Tuesday, 27 November 2007
by Vaughan Gunson Across Latin America thousands of factories have been occupied and taken over by workers. The wonderful documentary film, The Take (2004), directed by Avi Lewi and written by Naomi Klein, follows the struggles of workers in occupied factories in Argentina at the time of the 2002 national elections. In the film an activist from the worker-run Bruckman garment factory tells us: “History is history – there have always been workers and bosses. But we are fighting for worker control. And I think it’s possible. I don’t know if I’m getting ahead of myself, but maybe we can run the country this way.” This is what workers in Venezuela are beginning to believe and fight for. Workers in 1,200 occupied factories and workplaces are part of a mammoth struggle to not just achieve workers’ control of individual factories, but to extend workers’ control to the whole of the country. These workers are at the vanguard of the struggle for socialism in the 21st century. Inveval – a leading light One of the leading lights of the workers’ movement in Venezuela is Inveval, a factory on the outskirts of Caracas that makes valves. Inveval has been nationalised by the Chávez government and is operating under workers’ control. The struggle of these workers, the obstacles they’ve faced and the conclusions they’ve reached is of great interest to all workers, not just in Venezuela, but around the world. In the middle of mass revolutionary movement, these workers are showing through their actions what’s possible. The history of the struggle at Inveval goes back to the bosses’ lockout which shutdown the Venezuelan economy in 2001-02. The capitalist owners of the National Valve Manufacturer (as Inveval was previously named) never re-opened the factory after the lockout was defeated. They refused to pay the 330 workers their outstanding salaries and other payments they were entitled to. A group of 65 workers began a fight to get their money. They demanded justice from the labour courts and the labour ministry. This small group of Inveval workers drew strength from the broader Chávista movement. Francisco Pinero, an Inveval worker and current treasurer, says: “We spent two years picketing at the gates before we decided to take it over. Through this process we developed political maturity very fast, not just through our own personal struggle, but the broader political struggles of the constituent assembly and the recall referendum.” Never-the-less, the struggle took its toll and by December 2004 only one worker camped outside the factory. At this point the boss tried to sneak into the factory at night to take tools and half-finished valves. Pablo Cormenzana, a spokesperson for Inveval, tells how the workers then decided to camp in bigger numbers outside the factory to stop the boss from ransacking the factory. We were thinking: “this guy left us out in the streets and now he’s leaving with the few things that could be sold to pay us back what he owed us.” “At the very same time,” says Cormenzana, “two very important situations developed in Venezuela. In January 2005 during the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, President Chávez launched his proposal for socialism. This was very important moment for the worker controlled factories. “The other important event for Inveval was the nationalisation of the paper mill Invepal. The paper mill Venepal was in a similar situation as Inveval. The owner in this case claimed bankruptcy with the idea of breaking up the company and selling off shares to the transnational cardboard producer, Murphy. The owner of Venepal went bankrupt and left the workers out to dry. The Venezuelan government told the workers at Venepal that if they led a serious struggle and rallied on a large scale, President Chávez may consider nationalising the company. The workers accepted the proposal and began to rally. They protested, pushing for nationalisation of Venepal. The president accepted the proposal and decreed the nationalisation of Venepal. The workers later formed Invepal. “The nationalisation of Invepal motivated the workers of Inveval and they launched a new campaign to get their jobs back,” says Cormenzana. A factory run democratically by workers Inveval was nationalised by presidential decree in April 2005 and re-opened under workers’ control. “We’re talking about a huge factory that runs with computers and giant machinery. And yet, the workers were able to make it work,” says Cormenzana, “They’re proving the theory that workers can run industry without bosses. Not only are the workers at Inveval successfully running a company without bosses or an owner, they’re also doing it without technocrats or bureaucracy from the government. The government has had little participation in the functioning of the company.” Pinero explains how the struggle to get their jobs back by taking over the factory led to formation of workers’ assemblies: “We were members of the union [Sintrametal, formerly aligned to the old corrupt CTV]. When we wanted to take over the factory we asked the union for legal help, but they didn’t help us. Because the union didn’t help us we began to form assemblies.” These were maintained after Inveval was nationalised. Initially Inveval was to be run under a co-management model, with 51% ownership being in the hands of the state, and the other 49% with the workers. The management of the company was to be a Directors Board composed of three elected representatives of the workers’ assembly and two functionaries appointed by the state. The two state appointees never turned up and Inveval workers quickly decided that the Directors Board was not a democratic or socialist way of running the