Industrias del Orinoco, C.A. (Indorca) is a factory without bosses in the industrial city of Puerto Ordaz in Bolívar state, the home of Venezuela’s basic industries. Indorca workers carried out a heroic three-year struggle to gain control of the factory after the former owner brought it to a halt. Since 2015, when Venezuela’s Ministry of Labor extended a mandate giving the workers control over Indorca, the enterprise has been democratically managed by the women and men who produce here day in and day out.
In Part I of this three-part interview, the workers of Indorca told us about their fight to keep the former bosses from dismantling the factory and regaining control of the plant. Here, in Part II, we learn about the obstacles that worker-run factories face in a capitalist society and about Indorcas’ collective education projects.
Obstacles to worker control
Indorca workers have identified several obstacles that are particular to democratically-run enterprises. These obstacles are part of the complexity of building a socialist project embedded in a societal context in which capitalist relations still predominate. Part III of this series will address the impact of the blockade on Indorca and its production.
FIVE OBSTACLES FOR WORKER CONTROL
Jose Cedeño: Worker control goes against the grain and questions the logic of capital. It teaches society that workers not only produce value, but can also run a factory. Here, at Indorca, we have collectively identified five obstacles shared by all worker-run enterprises [in Venezuela].
The first obstacle is the legal one. In Venezuela, we have a powerful tool that allows workers to take control of a factory when the bosses are sabotaging production: Chávez’s 2012 Labor Law. However, when the workers are granted control of a factory [through article 149 of that law], we are left in a kind of limbo. We are neither “fish nor fowl”; neither a private enterprise nor a state-owned factory.
In our case, after three years of struggle, in 2015, we were granted control of the enterprise. However, it wasn’t until 2016 that we were able to sign our first contract with Venalum [an aluminum plant in Puerto Ordaz]. It took all that time to break down the legal barriers, and we had to do so creatively, by engaging a third party [a cooperative] to sign the contract.
There is another issue that has us worried. The Labor Ministry must renew article 149 every year. To comply, a worker-run enterprise has to turn in a yearly report, which we did in September 2021. Our concern is that the ministry has been remiss in renovating article 149 for Indorca and for other worker-run enterprises. This generates anxiety among the workers and it makes our [legal] standing with potential clients more precarious.
The second obstacle that we encounter relates to prices. Since most of our contracts are with state-owned industries, when orders are being discussed, the counterpart will sometimes allege that we are not charging them “socialist prices.” To state the obvious, socialism isn’t about low prices! Our prices are not higher than those of transnational corporations. We can’t offer lower prices either: transnational corporations enjoy economies of scale and engage in unfair competition. So beating their prices is almost impossible.
The third obstacle relates to a notion of “correctness” that, at the end of the day, is connected to our society’s hierarchical organization. When we finally got control of Indorca in 2015, all the engineers had left the enterprise, and we were running it democratically.
Collectively the workers have hundreds of years of accumulated experience, and we were able to keep the factory running during the hardest of times. Nevertheless, there were – and still are – people in the basic industries and oil sector who will not contract with us because we aren’t “qualified.” Little by little we have been able to overcome these prejudices, but we still encounter them from time to time.
There is a fourth obstacle: quality control. We adhere to ISO 9000 [quality control system]. Moreover, PDVSA’s affiliate INTEVEP [Venezuelan Technological Institute for Oil] audits us on a regular basis. Even so, we face all sorts of questioning by potential clients. Why? Once again, many don’t believe in democratic management.
The last obstacle relates to payment. When the state contracts a private enterprise, the bill is paid almost immediately. However, when they contract worker-run enterprises, they sometimes take one or even two years to pay. This kind of situation can become unsustainable, particularly in an inflationary context. I should say, however, that in the case of our latest contract, with Sidor [a steel plant in Puerto Ordaz], the payment was on time.
There are other obstacles that we have to overcome as a worker-run factory. When we took control of Indorca, all the bosses in Guayana’s private industries closed ranks with Oscar Jiménez Ayesa [the former Indorca owner]. These private industries service PDVSA and Guyana’s basic industries.
They used to contract with Indorca before 2012, when the struggle began, but they abruptly stopped. This is called class solidarity: they want us to fail because we are a “bad example” for the working class as a whole!
Sergio Requena: When considering the hurdles we face, we should also reflect on the issue of dependency. In the global context, Venezuela never ceased to be a producer of raw materials.
When Chávez decided that the nation should take control of PDVSA and end its subordination to corporations of the Global North, that provoked a right-wing coup and then a sabotage of the oil industry. Although the nation succeeded at retaking control of PDVSA, these actions were a blow to the industry, and it came with a silent siege on PDVSA.
Later Chávez tried to promote the industrialization of Venezuela. He signed cooperation agreements with China and Iran. That resulted in the Yutong and Venmotor automotive projects and also the Vit and Vetelca technological enterprises.
These projects and others were efforts to break with dependency on the Global North. However, there was never a unified plan for industrialization, so we never delinked from the Global North and its dictates.
Indorca’s niche is servicing the basic industries. Yet the basic industries are linked to global value chains: they produce and export anything from pig iron to steel… However, Venezuela doesn’t produce finished products, which is what yields the largest profits.
That is a problematic situation in itself, but it also affects us downstream: if the basic industries are highly dependent on global value chains, that means that Indorca is too. Moreover, if the links to international markets suddenly break down – as has happened with the blockade – then the problems of dependency become intensified. As it turns out, our clients lost both their suppliers and their clients with the blockade. That meant that when their work came to a halt, ours did too.
To understand the complexity of Indorca’s situation, we have to understand global value chains, Venezuela’s highly dependent position in them, and the impact of the blockade on our sector.
The blockade is a grave problem, but the issue of dependency is there with or without sanctions.
