Revolutionary Vignettes. Part 2: Venezuelan Workers’ Councils Sabotaged by Bureaucracy

In the second part of Revolutionary Vignettes, José Martín discusses bureaucracy as an obstacle to the advancement of the worker's control movement, particularly within state oil company PDVSA.

As part of my recent trip to Venezuela I was invited to speak about the world crisis of capitalism and the class struggle in Europe at two meetings of PDVSA oil workers in Monagas, in the east of the country. One of the meetings took place in Maturín, the capital of the state and where the PDVSA management for the Eastern Region is based, and the other one in the PDVSA installations in Punta de Mata, a city built around a massive oil field.

The comrades who invited me to speak work at different levels of the healthcare management division of PDVSA and joined the company after the sabotage of the industry during the bosses’ lock out in 2002/2003. At that time thousands of managers, engineers and techinicians participated in the counter-revolutionary attempt to overthrow president Chavez by stopping production at  PDVSA, the state-owned oil company. Ordinary oil workers, helped by some who had been kicked out of the industry because of their political and trade union activity, the local communities and revolutionary sections of the national guard, responded by taking over the industry, overcame the sabotage and got it running again under workers’ control. Monagas was the site of some of the most advanced examples of workers’ control at that time, in places like Orocual and Morichal, for instance.

After the defeat of the sabotage of the oil company, in January 2003, thousands of managers and directors who had abandoned their jobs for over two months and participated in the criminal lock out were sacked from their jobs. At that time many long standing revolutionary militants joined the industry and occupied key roles in it. However, changing the individuals is not enough if the whole structure of the company remains the same with capitalist managerial methods being used and all the elements of workers’ control having disappeared.

Honest revolutionaries, isolated within a hostile environment, can become absorbed or demoralised.  In this instance, the comrade who had invited me and organised the meeting at 24 hours notice explained how one of the managers in the site where the discussion was going to take place objected to it. “Are these the people from the International Marxist Tendency? Alan Woods’ people? They should not be allowed to speak here, do you know that they advocate workers’ control in PDVSA?” He was not able to stop the meeting from going ahead, but we certainly faced a certain level of sabotage. It shows how, however much PDVSA has changed – and it has – it still remains a company run on capitalist lines where the managerial structure sees any talk of workers’ control as a threat.

One of the ways PDVSA has changed has been by bringing many of the operations and services which had been previously outsourced back in-house. This has meant the incorporation of some 20,000 new workers to the company, leaving only about 5,000 external workers. They are now covered by PDVSA collective bargaining and have the same conditions and benefits as PDVSA workers. This is an example of what is possible, and which also goes against the trend of capitalist-worker relations everywhere in the world.

PDVSA has also become heavily involved in funding and running many of the social programmes of the Bolivarian government. The most striking example of this is the conversion of the former headquarters of the company in Los Chaguaramos in Caracas, from where the reactionary management plotted the oil sabotege, into the new Venezuelan Bolivarian University. But there are plenty of examples like that throughout the country.

In one of the PDVSA clinics in Punta de Mata they had set up a “situation room” to deal with Misión Vivienda, the new social house building programme. The comrades showed me around and everyone was genuinely proud of the contribution PDVSA and its workers were making to this plan. They had their own targets of buiding a few hundred houses in Punta de Mata in poor and working class neighbourhoods where people were living in shacks. The way the programme is organised is very interesting. PDVSA provides the materials, tools and machinery but the houses get physically built by volunteer brigades from the communities and also volunteer brigades of PDVSA workers. All PDVSA buildings I visited have big posters with the picture of Che Guevara appealing to workers to join the voluntary work brigades on weekends and holidays.

The comrade who had organised the meetings was fully aware that this is not a real solution to the problems. On the one hand, the number of houses that can be built through these methods is limited compared to the needs of the people. Only through the nationalisation and democratic planning of the coinstruction industry and all associated industries, and with funding obtained through the nationalisation of the banking and finance sector, can the millions of houses which are needed be built. On the other hand, some in PDVSA think that turning the company into a “socialist company” is achieved simply by making appeals to workers to participate in voluntary work brigades, as in this way they show their socialist spirit and morality. This is a completely idealistic conception. Workers’ consciousness is already very high, as shown by how they responded to the lock out in 2002/2003. Workers will only become fully committed to the company and its aims if there is genuine workers’ control, if they can see that they are directly responsible for running it and managing it and that their work fully benefits themselves, their communities and the working class and the people of Venezuela as a whole. The best form of moral incentive, after all, is precisely workers’ control.

However, as the comrade explained, the experience of the oil workers working together with the poor communities had been extremely positive from a political point of view, in solidifying the alliance between the oil workers involved and the people in general.

The issue of the role of the oil workers and the working class in general in the Venezuelan revolution and their relationship with other layers in society, particularly the urban poor, has been the subject of many discussions. Some argue that in Venezuela, because of the structure of the economy which is heavily dependent on oil, the working class cannot play a leading role in the revolution, some going as far as saying that in fact the working class does not exist. They attempt to give these theories a Marxist veneer, but in reality their point of view is that oil workers are privileged and even reactionary, that they should not ask for better wages and conditions and above all that because of their “low level of consciousness” they are not able to run the industry under workers’ control.

