Revolutionary Democracy in the Economy? Venezuela’s Worker Control Movement and the Plan Socialist Guayana
For quick reference, this article contains the following sections:
Introduction: Christmas at Grafitos
Part I: The Birth and Development of Plan Socialist Guayana
i) Venezuela’s Worker Control Movement
ii) The Nationalisation of Sidor and the Birth of Plan Socialist Guayana
iii) So what is the PGS?
iv) The Progress of Plan Socialist Guayana 2009 – 2012
Part II: The Promise, Politics and Problems of the PGS
i) Venezuela’s Worker Control Debate
ii) The Political Forces Opposed to Worker Control in Guayana
iii) 2012: Increasingly Public Conflict over Plan Socialist Guayana
Introduction: Christmas at Grafitos
Walking into the plush corporate style boardroom, I greeted workers from the Grafitos del Orinoco factory before sitting down to conduct the interview. On the white board next to the door, the latest decision of the workers’ factory assembly was still in evidence: whether to pay themselves an end of year bonus. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the workers had reached an almost unanimous consensus, with only one of the factory’s’ fifty-five workers not in favour.
The sound of meat sizzling on the barbeque, salsa music and laughter drifted in from the factory yard below. It was the December 2011 Christmas party for workers and their families, and they had plenty to celebrate. By their own admission, after a long struggle against the former boss and a trial and error learning process in self-management, the workers at Grafitos had succeeded in consolidating one of the most advanced and successful worker-run factories in the Guyana region, eastern Venezuela. I had previously visited the factory with activists in April 2011, and as part of an investigation into the worker control movement in the region, had returned to see how the workers at Grafitos were getting on.[i]
The struggle for worker control in Grafitos began in early 2009, when the former boss refused to negotiate a new collective contract with the workers’ union and tried to close the factory, taking the machinery with him. In response, the workers began a factory occupation which lasted eight months. For economic reasons many workers had to abandon the struggle, with only 18 remaining in occupation when the Venezuelan government intervened in favour of the workers. The Venezuelan labour ministry released a “decree of temporary occupation for the reactivation of the company”, which in effect awarded the factory to the workers to manage as they saw fit.
The workforce then debated how the factory should be run, and decided that the aim should be a model of collective self-management by the workers themselves: worker control. “We said that worker control was that workers controlled the factory”, explained Henry Escalon, the elected company president. Escalon’s position exists only to fulfill the legal obligation of having a company president, as he himself likes to make clear.
A workers council was installed, which from September 2010 debated how to organise the workers’ control of the factory. Escalon and the other workers described to me how at first they had been unprepared for self-management. One of the mistakes that had been made was the attempt to make every decision in a factory assembly with all the workers, which is the “sovereign” decision making body at Grafitos. This proved inefficient and “wore out” workers, with Escalon emphasising that “holding an assembly to agree to buy a screw, no, that’s falling into the abyss”. Yet, in the process of debating and trying different models “we learnt as we went along”.
Through this process of trial and error, the Grafitos workers arrived at their current model of collective management. While the factory assembly of all workers remains the sovereign decision making body, committees are chosen from among the workers to focus on specific areas of the factory, such as finance and production. A commission can also be set up to look into a specific issue or problem. Escalon himself has a committee of eight workers watching over his actions to ensure accountability. Every three months the factory assembly meets, where the commissions and the company president report back to the general assembly, and the factory trade union can also introduce proposals, for example on pay and conditions.
The key decisions are made in the assembly, and every worker has a voice and a vote. Cited examples of decisions taken include making an investment into buying a bus to provide transport for the workers, and agreeing on costs upon which the graphite parts the factory produces will be sold to the nationalised Sidor steel plant, Grafitos’ main client. “It’s to say that here, nothing is done without the workers, all the workers have a minimum or maximum level of participation,” explained one of the committee members, Cesar Barreto. Also, every worker is paid the same (before, the factory boss earned 15 times that of a worker), from the “president” to the cleaner, and workers can change positions if they wish, helping to overcome the division between manual and intellectual labour.
Indeed, the workers feel they have managed to develop a management model that allows workers to democratically organise themselves, and they are willing to support other factories in a similar position, as part of Venezuela’s wider worker control movement. “There are other experiences of fellow comrades on the national level, [but] I think we are one of the most important worker controlled companies in Venezuela, and we are available to accompany fellow workers in the same conflict to keep advancing this idea [of worker control],” said Cesar Barreto.
Sitting comfortably in the boardroom where in the past they could only enter with the permission of the factory owner, workers described economic, psychological and community benefits to the democratic worker control model of factory management, compared with the old hierarchical capitalist model under the boss. Spurred on by a sense of common ownership, the workers have been able to raise production (they informed me in April 2011 that they had just broken their production record). With this, and equal and rising pay enjoyed by each worker, their material quality of life has increased. Workers have, for the first time, managed to get mortgages for a house or own a car, and have enjoyed new benefits such as Christmas bonuses and benefits to buy toys for their children.
Yet more than just material benefits, there have been value-based gains and an increase in the quality of the working environment, including a growing sense that the workers are part of a common project linked to the wider industries of the region. “We no longer come just to sell our labour power for eight hours. We’re part of a hub that boosts the production of the basic industries [of Guayana]…we have raised consciousness, and gained a sense of belonging,” said Escalon. Cesar Barreto conveyed how the relationship between workers had changed, saying “before there was persecution by the boss. Now there is freedom. The sense of fellowship, in comparison with other companies, has been strengthened”. To illustrate their point the workers gave me the example of when one of their colleagues suffered an accident in November 2011. All workers gave two days salary to help him with his recovery, a gesture “from the heart,” as one worker present put it. In the opinion of Barreto “this solidarity and comradeship that’s been constructing itself is really valuable and important” for working life in the factory.
Another change has been the role of the factory in the community. As Barreto explained, “Apart from improving the workers’ quality of life, we want to contribute to society, seeing that the resources we produce are geared toward society”. Along with supplying Venezuela’s nationalised industries and politically supporting other worker control projects, Grafitos allocates a portion of its resources to various community and social causes. These include grants to community groups, funding for school equipment, and donations to international causes such as helping refugees in Haiti after the January 2010 earthquake.
Beyond the sometimes tricky process of developing their worker control model, the factory has faced economic, political and legal challenges. Economically, the factory needed a great deal of investment after the former owner declined to invest for years while running the existing machinery into the ground. As a consequence, some of the factory’s machinery is out of date and workers have had to put a great amount of capital into upgrading it. Politically, Escalon explained that as a result of ordinary workers “from below” assuming administrative tasks and the overall responsibility of running the factory, often outside figures dealing with the plant have treated workers with a lack of recognition and respect. “They practically said to us, “get lawyers [to deal with legal or administrative matters], you aren’t capable of this”. Well, we showed them otherwise. This is one of the most successful factories and experiences in Guyana” he stated, with murmurs of agreement from around the table.