company. The board was replaced by a Factory Council made up of 32 representatives elected by the workers’ assembly, which is the highest authority. The Factory Council is divided into commissions responsible for specific tasks like finances, administration, design of valves, quality control, discipline, sales, etc. “Factories under worker control function democratically, unlike with a boss,” says Pinero, “The factory is run by worker delegates. “If the delegates and representatives do not fulfill their responsibilities according to what the assembly says, the assembly can revoke the delegate from his or her position. All of the workers make the same salaries - it doesn’t matter if they are truck drivers, line workers or the president of the company. “We want the state to own 100%, but for the factory to be under workers control, for workers to control all production and administration. This is how we see the new productive model; we don’t want to create new capitalists here,” stresses Pinero. There has been a debate amongst workers, unionists and other grassroots activists about the relationship between Factory Councils and the trade unions. On this matter Jorge Paredes, Inveval’s worker president, is clear: “The Factory Councils cannot replace the trade unions. They must complement each other. The Factory Councils are a weapon of the workers to manage the companies and therefore to run the economy. The trade unions are a tool to defend our rights as workers. Some trade union comrades have a confused vision of this matter and reject the Workers Councils. This is a serious mistake. Revolutionary trade unions must promote the setting up of Factory Councils in order to develop workers’ control.” FRETECO – organising to extend workers’ control Workers at Inveval have been conscious of the need to share their knowledge and experiences with the rest of the movement in Venezuela. This is happening in a number of ways. They’re raising with workers in other occupied factories that representatives should attend each others meetings. Inveval workers have been invited by the Ministry of Light Economy and Trade to take a leading role in the socialist education of other public industrial companies. And it was Inveval workers who were the force behind the establishment of the Revolutionary Front of Workers in Factories Occupied and under Co-management (FRETECO), formed in 2006. The Front’s goal is to push for the extension of workers’ power from its base in factories and workplaces to all levels of Venezuelan society. Article 1 of FRETECO’s constitution states: “The Co-managed and Occupied Factories Worker’s Front declares its principal objective the extension of the expropriation and nationalisation of Venezuelan industry and its placement under control of its own workers. Its goal is to develop the process that started in 2005 with the expropriation of Venepal by the president of the Republic and to extend it to the rest of Venezuelan industry so it leads to the practice of socialism in the nation of Bolívar.” As the path ahead for the Venezuelan revolution is debated by workers and other grassroots people, FRETECO’s ideas about workers’ control are gaining a hearing. A FRETECO organised gathering on 30 June brought together workers from a number of factories and workplaces, including from Intevep (the technology division of state-owned oil company PDVSA) and the Socialist Front of Workers of Caracas Electricity (EdC), recently nationalised by Chavez. Representatives of the government and other revolutionary political organisations also attended. The focus of the meeting was to discuss Chávez’s decision to establish hundreds of new “social production enterprises” or “socialist companies” to produce a range of items, including food, ships, construction materials, cellular telephones, clothing, electrical appliances, wheelchairs and bicycles. Also discussed was Chávez’s creation of a Central Planning Commission by presidential decree. The stated purposes of the commission are to promote the transition to centralised planning of the economy; promote the establishment of a socialist state; preserve national sovereignty; and promote international alliances. All government ministries and state owned companies will be subject to the decisions made by the Central Planning Commission. These two new initiatives have been a hot topic of debate in Venezuela. On the right of the movement there are people who argue that it’s enough to nationalise industry under the control of the state. While on the left, groups like FRETECO are arguing that “socialist companies” must be controlled democratically by workers, or they’re not socialist. A focus of the debate has been whether industries currently run by the state should instead be directly under workers’ democratic control. Federico Fuentes, in an interview in Green Left Weekly (1 August 2007), says: “This is a very intense discussion, because there is no doubt there are different wings within the government... There are those who are totally opposed to any real form of worker participation in state industry.” According to Fuentes this is the position that Chávez, for now at least, has backed. However, he believes the debate is far from over: “this is a discussion that will unfold and many are confident that it will be possible to clarify what workers’ participation means and why it is so important in the state industries.” FRETECO, a grassroots workers’ organisation reflecting the knowledge and experiences of workers who’ve achieved workers’ control in individual factories, are well placed to intervene and give leadership to the rest of the movement. In a sea of capitalism One of the experiences workers at Inveval are generalising