Of course, this is complete nonsense. In a backward capitalist country of uneven development, there are other layers in society that play an important role in revolutionary politics, particularly in Venezuela, the urban poor, the people in the cerros sorrounding Caracas and in the poor barrios in the main cities. Nevertheless, Venezuela is a capitalist country and therefore the working class has to play the leading role in the revolution, putting itself at the head of all oppressed layers of society.

This was graphically demonstrated during the oil sabotage. At that time it was an alliance between the revolutionary oil workers and the people from the poor communities which defeated the counter-revolution. The communities could not have run the industry by themselves. Only the workers had the knowledge and the experience to do so. The workers needed the support of the masses of poor people to help them take over and defend the installations. This is the nature of the alliance between the working class and the poor people in general. Many of those who now argue that the working class is somehow “reactionary” or only interesed in “material gain” were nowhere to be seen during the struggle against the lock out and now have fully satisfied their own aspirations for material gain by becoming top managers and directors at PDVSA.

The discussion with PDVSA workers and others who attended both meetings revealed a keen interest in the development of the crisis of capitalism in Europe but above all the explosion of class struggle that the massive austerity cuts being introduced have provoked. Workers in Venezuela can relate to the events in Europe as they compare them to their own experience of the 1989 Caracazo uprising against the IMF package of austerity measures, which was also introduced by a government which pretended to be social-democratic. But most interestingly they understand that if the opposition comes back to power “this will be like Greece” as one of the workers said. What he meant, and he was right, is that if the right wing comes to power, massive cuts on the level of those being introduced in Greece will be implemented in Venezuela. The Venezuelan workers and the people are fully aware of the gains of the revolution and how these would all be lost if the counter-revolution came back.

The social programmes of the revolution (healthcare and education, but also many others), would be abolished, nationalised companies would be privatised, expropriated parts of PDVSA would be outsourced again, workers’ rights and conditions would be under attack, any elements of workers’ control would be smashed, etc.

But, as emerged clearly during the discussion, the danger of the revolution being defeated also comes directly as a result of the bureaucratic sabotage of the revolutionary initiative of the people at all levels. A large part of the discussion in Punta de Mata for instance, centred on the question of the Socialist Workers’ Councils.

It was president Chavez personally who, at the end of 2007, made an appeal for workers in all workplaces, companies and institutions to set up “Socialist Workers’ Councils”. As always, workers responded enthusiastically and thousands, probably tens of thousands of such councils have been set up, on the initiative of workers from below, in factories, ministries and workplaces throughout the country. In many cases it has been a new generation of young workers, who have been awoken to political activity for the first time. Some of them were not even active during the big battles of 2002 and 2003, but they have thrown themselves fully into this battle to establish workers’ councils. Workers’ councils have not been regulated and there are no legal provisions covering their activities, so workers are improvising, sharing their experiences with other groups of workers, setting up local and regional fronts of workers’ committees, etc.

Basically, the majority of workers’ councils see themselves as carrying out the struggle for workers’ rights and conditions, but also as implementing some sort of workers’ control. They demand the opening of the books of the companies, want to have a say in important decisions and in many cases, conflicts which started over questions of wages and conditions have ended up in the workers occupying the factories and demaning expropriation under workers’ control.

Many such workers’ councils have been set up in state-owned companies, institutions, foundations and ministries. Here, workers see them more as a tool to fight against the state bureaucracy and for workers’ control. In the last couple of years there has been an explosion of such councils. The most striking thing is that, despite the fact that the workers are following and implementing an appeal by president Chavez himself, they have faced extreme hostily and harassment on the part of ministers, vice-ministers and other state bureaucrats at all levels.

Workers have been sacked or harassed and persecuted, slandered, accused of counter-revolutionary activities, etc., just for attempting to set up democratic workers’ councils in places like Mision Madres del Barrio (a social programme for mothers in poor neighbourhoods), at state-owned TV station Avila-TV, at the main state-owned TV channel VTV and even at the Ministry of Labour! Old, IV Republic bureaucrats ally themselves with new “Bolivarian” bureaucrats in their common fear of the workers taking over the institutions or attempting to have a say in their running. One of the most scandalous cases is the harassment against the promoters of the Socialist Workers’ Councils at Fundacomunal, a newly established institution, mainly staffed by people coming from the Frente Francisco Miranda revolutionary youth organisation, and which is supposed to deal with the setting up of the Communal Councils! The fact that an institution which is helping establish organisations through which the communities can run their own affairs democratically, is using repression against its own staff for wanting to have a democratic say in the running of the institution is at best kafkian.

All this is creating widespread and growing anger and resentment against the bureaucracy, which is in fact acting like a fifth column of the counter-revolution within the Bolivarian movement. PDVSA workers who attended the meetings were extremely interested in discussing these cases and other examples that they brought up themselves, precisely because they see them as a threat to the gains of the revolution and one of the reasons which could lead to an electoral victory of the right wing. Whatever their subjective intentions, these bureaucrats are playing a counter-revolutionary role.

The fine revolutionary instinct of the Venezuelan working class has come to the surface again and again, as it has attempted to take direct control over the running of society. This is the only thing that can take the revolution forward, complete it and thus prevent a return of the reactionary oligarchy to power.