The legal issue for the workers was that ultimately their position rested upon a temporary decree from the government’s labour ministry, albeit renewed several times, which left the possibility of a takeover by a private owner at some point in the future. What the workers wanted was full nationalisation: where the factory was owned by the state to prevent buyout, but run by the workers without interference. As chance would have it, this measure was announced by the government a few days after my December 2011 visit to Grafitos, with the workers communicating to me that they were satisfied with the arrangement. Indeed, now with legal protection from the state, the factory is still running strong under its worker control model.
A last question I had for the workers regarded their views on whether it was possible to have a democratic society without democracy in the economy. Cesar Barreto offered to answer, stating:
“I think that historically in our countries we’ve been sold a false idea of democracy, a democracy where the minority take the economic decisions that affect the great majority. I believe that socialism comes to democratise the economy, that is to say, where everyone is involved in decision making over resources, of the state and its institutions: not continuing to be managed by a minority that takes advantage of the resources produced by the majority. Right now we see in Spain, in Europe, resentment in society against the cases of “democracy” that exist there. Here in Venezuela we’re making an important effort to substitute these relations, the old democracy, with a much more democratic system: so that the decisions are transmitted above from below, not imposed downward from above. I think this is the key to truly begin to change things”.
Part I: The Birth and Development of Plan Socialist Guayana
i) Venezuela’s Worker Control Movement
As was alluded to in the Grafitos interview, the experience of worker control in the Grafitos factory is one of a number of worker control experiments across Venezuela. This article investigates the development of this movement in recent years, in particular through the Plan Socialist Guayana, and what Venezuela's experience of worker control means for the Bolivarian revolution and radical social change more generally.
The worker control movement forms one of the most radical social movements in the Venezuela, pushing for a transformation of the existing mode of production and class relations, the division and hierarchy of labour, and decision-making within the economy. Interestingly, the movement has emerged as a political force later on during Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution, the process of social, political and economic change led by President Hugo Chavez since his election in December 1998. The contemporary worker control movement has its beginnings in the oil lockout December 2002 - January 2003, when bosses tried to shut down the country’s oil industry and economy in order to oust Chavez from power, after a failed coup d’état in April 2002. This attempt at economic sabotage, while causing huge damage to the economy, failed when workers in various industries, including oil, temporarily took over the running of factories in a bid to keep the economy moving and maintain Chavez in power.
In 2005 the first worker controlled factories came into being when the Chavez government expropriated paper factory Invepal and valve factory Inveval in January and April of that year respectively, after workers launched occupations against the former owners. The factories were established in “co-management” with the state, whereby workers owned 49% and the state 51% of the factory and administration was shared between the two. Of the two factories, Inveval developed the deepest worker participation, with decisions made in weekly worker assemblies and a factory council formed in January 2007.[ii]
Key to this process was the relationship between the government and workers struggling for worker control. In 2005 President Hugo Chavez began to promote the idea of worker control as a means of recovering and putting into productivity factories closed by recalcitrant members of the business class, launching his call “company closed: company occupied”. Meanwhile the government’s labour ministry supported the organisation that year of the first “Latin American Meeting of Recovered Companies”.[iii] This was part of a left-turn by the Bolivarian movement after successfully defeating numerous destabilisation attempts by the country’s right-wing opposition, with Chavez announcing in 2005 that the goal of the Bolivarian revolution was the construction of socialism. His government then set about nationalising strategic sectors of the economy such as telecommunications, energy, and food supply chains, and promoting grassroots organisation through communal councils among other mechanisms of participation.
From 2005 a range of factories have been occupied and put beneath various forms of worker control in Venezuela, including state-owned Aluminium factory Alcasa from 2005, Invetex, Central Pío Tamayo, Sideroca, Tomatera, Caisa, Central Cumanacoa (2005/6), Sanitarios de Maracay (2007), Grafitos del Orinoco (2009/10), food chain Friosa (2010), coffee producer Fama de Amerca (2010), and many more. Not every model established since 2005 has remain intact and the process has been fluid and at times uneven, yet the general trend has been a growing number of concrete examples and the popularity of the idea of worker control among Venezuela’s working class. Thus, despite the number of factories under worker control representing only a small part of Venezuela’s economy, by mid-2011 the Bicentenary Front of Companies Under Worker Control (FRETCO) was able to declare: “Currently, the Bolivarian revolution has entered a critical point in which the bourgeoisie has lost control over the exploited. The workers have been acquiring an ever greater level of political consciousness and are organising themselves to respond to the capitalists’ attacks”.[iv]
In their analysis, the FRETCO tie the growth of the worker control movement to the overall fate of the Bolivarian process, arguing:
“We are living in times never before seen in our history. There are factories that have been in the hands of their workers for five years, occupied and operated by them. There aren’t any historical references [in Venezuela] in which this situation has been able to sustain itself for so long without one of its parts being defeated. In other times the bourgeoisie would have used all the power of the state to suppress the worker and grassroots movement”.
ii) The Nationalisation of Sidor and the Birth of Plan Socialist Guayana
Indeed, the relationship between the Venezuelan state and differing sectors of Venezuela’s organised working class has been a key factor in determining advances and setbacks in Venezuela’s worker control movement. Nowhere has this been more marked than in Guayana. This region, sitting alongside the great Orinoco River, enjoys a wealth of natural resources which have given rise to a set heavy industries extracting and manufacturing iron ore, steel, aluminium, bauxite, gold, and more. The most strategic of these industries are owned by the state and the majority are overseen by the government’s Venezuela Guayana Corporation (CVG), and the (former) Ministry of Basic Industries and Mining (MIBAM).[v]After oil, this set of industries is the second industrial motor of the Venezuelan economy and groups together around 30,000 workers.
Guayana has become the key battleground for Venezuela’s worker control movement over the last three years due to the launch of Plan Socialist Guayana (PGS), a joint plan between the Venezuelan state and organised workers in the CVG industries to develop a project of worker control for the entire state-owned industrial complex in the region.
The idea of putting the Guayana state industries under the control of its workers sharply gained momentum with the nationalisation of Sidor in April 2008. The steel plant had been privatised in 1997 under the neoliberal Caldera government, and sold to Argentinian company Techin. According to Sidor union activist Jesus Pino, who spoke with myself and other activists and journalists in April 2011, among other adverse effects on working conditions and safety under the decade of privatisation was the reduction of the numbers of workers under direct employment by Sidor. These workers, who enjoy the benefits of the full collective contract, dropped from 11,000 to 5,000 while the number of subcontracted workers (those who perform the same work but under worse pay and conditions) rose to 9,000.[vi] In early 2008 a fallout between Sidor workers and management over the negotiation of a new collective contract escalated into an all-out struggle by collective and sub-contracted Sidor workers for the re-nationalisation of the plant. However, Sidor’s transnational management was supported by the pro-Chavez governor of Bolivar state Francisco Rangel Gomez, and Chavez’s labour minister Jose Ramon Rivero, who ordered National Guard troops to attack workers.
