Venezuelan workers set up Revolutionary Front of Occupied Factories

On Saturday, February 25th a meeting of representatives of the workers in factories that have been expropriated or are occupied took place in the premises of Inveval, in El Carrizal, not far from the Venezuelan capital Caracas. Dozens of workers took part in the meeting, the main aim of which was to set up a national Revolutionary Front of Occupied Factories.

On Saturday February 25th a meeting of representatives of the workers in factories that have been expropriated or are occupied took place in the premises of Inveval, in El Carrizal, not far from the Venezuelan capital Caracas. Dozens of workers took part in the meeting, the main aim of which was to set up a national Revolutionary Front of Workers in Companies Occupied or under Cogestión. This was without a doubt an important step forward for the Venezuelan labour movement and its experiences of workers’ control.

Cogestión is the name Venezuelan workers have given to the process that guarantees different levels of workers’ participation and control in the management of companies. Cogestión literally means “co-management” but in the case of Venezuela workers are at pains to explain that it has nothing to do with the European model of co-management, as implemented for instance in Germany after World War II. They argue that European co-management has meant making the workers co-participants in the cutting of their own wages and conditions. That is why they sometimes call their model “revolutionary co-management”.

On January 15th, 2005 president Chávez decreed the expropriation of the Venepal paper mill after a long struggle of the workers against the owners, who in the end declared the company bankrupt. The idea, Chavez explained, was that the workers would run the factory, under the new name of Invepal (Venezuelan Endogenous Paper Industry) for the benefit of the Venezuelan people as a whole. The second such expropriation to take place in the Bolivarian Revolution was that of the CNV, a factory that produces valves for the oil industry. Here again, the workers had occupied the premises in a bitter two-year long stand off with the owner, Andrés Sosa Pietri, a former director of state owned oil company PDVSA who participated directly in the April 2002 coup against Chavez and who was also a leading figure in the bosses’ lock out of December 2002. CNV is now about to restart production under a form of workers’ control and management and with the new name of Inveval (Venezuelan Endogenous Valve Industry).

These two cases opened the floodgates for a whole series of occupations of factories which had been declared bankrupt and abandoned by their owners, either as a result of genuine financial difficulties, economic sabotage against the Bolivarian government, lack of confidence in the future as a result of the revolution or through or a mixture of all these reasons. At the same time, a number of conflicts between the workers and the employers over issues like trade union recognition, payment of wages and other benefits etc., have ended up in groups of workers occupying their factories and demanding that the government expropriate them and that they are run under cogestión.

In the course of the last year a number of national meetings of workers’ involved in cogestión have taken place in ALCASA (the state-owned aluminium smelter in Bolivar, where workers’ control is also being introduced) and in Valencia, Carabobo. These meetings served to allow the workers to discuss their experiences, the historical experiences of workers’ control and management and to try to generalise their conclusions. The idea of a setting up a national front was also discussed, but no concrete measures had been taken to set it up.

The importance of the meeting at Inveval on Febraury 25th was that this was the first meeting to be completely organised by the workers’ themselves, with delegates elected in mass meetings at the different factories and completely self financed by the workers themselves.

Presidential elections and the struggle for socialism

Jorge Paredes, who was one of the main leaders of the struggle of the workers at the CNV and who was elected president of Inveval by the workers’ assembly, introduced the first discussion at the meeting. He explained that it was the workers and the poor people of Venezuela that defended the revolution and president Chávez and defeated the oligarchy on at least three occasions. “In all revolutions, the German, the Portuguese, the Chilean etc, the decisive factor has been the participation of the masses and particularly the role of the workers”, he said.

He also stressed the need to struggle against the inefficiency, bureaucratism and corruption that threaten the revolution. He said that only by creating new institutions, based on “delegates elected and recallable, can we defeat the bureaucracy which sabotages the revolution from within the institutions of the state”.

Jorge Paredes insisted that the workers must play a crucial role in the struggle for the re-election of president Chavez in December. However, at the same time he added, “this must be seen as part of the struggle for socialism”. He proposed that Electoral Battle Units for Socialism be set up in all factories and trade unions to mobilise the workers.

After a thorough discussion, a manifesto of the Revolutionary Front was passed unanimously (see here full version in Spanish: http://venezuela.elmilitante.org/index.asp?id=muestra&id_art=2393). The manifesto sets “the extension of the process of expropriation and nationalisation of Venezuelan industry under workers’ control” as the main aim of the Front. The Front also makes an appeal to workers to “get organised and promote revolutionary trade unionism within the UNT” and appeals to the new leadership of the UNT to be elected at its congress “to launch a national campaign to take over and occupy factories under workers’ control”.