from and bringing to the attention of other workers and socialist activists, is that individual factories under workers’ control cannot survive in a sea of capitalism. Inveval has trouble getting raw materials, necessary tools and machinery, and finding buyers for the valves they make. But they also face legal problems from the maintenance of bourgeois laws and outright opposition from corrupt bureaucrats within the old structures of the Venezuelan state. These state functionaries want worker controlled factories to accept the rules of the market and to compete against other factories, whether capitalist owned or run by workers. Carlos Ramírez from the Revolutionary Marxist Current (CMR) spoke to the FRETECO gathering. He argued that: “An isolated company working under workers’ control will face many difficulties to survive. Even if it is expropriated by the state but remains isolated it will be subjected to the pressure of the state bureaucracy, which – as president Chávez has said – is one of the legacies of capitalism. Socialist companies can only survive if the take over, occupation and expropriation of factories spreads to the whole economy.” Inveval workers have had trouble with the managers of PDVSA, the state owned oil company. PDVSA had negotiated a contract with Inveval to produce valves, which they did. PDVSA managers then reneged on the deal and refused to pick up the valves or pay for them. Even after a direct intervention by Chávez the valves remained on the factory floor. PDVSA has since placed orders with Inveval for valve sizes that they know the factory can’t produce, and then accused the Inveval workers of failing to fill orders, This economic sabotage by state capitalists within PDVSA is what the revolution is up against. Socialism = workers running the country Where you stand on workers’ control is fast becoming the issue which defines whether you are for or against the revolution. Workers at the FRETECO gathering are convinced that workers’ control has to be spread to every factory and workplace in Venezuela. Nelson Rodriguez, an Inveval worker, says the Workers Councils “must link up with the Peasant Councils, the Communal Councils, in order to become the basis of the new revolutionary state we want to build. Only this can put an end to the sabotage of the capitalists, bureaucratism and corruption.” Inveval workers have been meeting this year with the Communal Councils of Los Teques, a city 30km from Caracas. Los Teques currently has a mayor who claims to support Chávez, but who continues to block and disregard the demands of grassroots people. The mayor and his council have failed to maintain basic services like rubbish collection. A private company was given the contract by the town council to collect rubbish, but this year through combined mismanagement and opposition to the revolution, rubbish has been left to pile up on the streets. In response to this major public issue, Inveval workers talked to members of the Communal Councils about the need for a new local assembly of representatives of the Factory Councils and Communal Councils, to begin to take over the functions of the corrupt town council. At the same time they talked to workers from the rubbish collection company about workers’ control. They put forward the argument that rubbish collection needs to be organised and run by workers and the community. Through FRETECO Inveval workers are calling on comrades in other worker occupied or expropriated factories to make the same links with the Communal Councils and begin to coordinate worker and community action to tackle the problems posed by corruption and economic sabotage. From these practical initiatives can emerge the democratic structures of a socialist state. The next stage of the revolution The confidence of Inveval workers, and their clarity in regard to what needs to be done, has seen them call for workers, elected and recallable, to participate in the new Commission of Planning announced by Chávez. “In this way,” Antonio Betancourt argues, “the revolutionary government and the workers could manage, lead and really plan the economy.“ As has often been the case, initiatives of Chávez spark new debate about the direction of the revolution and spur people to action, in the process deepening the consciousness of the movement. The government continues to open up space for workers to discuss themselves the path to socialism. Chávez & Co are not going to have all the answers, so workers’ revolutionary organisations like FRETECO, which are bringing together the best revolutionary fighters, are vital to the health of the revolution. The ideas and experiences of Venezuela’s revolutionary workers are yet to connect with the mass of the working class and other grassroots people. The real flourishing of their ideas is set to occur when the 5-million-strong United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) takes the field of the revolution. Inveval workers know that they have to bring their knowledge to the wider workers’ movement and influence the debate as to how socialism of the 21st century will be achieved. “We can do this through the PSUV,” says Pinero. This is an exciting prospect as the Venezuela revolution enters its next stage. The majority of the quotes in this article have been drawn from: - ‘Interview with FRETECO representative’, by Marie Trigona, Venezuelanalysis.com, 11 October 2006. - ‘Historic FRETECO meeting – workers of occupied factories present ideas on socialist companies, workers’ councils, and the building of socialism’, by FRETECO, controlobrero.org, 6 July 2007. - ‘Venezuela’s Co-Managed Inveval: Surviving in a Sea of Capitalism’, by Kiraz Janicke, Venezuelanalysis.com. 27 July 2007.