In one of his key political moves with regards to Venezuela’s labour movement, Hugo Chavez then took the side of the workers, firing his labour minister Rivero and announcing that Sidor would be nationalised. By this point many workers felt that just nationalising the plant was not enough. A Sidor union activist, Juan Valor, said at the time that along with nationalisation and incorporating all sub-contracted workers onto the full payroll “we are proposing that from the start of the productive process worker control exists, because if there isn’t worker control here things will be the same as before, where there wasn’t control of production, of sales, of nothing”.[vii]
After this, workers from across the CVG factories began meeting to discuss the future development of the state industries. Meanwhile Chavez established the Guayana Presidential Commission with representatives from the national executive and links with the workers to debate the same issue. Then on May 21 2009, over 400 workers from across the CVG factories divided into ten working groups, and met with Chavez to present their proposals for the socialist transformation of Guayana’s basic industries under worker control.
The Venezuelan president supported the plan, launching his now famous cry “I play on the side of the workers!” and announced the launch of Plan Socialist Guayana (PGS). He further argued, “It cannot be that you are working in a company, and you aren’t clear on its overall functioning…from the beginning, to sales, the whole productive process must under worker control”.[viii] The workers’ working groups were then set the task of developing the PGS alongside Chavez’s labour minister Maria Cristina Iglesia and planning and development minister Jorge Giordani. From 22 May to 7 June 2009 these ten working groups, comprising over 600 workers, fleshed out the PSG into its final form, which was presented to Chavez on June 9 as Plan Socialist Guayana 2009 - 2019, becoming the blueprint for the future development of Venezuela’s state owned industries in Guayana.
The final report of the plan claims that since public planning of industry in Venezuela began “never before has a plan for the development of public companies been developed like this”.[ix] Meanwhile Elio Sayago, former worker-president of CVG Alcasa, later termed Chavez’s public siding with the regions’ workers and the launch of the PGS as “a launching of the advance of the revolution in the economic sphere”.[x]
iii) So what is the PGS?
The Plan Socialist Guayana June 2009 report introduces the PGS by stating “the aluminium, iron and steel workers of Guayana, alongside the Bolivarian government, have decided to take a step forward in the construction of socialism, by assuming direct control of the production of the region’s heavy industries”.
In pursuit of this aim, and to develop the industries in the manner designed by the workers, the PGS contains nine strategic goals. The first of these is “control of production by the workers”, which calls on workers to convert themselves into guarantors of the state’s social property and stipulates that the construction of “Bolivarian socialism” requires democratising the management and decision-making of companies. The second goal is the development of a revolutionary theory and action that puts workers in active and participatory control of production. This focuses on promoting “socialist values” through collective leadership mechanisms as well as a focus on health, safety and care for the work environment.
The third, significantly, is the integration of all CVG industries into two mega companies, one integrating the iron and steel production process, the other, the aluminium process. A truly massive project, the report argues that integrating production will create a wider consciousness beyond workers’ commitment to their particular company, to the wider Guayana region and Venezuelan society. Other PGS reports further explain that this integrated vision is also aimed at Venezuela’s productive and technological sovereignty, reducing export of primary materials abroad where transnational companies make great profits on Venezuela’s natural resources, and instead producing more goods domestically to address the needs of Venezuelan society, for example in housing construction. This is in line with the government’s own national development plan. Reducing the environmental impact of the region’s industries is another motive behind this strategic goal.
The fourth goal states the importance of the “ideological-political and technical-productive development of workers”, stipulating that factories should guarantee the human development of workers by offering educational opportunities under the principle “every factory is a school”. This is also held as giving workers the necessary political and practical tools to assume control of production. The fifth goal calls for the collective ownership of technology by workers, and the sixth forthe guarantee of healthy working conditions (health and safety), in industries which are often dangerous to work in. The seventh aim is the financial viability of projects proposed by workers, stating that every worker has the right to participate in the formulation of projects for implementation in his/her workplace. The eighth is to ensure energy availability for new projects and conduct reviews for how to save energy, key in the context of Venezuela’s 2009 electricity crisis. The final goal is to establish codes for public accountability of the management of the CVG factories.[xi]
The rest of the PGS report sets out detailed policy proposals for the realisation of each of the above goals, a list of projects for the 2009 – 2012 Investment Plan developed by the working groups, and the legal and constitutional framework within which the plan functions. The report concludes by stating that workers must be the main actor in the process of revolutionary change and that “only wide and democratic participation is capable of avoiding bureaucratic monopolisation and distortion of revolutionary processes”.
The emergence of the Plan Socialist Guayana draws attention to the nature of the process of social change underway in Venezuela and the prospects for a transition to socialism here. While there have been dramatic improvements in the guarantee of social rights, an increase in grassroots organisation and empowerment, and innovative economic forms such as cooperatives, social property companies, and others, the Venezuelan economy is still largely based on capitalist social relations. These take the form of either private ownership of production or state ownership, the latter albeit often having different strategic aims such as providing a service (health and education) or fulfilling a social need (housing construction) rather than maximising profit. However, in terms of creating a society based on new relations between human beings, how goods and services are produced, who owns production and how economic decisions are taken, ownership by the state in itself does not necessitate a challenge to hierarchical capitalist power relations, with state appointed managers and bureaucratic officials often replacing the role of private owners. As such, the worker control movement and the PGS mark an important development in Venezuela, particularly if one considers the argument on the nature socialism and democracy: that one requires the other.
The general argument is that socialism, as an emancipatory theory that seeks the removal of all barriers to full human development, requires participatory decision-making mechanisms in both public and economic life. As Marx put it, the aim of a future society should be “where the free development of one is the condition for the free development of all”. This requires active participation in all areas of public and economic life, in order to give people the chance to contribute to decisions affecting them and develop themselves as human beings. Such mechanisms also avoid the formation of elite groups which exploit and wield power over others, and can lead to the bureaucratisation of revolutionary processes. Meanwhile democracy is seen as requiring socialism, as the key principle of democracy is that of “political equality”, the right of all members of a group to have an equal role in decisions taken by that group. Whereas liberals quickly shy away from this principle and argue that political equality can only be applied in a limited fashion on the level of a whole society, through an elected parliament or congress, many socialists take a more holistic and radical stance, pointing out that it is hard to maintain any notion of equality in decision-making in societies where there exist large scale private ownership of the economy and economic decision-making by a privileged elite. As such, in order to realise any meaningful notion of democracy in society, democratic ownership and decision-making is required in the economy, for example through worker control, community councils and communes, and, at minimum, a far-more democratic control over state power than only periodic elections to a parliament: i.e., some form of socialism is required.
Therefore, worker control in Venezuela can be seen as one of the key efforts underway in the country ‘from below’ to introduce mechanisms of democratic decision-making in the economy, laying the basis for radical societal transformation. However, while in Grafitos del Orinoco it has been demonstrably possible to democratically run a factory with a workforce of around 55, how could this be done in a factory with thousands of workers and a more complex production process?
