Orinoco river and will involve iron, aluminium, and steel, among others.

“These companies need to be stirred up, made to produce, end with inefficiency, corruption, waste, and they have to give returns… The rest will would give distress, shame… we’re obliged  to show, in order to give the socialist project credibility, that all this activity has positive results, but it’s necessary to change the whole scheme.” (Hugo Chavez Frias).

Translated by Tamara Pearson for Venezuelanalysis.com