The Manifesto also takes the clear position that “under capitalism the Venezuelan people can only expect misery, poverty and imperialist exploitation”, and that the problems facing the Venezuelan economy can only be solved through “the democratic planning of the nation’s economy”. The Manifesto also explains that, “The future of the Bolivarian revolution lies in socialism, through the expropriation of the basic industries and the banks under the control of the workers and the communities”.

Invepal and Inveval, one year after

Another one of the main speakers at the meeting was Ramon Lagardera, president of COVIMPA, the cooperative that organises the workers of Invepal. He stressed the idea that “there are people who are sabotaging and blocking the workers from within”. He said that there are two tendencies in the Bolivarian movement “a reformist one and a revolutionary one”, and that “though the revolutionaries are a majority, there are also institutions which do not respect the will of the majority”.

He explained the situation that developed in Invepal where the workers felt that the leaders they had appointed to the company’s management and the leadership of the workers’ coop were not reporting back to the workers and had moved away from the original project. The workers demanded a new mass meeting to be called and on November 5th, 2005 the workers assembly decided to recall the leadership (by 260 votes against 20), and elected a new leadership, which included Ramon Lagardera.

The problem they are facing is that this democratic decision of the workers, taken in a democratic assembly, has so far not been recognised by the Minister of Popular Economy, until recently Elias Jaua. The Invepal workers present at the meeting insisted that the fact that the old directors’ board had been removed was not a sign that workers’ management was not working, but precisely that workers’ democracy was the best way to remove those who no longer had the trust of those who elected them.

Representatives of the workers at the Invepal plant in Maracay were also present at the meeting. Without the knowledge of the workers’ assembly, the old directors of Invepal had hired a group of workers to work in the Maracay plant of Invepal, but on lower wages and under worse conditions than the original group of workers at the Invepal plant in Moron. These workers then organised and demanded to be hired by Invepal on the same wages and conditions and with the same rights as the rest of the workforce.

In Inveval the workers were still not producing but had already adopted methods of workers’ democracy in all decision making processes. The workers’ assembly is here the highest decision making body. This conception clashed with some of the functionaries at the Ministry who argued that since the state owns 51% of the company, it should have a majority say in the decisions. But the workers reminded them that even during the signing of the expropriation decree, president Chavez himself had declared that a worker elected by the workers’ assembly should be the director of Inveval. The workers are sticking to that principle and so far the conflict with the Ministry has been resolved in favour of the workers’ assembly.

What kind of cogestión?

A number of workers’ cooperatives were also present at the meeting. They explained some of the problems they are facing, amongst them sabotage by financial capital and the fact that they have to compete in a capitalist market. Also on some occasions they lacked the necessary premises from where they could operate, and did not have the necessary means to hire or purchase them.

A group of four workers’ cooperatives in Charallave, Miranda, had decided to occupy the abandoned installations of Alfa Quark and were demanding the expropriation of these installations (which have 18,000 ha of land) to be used by the cooperatives. The Front decided to support their struggle.

At the meeting there was also a discussion about the kind of cogestion that the workers defend. Introducing the discussion, Antonio Betancourt explained: “We are happy with what has happened to us, because now we have become aware of the enormous power we have as workers, and the power of the working class as a whole. As workers we can run the companies, and not only the companies, but society as a whole. The lesson from all past revolutions is that our aim must be to build our own state, a state of the workers, because the bourgeoisie has its pawns in this state and even within the government. They are the ones who are trying to tell us that this is not possible, that the workers cannot manage the companies. But we have proven that they are wrong.”

After a discussion the meeting passed a document drafted by the Inveval workers on the model of cogestión they are fighting for. The document is adapted from Lenin’s draft decree on workers’ control, written in 1917. (http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/oct/26.htm).

Finally the meeting also discussed a number of concrete proposals. The Front was formally established and a coordinating committee was elected. A demonstration of workers from all occupied and recovered companies was called for March 14th. The march will go from Sel-Fex (the textile factory in Caracas occupied by its 240 women workers who are demanding its expropriation under workers’ control) to the National Assembly. The main demands of this march will be the expropriation of Sel-Fex, the expropriation of the Alfa-Quark premises, the recognition of the new leadership of the Invepal company and the full incorporation of the workers of Invepal Maracay to the Invepal workforce.

The experience of the Venezuelan workers’ movement with workers’ control and management is still quite recent and it only affects so far a small number of workers and companies. A number of inevitable mistakes have been made. The most important thing is that they are learning from these mistakes and have now given themselves, for the first time, a body where they can discuss and coordinate the struggle and advance. Potentially, this movement shows the seeds of the future society within the old. In the current revolutionary situation in Venezuela, even small conflicts over wages and trade union recognition escalate into an all out war between workers and bosses, in which many times the workers are forced to take over the companies.

The Front has the potential to become a point of reference for the revolutionary struggle of Venezuelan workers to link up their concrete day-to-day problems with the wider perspective of the struggle for socialism, which can only be based on a nationalised planned economy under the democratic control of the workers themselves.

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