In developing the PGS, the workers proposed a “worker council” model. It has four basic structures to ensure workers’ participation from the factory floor to top level administration. These are Workers’ Councils, Coordination Committees by Productive Process (CCP), the General Management Council, and the Workers’ Assembly. The workers’ councils are the basic unit of participation, with workers forming a council for their section of the productive process, and taking decisions or proposing initiatives related to their work area. The next level of organisation is the Coordinating Council by Process, which works in synergy with all worker councils in a given productive process (i.e. the production of steel bars), and according to a report by one of the PGS working groups “will make visible, manage and articulate all policies approved by the workers’ councils”.[xii] The next level is the general management council, which has representation from the workers, the company presidency (also elected by the workers), the state, and the local community via communal councils. Other mechanisms of participation are health and safety committees, trade unions, specific work commissions, and a PGS spokespersons council, with all bodies accountable to the general workers’ assembly. A diagram of the model is available on the January 2010 PGS reporthere.[xiii]
iv) The Progress of Plan Socialist Guayana 2009 – 2012
Alongside the launching of the PGS in May 2009, the Venezuelan government nationalised five important iron and steel briquette companies for integration into the planned Iron-Steel and Aluminium socialist corporations. This was seen as a sign of the government’s commitment to the PGS, with Chavez declaring that “these companies must be under worker control. That’s how it must be”.[xiv] After its launch, the workers’ working groups in liaison with Chavez’s ministerial team led by Maria Iglesias and Jorge Giordani were charged with carrying the plan forward. As part of this process the workers formed technical-productive working groups which drew up projects for the PSG investment plan.
On 8 August 2008 workers once again met with Chavez, the result of which was the approval of the Intensive Therapy PGS investment plan. Chavez approved US $313 million for the plan from the government’s Venezuela – China Fund (FCCV), on the condition that this money was administered by the workers. Workshops on health and safety and ensuring accountability were also held, with the participation of 200 workers each.[xv]
A report was published in January 2010 for the attention of President Chavez summarising the progress of the implementation of the PSG. It confirmed a “progressive advance” in worker control over financing with the money from the FCCV, which acted as a morale booster to workers involved in the PGS project. However, it also drew attention to contradictory behaviour by the existing upper and middle management in the CVG companies, which the report charged as paying lip service to the PGS while attempting to ignore the working groups and block the implementation of the plan. Examples cited included individual company managements ignoring the Venezuelan government’s and the PGS’s policy of fusing all industries into two larger corporations, instead each planning their own 2010 budgets and without the participation of the workers. Meanwhile, instead of looking to reduce sale of primary materials to transnationals, several companies were signing contracts committing them to sell material to the Glen and Noble group years into the future. The report also included 28 recommendations for the continued implementation of the PGS, including reducing the sale of primary materials to transnational clients and to use improvements in production to benefit the national health, education and housing sectors, while increasing protection of the environment. It also recommended the working groups, and the workers in general, assume control over the decision-making in the CVG companies, as stipulated in the PGS.[xvi]
The Plan Socialist Guayana moved into a new phase on 15 May 2010 with the appointment of the “worker-presidents” who were nominated by their fellow workers to run the presidencies in each of the CVG companies and sworn in by President Chavez. These included Elio Sayago to Alcasa and Carlos de Oleivera to Sidor (the latter also a member of PSG working group 1). Chavez also announced a series of measures that seemed to be influenced by the PSG working groups, including that CVG industries would reduce high export levels of primary materials and divert their use to local and national projects, and the nationalisation of the system of transporting primary materials, both recommendations of the PGS January 2010 report. Chavez also warned against reluctance on the part of managers and administrators to implement such decisions, declaring that “it’s necessary to defeat such resistance to change,” and that some management positions were occupied by “enemies of the revolutionary process”.[xvii]
Nevertheless, according to a member of PGS working group 1, Blanca Garcia, some decisions made in May 2010 opened the way for bureaucratisation within the PSG. A “Special Sub-Commission” of the PSG was created with nine spokespeople named by the working groups, three government ministers, a National Assembly deputy, and the worker-presidents. While such a body may have helped bring coherence and political weight in the PSG’s implementation, Garcia argues that this opened the path to the formation of a new elite within the PSG, contrary to the need to transform the capitalist social division of labour. Furthermore, Garcia criticises the creation of a “technical secretariat” of the PSG with power being taken away from workers at the base.[xviii]
Nevertheless, through 2010 and 2011 the workers of the CVG industries continued to organise and push forward the PGS. In May 2011 a significant step forward for workers both in Guayana and the national worker control movement occurred, when the first National Meeting of Workers’ Councils met in the Sidor plant. Organised by various groups including the National Union of Workers (Unete), the meeting brought together over 900 worker-activists representing over 100 factories and 21 of Venezuela’s 24 regional states. Participants discussed the progress, strengths and weaknesses as well as how to advance the worker control movement. A common theme at the meeting was a concern that bureaucratic sectors of the state were undermining the implementation of worker control projects. It is important to keep in mind, as US academic Peter Brohmer noted after a recent research trip to Venezuela, “[the term] bureaucracy in Venezuela includes corruption, favouritism, clientalism, nepotism, incompetence, indifference, and needless red tape, etc”.[xix]
At the conference, Elio Sayago drew attention to attempts at destabilising the Alcasa factory and removing him from office, centred around opposition to worker control by the pro-Chavez, yet reactionary, governor of Bolivar state (where the CVG industries are located), Francisco Rangel Gomez.[xx] From this meeting a plan was also agreed to constitute a national platform for the worker control movement, with several follow-up meetings taking place. According to worker control advocate and CVG Ferrominera worker Alexis Adarfio, “From the meeting came the preparation of a document to strengthen the bases of worker control, with a philosophy, an organisation, basically a working agenda emerged from the meeting to strengthen ourselves throughout Venezuela”.[xxi]
In August 2011 CVG Alcasa was able to report progress both in the implementation of worker control and in other strategic goals of the PGS, when the factories’ worker assembly approved a plan which allowed for the investment of national clients into Alcasa in order to increase production to meet domestic needs, part of a policy of ending aluminium exports to transnational clients. The plan was elaborated by the Coordination Committees by Process with participation from the workers councils.[xxii]
Another sign of progress during 2011 included the formation of the PGS General Assembly in May 2011. This assembly was formed as a space for workers across the Guayana industries who support the PGS to meet weekly to discuss the PGS’s implementation and support the efforts of the PGS working groups. Other developments included consolidating, in several CVG industries, the “Jesus Rivero” Bolivarian Workers University, a key institution for workers’ political and technical education, defining the structure of CVG corporations to comply with their status as “socialist companies”, and in October 2011 the creation of an organisation for purchases and sales in the iron – steel and aluminium sectors.[xxiii]
In December 2011 I caught up with Alexis Adarfio for an interview. A member of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) and supporter of Chavez, he has an intimate knowledge of the PGS, driving forward the implementation of the PGS in CVG Ferrominera from his position as coordinator of social-political education in the iron-ore company.