José Cedeño: Indorca has the capacity to employ 200 workers. Now there are 40 workers in total in the areas of production, maintenance, and administration. Our current salary is 15 USD per week. However, we hope to be able to raise wages, as result of the latest Sidor contract.
Even so, a full reactivation is possible even in these times of imperialist blockade: we have a great deal of experience, and the services that we offer are needed for the reactivation of the basic industries. If that were to happen, we would be able to restore Indorca to 80% of its installed capacity.
Yaneth Carreño: There is a coordinated effort to reactivate the basic industries, and we celebrate it. However, while this is happening, we think that the managers of those industries should turn toward the factories under worker control. These democratically-run factories are up and running, thanks to workers who were committed to keeping the plants open and fought against the deindustrialization of Venezuela. It was a patriotic action!
Things are difficult here in Indorca. Our wages are low and our situation is precarious. Still, we are not beggars and are not asking for a handout from the government. What we are requesting is that our services be considered in preference to those offered by the private sector.
Victor Mujica: There is one additional caveat when it comes to getting contracts. Some operators prefer to contract with private enterprises – even if their quality is not up to standard and the costs are higher – because at Indorca we will not offer them kickbacks.
This happened in 2019. We got a job offer, but it came with a 10% under-the-table “tax.” As a worker-run factory, we are neither willing nor able to do that. Needless to say, we lost the bid.
The most important classroom for workers in Indorca is the weekly assembly where decisions are debated and taken democratically. However, more formal studies have also become important since they took collective control of the enterprise. The room where they study has Chávez’s eyes stenciled on the wall.
Sergio Requena: Collective education has been critical for the new Indorca and for two more worker-controlled factories here in Puerto Ordaz: Equipetrol and Calderys.
The Jesús Rivero Bolivarian Workers University [UBTJR, for its initials in Spanish] accompanied Indorca workers during the struggle and after they were granted control of the enterprise. The UBTJR implemented a multifaceted educational process. The foci included: thinking collectively about workers’ democracy and self-management; reflecting on the social labor process as it is organized in capitalist society; and projecting a new organization of the process in a socialist society. Those issues were all matters of concern to the workers, and they were all incorporated into a curriculum that was tailored for the struggle.
After the takeover, workers found themselves at the helm of an enterprise with a relatively complex administrative operation, but they had no experience with accounting and many other activities that took place in the offices. So, the UBTJR also offered tools to workers for bridging the “administrative gap.”
Finally, the educational missions also got going here in Indorca, from Robinson Mission [literacy] to Sucre Mission [university-level education].
For close to four years, the workers set aside two hours to study and debate. The debates were lively and the classes very dynamic. In this room where we are talking, we painted murals, with phrases from Chávez.
In effect, we set up a permanent workers’ university. If you had come here at 7 am or at 5 pm, you would have found forty workers trying to understand a Marxist category. Or maybe you would have run into three people learning how to read using the Cuban method. Perhaps an Indorca worker would be teaching other workers how to read a blueprint.
Josefa Hurtado: Our limited formal education didn’t keep Indorca workers from making many things that many engineers can’t make. However, when we took control of the factory, we also became aware that we had a huge responsibility. That is why we committed ourselves to collective education.
My education was cut short, since I was very young when I started to work. It was here, at Indorca, that I went through Robinson and Ribas Missions. I got my high school degree here at the factory.
Education and debate are priorities for us. That is why we all set two hours aside to study.
Yaneth Carreño: When I got to Indorca, the UBTJR and the workers had already begun a program involving political education and literacy programs.
I had never seen anything like it! Workers were teaching workers, preparing each other to democratically run the enterprise.
I was also surprised that Indorca’s permanent education project was actually fun. That has much to do with the experience-based method we employ. Our learning isn’t disengaged from our reality, and it isn’t top-down.
Sergio Requena: The Simón Bolívar Plan [2001-07] recognized that there can be no intellectual development unless the basic needs of the people are covered. Indeed, early on, Chávez deployed the nation’s resources to cover people’s basic needs. That, in turn, led to the project of making the “Whole Country into a School” [“toda la patria una escuela,” 2007].
In recent years, Venezuela has lived through a brutal shakeup. The multifaceted crisis and the sanctions have brought hunger back to the doorstep. Combined with the pandemic, this brought our active education processes to a halt.
The times are not easy! Yet there is still learning going on here at Indorca. A workplace that is not organized by the logic of capitalism is in itself a permanent school. Also, we recently started an apprenticeship program, thereby reinforcing Indorca’s vocation as a permanent school.
José Cedeño: A while back we looked at each other and we realized that we weren’t getting any younger. So we decided to begin an apprenticeship program to bring young workers on board.
The idea was to set up a one-on-one apprenticeship that will go hand-in-hand with workshops on how to read and interpret blueprints, the use of equipment for precise measurement, caring for machinery, safety procedures, etc.
But our objective is not simply to incorporate more machine operators. We want to prepare young workers so that they can identify a problem, for example, when an industrial lathe is not working or a piece is damaged. They should also be able to make replacement parts.
Moreover, we want to prepare youths to run an enterprise democratically. That is our ultimate goal. Teaching is really part of who we are.
Cruz González: I came to Indorca when I was 20 years old. My dad had taught me a few things about welding, but it was here that I learned the trade. Some time after I came to Indorca, my uncle, who also works here, took me under his wing and I became an apprentice machine operator.
I learned how to work and repair an industrial lathe. Now I can read a blueprint and cut a piece with millimetric precision.
I have learned a great deal here… In fact, I have learned two trades! However, the most important thing I have learned here is comradery and workers’ solidarity.
Jesús Varela: We consider Indorca a teaching factory. If we had to, we could even build a tank here! Our doors are open to anyone who wants to learn.