He reported that in Ferrominera and other industries a process of debate among workers (which I’d observed underway in April 2011) was culminating, which had formed the norms and rules for the functioning of workers councils, the philosophy of worker control, the theory of changing the social relations of production, etc. Of 7,000 workers in Ferrominera, 5,000 had participated in this debate.
With the norms and rules agreed for the functioning of workers councils and other bodies, the timetable for the implementation of worker control in Ferrominera was, first, for the diffusion of norms in the first months of 2012, followed by an internal electoral process for workers councils and implementation of the worker council model by June 2012. Adarfio argued that the workers councils “will allow internal democracy in the company, the democratisation of decision-making, by making decisions in councils and [worker] assemblies, all of the decisions: over production, consumption and distribution inside the industry”. He said workers councils will be formed by spokespeople elected in worker assemblies, which will become the decision-making bodies in the company. To avoid professionalisation of spokespeople, positions will be rotational and held for one year, and can be recalled by the workers assembly during that time.[xxiv] As of June 2012, the spokespeople’s elections have taken place in Sidor, CVG Venelum (aluminium) and Cavelum (aluminium), with the norms and rules still being established in advance of elections in the other CVG companies.
Part II: The Promise, Politics and Problems of the PGS
While the Plan Socialist Guayana has developed as described in part I of this article, the project for a socialist transformation of the region’s industries has been subject to a wider debate and political battle. The nature of the arguments, political factions and dynamics of conflict that surround the PGS and the worker control movement have important ramifications for understanding the nature of the Bolivarian revolution and for the wider debate on revolutionary social change in general. To cover these issues, part II of this article addresses (1) the debate in Venezuela around worker control and the PGS, (2) the various factions opposed to the PGS and the role they have played in attempting to prevent its implementation, and (3) the course of the conflict around the PGS in 2012.
i) Venezuela’s Worker Control Debate
Supporters of worker control and the PGS offer a number of arguments in favour of the idea. On the level of political values and ideology, worker’s control is generally held to be opposed to capitalist relations of production. Adarfio declared in May 2010 that the PGS represents a “declaration of principles in the war against capitalism,”[xxv] while former worker-president of CVG Alcasa, Elio Sayago, argues, the PGS involves “a deepening of the search to intervene in the mode of production…aiming to develop productive forces and transform the social relations of production”. This is explicitly promoted in the PGS reports, which advocates workers replacing a hierarchical management model with collective decision-making and ending the division of labour between intellectual/managerial and manual labour positions. Alcasa union activist and safety officer Denny Sucre explained to me that this aims for a situation where “the workers in the company don’t feel like an object, but rather an active subject in decision-making…in control of the productive process, but also the administrative process”.
Part of this project is the attempt to change dominant values from an individualistic to a more cooperative outlook. Sayago states his opinion that collective decision-making helps create a “collective work culture” where workers labour together to produce for the benefit of society. Collective and equal participation also make for better decision making, where “the best actions are decisions taken when you work in a group, with respect and cooperation. This action brings together all the knowledge from all the different variables involved…therefore a better decision will be taken”. [xxvi]
Politically, worker control and the PGS have implications for power relations in the Guayana industries, where a set of vested interests already enjoys economic and political power over the CVG. This includes state bureaucrats and managers in the Guayana industries, the CVG management and Bolivar state governorship, transnational companies who buy primary materials, and a “labour aristocracy” in the union movement. A common argument put forward by workers in favour of worker control is that the PGS “sentences to death” the power of such groups, including according to Adarfio “a labour elite [that] has held crumbs of political power, which it always uses for its individual interests in detriment to the rest of the people”. As such, the PGS is widely seen as initiating a “battle inside the companies,” for the future political and productive development of the industries.[xxvii]
Worker control is also argued as necessary for gearing industry toward producing for social need over private profit. Sayago, Adarfio, and the PGS reports make clear that worker control is linked to reducing or ending the export of primary resources to transnational companies, to instead manufacture primary materials inside Venezuela to produce for domestic needs, from health to housing. It is also sometimes argued that increasing production is not a priority as Venezuela’s primary resources should be conserved, along with controlling energy use and protecting the environment.[xxviii] As such, workers point to concrete successes achieved by the PSG working groups despite opposition from other political sectors to the plan’s implementation. Geanes Córdova, a member of PGS working group 4, explained how the PSG working groups in Sidor dealing with subcontracted labour and energy issues have both introduced successful projects, with the first achieving the incorporation of 6,800 cooperative members onto Sidor’s collective contract and the latter succeeding in constructing two thermoelectric plants that helped solve the nations’ 2009-2010 energy crisis.[xxix] Meanwhile, Denny Sucre described to me how Alcasa was planning to begin producing profiles for housing construction in support of the Venezuelan government’s mass housing building program launched May 2011.[xxx]
It’s worth keeping in mind that workers in favour of the PGS also have differing notions of how radical worker control should be. Lisa Maria, who works in the social development department of Ferrominera, felt that worker control is more of a consultative exercise, “that they [translator: it is assumed that “they” refers to company management or administrative staff] take us into account with decisions they make over investments”.[xxxi] Meanwhile Ruben Dario Morales, of Ferrominera’s legal and community department, argued that the PGS should construct “a new management model where workers can truly participate in the decision-making of the future of our company,” however he also argued that this process “doesn’t have any other objective than guaranteeing the productivity and permanence of this company”.[xxxii]
Other workers, especially those participating more deeply in the design and implementation of the PGS, see worker control of the CVG industries as a more radical project, acting as a step in the construction of socialism and the assuming of political power by the Venezuelan working class. Denny Sucre of Alcasa expressed his opinion that:
“This process has to do with participation in all if its aspects, where involvement doesn’t have limits: it has to break barriers, and go further still, because this process we’re determined to construct… is going to give vanguard signals from Alcasa, from Bolivar state, that yes the workers are capable of going much further than the transformation of productive processes. It’s not just about the transformation of productive processes anymore, but about how the workers also have the power of the state, we’re going to take power”.[xxxiii]
The view that workers are collectively capable of assuming more than just the running of factories was also voiced in Grafitos del Orinoco, with Carlos Becerra stating his hope that the PGS could “be a launching pad in the construction of socialism …to begin to direct the factory and in the not too distant future, direct the state too”.[xxxiv]
There are also arguments posed against both worker control in Venezuela in general, and the PGS in particular. State bureaucrats and managers, and sectors tied to the transnationals and the conservative political opposition, argue that workers don’t have the capability or consciousness to run their own factories. This was even expressed in a limited way by Ferrominera worker Lisa Maria who indicated her opinion that some workers don’t understand what worker control is.[xxxv] A more sophisticated argument made by reformist sectors within the Bolivarian process argues that Venezuela is an oil based economy without a developed working class, and so the Bolivarian project is in fact a “transition” to creating a national bourgeoisie and developing the forces of production. The Bicentenary Front of Companies Under Worker Control (FRETCO) organisation rejects the latter argument as “reactionary, and not revolutionary,” and based on hypocrisy, given that those making such arguments are defending their existing political and economic interests in the state apparatus and actively conspiring to make experiments in worker control fail.[xxxvi]
An argument made by some leftist currents is that worker control as conceived within the PGS is flawed as it is formed in conjunction with the state, given that the influence of the government and state-appointed managers in the industries can lead to a bureaucratisation of moves toward full worker control. When the PGS was launched, Orlando Chirino, a leader of the National Union of Workers (UNETE) union federation, urged workers to fight to make sure nationalised companies don’t continue on as capitalist companies in the hands of the state, and that “worker control is not limited to the workers participating in the election of managers”.[xxxvii]
Advocates of the PGS with whom I spoke to took a pragmatic approach to the issue. Denny Sucre argued that “co-responsibility” with the state is necessary because the CVG industries depend on the state for subsidies and parts, however that “when we reach our production capacity then we will be independent from the state”. In this context, it is worth mentioning that although the PSG project has experienced a complicated and often prejudicial relationship with the Venezuelan state, almost all workers advocating worker control I spoke to (in Sidor, Alcasa, Ferrominera, and Grafitos del Orinoco) were supportive of the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez. They saw him as backing worker control and the PGS, given his public support of worker control and the PGS project, and concrete actions taken such as in May 2010 to push the plan forward.
A view worth mentioning is that of Damian Prat, a Guayana based-journalist who also writes for Tal Cual, a newspaper associated with the right-wing opposition. In an interview I had with him, he gave voice to criticisms that production and safety records in some CVG industries had not improved or had even worsened under state management, which he argued pointed to the incompetence of the Chavez government. He also dismissed the PGS as a government mechanism “to control the workers, making them believe that now it’s they who govern, to eliminate their labour rights…what a marvel, how are you going to complain [to the state] if you’re the owner of the company?”.[xxxviii]
While Prat’s criticisms of problems in production and management faced by the CVG industries may hold weight, his political analysis of their root cause does not. As member of PGS working group 1 Blanca Garcia points out, those fighting for worker control are themselves critical of the fact that the CVG industries are in a “critical state” of operation. However, Garcia explains that the reasons for this are “political not technical”.[xxxix] To put it another way, the problems within the state industries are not simply due to a bureaucratic form of state management that would be solved by privatisation, as Pratt seems to suggest. Rather, they are rooted in the reality that the CVG industries have become the site of an intense political conflict in which the nature of the Bolivarian revolution and the future of the worker control movement in Guayana are being contested. Furthermore, the way in which vested interests within the Bolivarian camp (in state institutions, the CVG, and the Bolivar state governorship) have tried to prevent the implementation of the PGS makes the notion that the PSG is a government plan to control workers unlikely to say the least.
ii) The Political Forces Opposed to Worker Control in Guayana
As mentioned, both the Plan Socialist Guayana and the wider worker control movement challenge existing power relations. In particular, the advance of the PGS in the CVG industries has provoked opposition from a range of groups, from the country’s right-wing opposition and multinational companies, to corrupt or reactionary politicians, mafias, trade union bureaucrats, and state managers within the Bolivarian camp. The internal conflict over worker control between different groups identifying themselves with the Bolivarian revolution has revealed one of the sharpest existing contradictions in the revolution at present.
More radical groups in favour of worker control, such as the pro-government UNETE and the FRETCO, highlight reactionary and bureaucratic elements within the Bolivarian revolution as a as one of the greatest threats to the advance of worker control and the revolution as a whole. Sections of the UNETE have described these sectors as “counterrevolutionary” and a “fifth column” which are “as dangerous as imperial aggression and economic sabotage by big business” for the continuance of the Bolivarian revolution.[xl]
Former worker-president of Alcasa, Elio Sayago, succinctly explained the issue at stake in an interview October 2011. He argued that in the first ten years of the Bolivarian revolution, some people took advantage of the popularity of the process by proclaiming their support for Chavez and the revolution in order to get into positions of influence and power, however, are not genuinely committed revolutionaries. “Now they have these privileges and don’t want to lose them,” he said.
For Sayago, what worker control and the Plan Socialist Guayana has done is to present vested interests within the revolution the question: “Are you ready to share power with the workers and the people?” This issue is creating confrontation within the process. Sayago thus stated his opinion that by resisting the advance of worker control:
“[Political opportunists and state bureaucrats] are potentially converting themselves into enemies of the revolution, because the revolution means a real process of transformation…this is what is being put to the test within our own government; who is prepared to share power with the workers and organised communities, and who is trying to continue with the same structure of “I command and you obey”.[xli]
Resistance to the implementation of the Plan Socialist Guayana by elements within Venezuelan state institutions, including the former Ministry of Basic Industries and Mining (MIBAM), and the Venezuela Guayana Corporation (CVG), the government’s steering organisation in Guayana responsible for the administration of the state-owned heavy industries, has been reported by pro-PGS activists.
A key figure to oppose the PGS has been United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) governor of Bolivar state, Francisco Rangel Gomez (himself a former CVG president), who is considered to represent a reactionary wing within the Bolivarian process. From the beginning of the plan’s implementation in 2009, Rangel has worked to undermine the PGS with an informal alliance of bureaucrats and reformists within the MIBAM, CVG and the Bolivarian Workers Force (FBT) trade union.[xlii]
In giving an overview of the advance of the PSG, Alcasa union activist Denny Sucre said that from some public state institutions, such as the CVG and MIBAM, there had been “obstructive factors…which have not allowed the advance and progress of what we are driving”.[xliii] PGS activist in Sidor Blanca Garcia reported that Jose Khan, appointed minister of MIBAM in April 2010, stopped meeting with the PSG working groups in December 2010, essentially side-lining their proposals.[xliv] Elio Sayago himself complained in October 2011 that the US $403 million approved for Alcasa by President Chavez in 2010 still hadn’t materialised, seemingly frozen by the bureaucracy of the CVG and MIBAM.[xlv]
When the Sidor steel plant held trade union elections in October 2011, the Revolutionary Marxist Current (CMR), a radical grouping within Venezuela’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), accused government figures Jose Khan, Venezuelan vice president Elias Jaua, and labour minister Maria Cristina Iglesias of attempting to influence the election to try and get a candidate considered as less committed to the PGS elected as head of the Sidor trade union.[xlvi] Meanwhile on 6 October 2011, perhaps reflecting a hardening stance among those opposed to the PGS, Elio Sayago found himself barred from entering a PGS Sub-Commission meeting with government ministers and CVG company presidents, apparently at the behest of Khan, Cristina Iglesias, foreign minister Nicolas Maduro and planning and finance minister Jorge Giordani.[xlvii]
After a period in which the worker control movement had made many advances, including receiving “constant support” from President Hugo Chavez, the FRETCO organisation warned in July 2011 that “reformist sectors are grouping themselves together once again to intervene against the working class…they’ll do it to demonstrate that workers can’t administer companies, let along societies…it’s at this point in the struggle that the interests of the bourgeoisie and state reformists and bureaucrats are the most similar”.[xlviii]
A similar warning was expressed by the Alcasa Socialist Workers Front in January 2012, who issued a communication that the “internal right-wing” faction based around Francisco Rangel Gomez and the FBT union was engaged in a campaign to gain control the CVG companies. According to the statement, the aims of this faction were to make the PGS “unworkable”, and to achieve “the elimination of worker control,” and “the removal of Sayago,” replacing him with Angel Marcano, an ally and personal friend of Rangel Gomez, as Alcasa president. In the view of the Alcasa union, if the Rangel faction were to achieve these goals “all the achievements of the Bolivarian Revolution in the basic industries would be brought down”.[xlix]
Some trade union bureaucrats and reformist unions have also opposed the PGS. According to pro-PGS activists, this sector of the union movement have employed tactics such as collaborating with state bureaucracy, overtly attacking worker control experiments, and setting up alternative “working groups” to usurp the process from within.[l] As Jorge Martin argues, the reason for many union bureaucrats’ opposition to worker control is that under current labour relations “having control of the union in any of these companies gives these bureaucrats power, privileges and access to key information,”[li] a position threatened by a more participatory form of management.
The role of the FBT union, in league with state governor Rangel Gomez, has been particularly notorious in undermining worker control. One of the most extreme examples of this was in Alcasa in January-February 2011, when the FBT led a thirty-four day closure of the Alcasa factory, with the involvement of Angel Marcano. Sayago himself was beaten up when he tried to enter the factory.[lii]
Unions tied to Venezuela’s conservative opposition have also acted to undermine the PGS worker control experiment. Benjamin Moreno, the coordinator of PGS working group 1, related in a recent interview how, as the PGS began to advance, a “Machiavellian” plan was employed whereby certain union members formed alternative ‘working groups’ to undermine those originally constituted, with members of the Homeland for All (PPP) opposition-aligned party involved in this move.[liii] Ferrominera worker Ruben Dario Morales also expressed to me in December 2011 his hope that the worker control model would be sufficiently strong enough by the October 2012 presidential elections, as sectors aligned with the political opposition “aspire to generate a convulsion or chaos inside of our company”.[liv]
Mafia networks within the basic industries are also resistant to the PGS, with the greater accountability and openness entailed in the plan acting as a threat to the operation of networks profiting from the sale of contracts and stealing of products for sale on the black market. This issue became prominent in June 2011 when the head of sales at Sidor, “King of Bars” Luis Velazquez, was arrested for heading a mafia that stole steel bars from Sidor and sold them on the black market for a higher price. Worker-president at Sidor Carlos Oliviera and revolutionary trade unionists were involved in finding proof and alerting the authorities.[lv]
Opposed to any and all efforts at worker control are the influential multinational corporations that buy primary materials from the CVG companies. This is unsurprising, as the PSG aims to obtain better terms of contract from multinational companies and aspires to reduce exports to multinationals overall. These corporate interests were directly attacked by Alcasa under the presidency of Elio Sayago, which stopped complying with disadvantageous future sales contracts with Swiss-based commodities trader Glencore and then took steps to cut off Aluminium exports to the multinational altogether.[lvi]
iii) 2012: Increasingly Public Conflict over Plan Socialist Guayana
The conflict over the PGS has intensified in 2012. This reflects in particular the exacerbation of the conflict within the Bolivarian revolution between the bureaucracy and reactionary political sectors, and those forces genuinely committed to further radical transformation.
In a surprise announcement, on 25 February Venezuelan Vice-President Elias Jaua announced that, by order of President Chavez, Elio Sayago was to be replaced by Angel Marcano as president of Alcasa. The release of the $403 million due to Alcasa was also announced. Chavez was in Cuba undergoing treatment for cancer at the time.
Alcasa workers reacted with fury to the news, designating the move a “state coup” against the PGS, and accused the Rangel faction of taking advantage of Chavez’s moment of weakness to get him to sign Sayago’s dismissal in an “underhand” manner. They further called upon organised communities and social movements in Guayana to resist what they termed as a “disastrous” strategy by the government.
Sayago himself said he had not been previously informed of the move, and that given Marcano’s role in the Alcasa factory lockout the previous year, termed his appointment a “contradiction in terms”. He continued, “It is my responsibility to inform you all that this is not a person taking control of Alcasa, but rather a political and economic group…that for practically two years has tried to obstruct efforts to consolidate worker control [in Alcasa]”.[lvii]
In response to Sayago’s dismissal, a large network of organisations and individuals representing the more radical wing of the Bolivarian revolution grouped themselves together into an organisation called Patriotic Collectives of Popular Revolutionary Resistance in Guayana. The Patriotic Collectives, also linked through their participation in the Great Patriotic Pole, a coalition of social movements in favour of Bolivarian revolution, declared their support for the “deepening” of the revolutionary process led by Chavez while opposing “bureaucratic and counter-revolutionary” decisions being taken from the Bolivar state governorship, the CVG and certain union leaders.
In a packed press conference on 29 February, a spokesperson for the group accused this bureaucratic faction of having “taken advantage” of Chavez’s absence in order to take control of the Guayana industries. The spokesperson further argued that the decision by Alcasa not to sell more aluminium to transnational companies was the “sin” that cost Sayago his post.
The spokesperson, Yasmin Chaurán, an Alcasa worker herself, also reported that since taking the Alcasa presidency Angel Marcano had already begun undermining the structures of worker control in the factory, not attending factory working group meetings, and instead setting up a “parallel apparatus” with six vice-presidents who were naming other posts “at their fingertips”.[lviii]
After the press conference, on 2 and 7 March, the Patriotic Collectives released a “National Communication from Guayana on the Situation of the Basic Industries”. The document received wide coverage, with publication on the Aporrea alternative news website and a centre-spread in Tribuna Popular, the Venezuelan Communist Party’s paper.
Its long list of signatories also revealed the Patriotic Collectives’ depth of support, including: the National Union of Workers, the Venezuelan Communist Party, the National Movement of Bolivarian Socialist Lawyers and Judges, Adel El Zabayar (a PSUV deputy to Venezuelan’s National Assembly from Bolivar state), the PGS General Assembly, revolutionary workers’ organisations in the CVG industries and beyond, and community council, community media, student and GPP organisations in the Guayana region.
The document is a public criticism of what the Patriotic Collectives term the “internal right-wing” within the revolution in Bolivar state, warning that “harmful bureaucratic actions” emanating from the Bolivar state governance is “grinding down the revolutionary process” in the region.
Accusing this faction of working with transnational corporations, trying to retain control of state industries in the region and to “kidnap” the PGS, the statement exhorts Chavez to ignore “reformist voices” that want to see the PGS project fail. They further declare that “irreverence” and “self-criticism” are indispensable for the revolution, and call on Chavez to support the PGS, which is “without a doubt, with all its strengths and weaknesses…the minimum program of the revolutionary working class in Guayana”.
The Patriotic Collectives end their National Communication by setting a hard tone against the political faction they identify as working against the PGS, declaring “in Guayana we are closing ranks against the right-wing agenda of destabilisation and from our humble but determined trench of struggle we put ourselves to the front of the battle for the reinvigoration of Plan Socialist Guayana”.[lix]
A response came on 8 March when a spokesperson for the political team of the PSUV for Bolivar state, allied with Rangel Gomez, insisted that the decision to replace Sayago with Marcano was endorsed by Chavez and should be respected.
The spokesperson was Jose Ramon Rivero, the labour minister fired by Chavez in 2008, who had then gone on to work for Rangel Gomez. He proceeded to read out two pages in which very little was said that addressed the content of the Patriotic Collectives’ criticism, but rather attacked both PSUV National Assembly deputy Adel El Zabayar and others for allegedly breaking party codes of conduct. “This type of behaviour that attacks the governor Francisco Rangel Gomez and his work team, we can’t tolerate it because there exist principles that the PSUV and revolutionaries committed with the process must follow,” he declared.
The Legislative Council of Bolivar state, whose majority support Rangel Gomez, also backed the appointment of Marcano to the Alcasa presidency. Without dealing with the substance of concerns raised by Sayago’s dismissal, Legislative Council member Zulay Benacourt said that individual positions should not be taken in the revolution, and that Sayago should re-think his criticism of Marcano’s appointment.[lx]
The conflict spilled onto the national level in late March when PSUV deputy Adel El Zabayar asked Venezuela’s Attorney General, Luise Ortega Diaz, for a psychiatric examination of Rangel Gomez, on the grounds that the behaviour of Rangel in attacking El Zabayar and the Patriotic Collectives represented “an abuse of power, xenophobia, and exclusion” toward those with a different viewpoint than him.
El Zabayar quoted as evidence the abuses uttered against him by Rangel Gomez on the state governor’s weekly radio show, when Rangel said that in response to criticisms of his actions “that have absolutely no proof” from El Zabayar, “now I’m opening fire, and we’re going to face off in the street: you’re a deputy and I’m a state governor, so let’s face off in the street coward deputy!”
El Zabayar described Rangel Gomez’s conduct as using him to “intimidate the [Patriotic] collective…who have been submitted to all of his excesses without having restrained himself in this exercise of power, due to which I believe a psychiatric examination is prudent”.[lxi]
Therefore in 2012 the worker control movement in Venezuela, and in Bolivar state in particular, finds itself in a key moment. The many achievements by workers in taking over and collectively running individual factories, and in driving forward a project of worker control for the state owned heavy industries in Guayana, have generated a backlash, not only among the US-backed conservative political opposition, transnational companies and private bosses, but also among a reactionary and bureaucratic faction within the Bolivarian revolution itself.
This is because progress made by workers threatens those who only support Chavez for personal gain and political opportunism, and see their special privileges or vested interests threatened by worker control: there is little need for state managers or union bureaucrats if workers eliminate hierarchies and operate factories themselves in a participatory democratic manner. It also undermines those who hold a more restrictive view of what socialism is and argue that workers are ‘not ready’ to operate factories themselves. Indeed, there are those in the government that hold socialism to be little more than state ownership of industry and central planning from above, with little participation from workers.[lxii] Thus, while in many individual examples like Grafitos del Orinoco workers continue to deepen their worker control model, and in several CVG factories elections for workers councils are underway, in others, this reactionary faction is successfully undermining the PGS. This is particularly evident in Alcasa, which was considered by many as the most advanced of the CVG factories in implementing the PGS.
The role of President Hugo Chavez himself has displayed contradictions. Through both his discourse and action, Chavez has given important on-going institutional and moral support for the PGS and worker control in general, and it is not for nothing that he enjoys strong support among worker control activists. However, the Venezuelan president has also made decisions in response to differing political pressures and depending on the balance of forces in a particular situation, as highlighted in his dismissal of his right-wing labour minister Rivero in 2008, and his acceptance of the dismissal of Sayago in January 2012.
Chavez has not directly intervened in the conflict in Bolivar state over the PGS in recent months. The Venezuelan president only fully re-emerged onto the public scene in late May after successfully undergoing several stages of radiotherapy treatment for cancer in Cuba. In light of presidential elections on October 7, and an opposition united behind candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski, it is quite possible that Chavez has his eye focused on the national strategic objective of keeping the right wing opposition out of power and continuing as the head of the Bolivarian revolution.
Indeed, during a speech to mark the 10th anniversary of the brief coup against him 11 – 13 April 2002, Chavez exhorted supporters to “maintain unity…and above all, more unity,” and to strengthen that unity with “debates and criticisms”. This message likely makes sense in many areas of the country, where differing factions within the Bolivarian camp can come together during the presidential election campaign to see off the (albeit distant) electoral threat posed by the conservative Table for Democratic Unity (MUD) coalition. However, this is more difficult to maintain in Bolivar state, where a reactionary faction within the revolution poses one of the active threats to worker control in the heavy industries and the continued progress of the Bolivarian revolution in the Guayana region as a whole.
The course of the struggle for worker control in Venezuela has highlighted important characteristics of the Bolivarian revolution, as well as containing important lessons for movements for radical social change globally.
One of these characteristics is the on-going, and perhaps growing, internal contradiction in the Bolivarian revolution between the bureaucracy and politically reformist elements which, both consciously and unconsciously, act to slow continued social, economic and political transformation, and a more radical wing committed to a deeper process of revolutionary change.
On a positive note, the coming together of the Patriotic Committees in Guayana demonstrated the extent to which grassroots organisations in the region are working together and are able to unite to resist attempts to undermine the Plan Socialist Guayana. That said, these groups were unable to prevent the dismissal of Elio Sayago from Alcasa, showing that the bureaucracy have the power to put the PGS in real danger from being realised.
It is important to point out that the worker control movement is one part of a varied and exciting process underway in Venezuela, encompassing community councils, communes, community media, women’s, LGBT, afro-descendent and indigenous groups, and radical government policies domestically and internationally, from social programs to solidarity-based international alliances such as the ALBA (Alliance for the Bolivarian Peoples of our America). The political spaces available to push the worker control movement forward will be partly determined, not only by workers’ ability to organise and struggle, but also by the general direction the revolution takes in the coming months and years.
Author Steve Ellner has observed how the Bolivarian revolution can be characterised by cycles of radicalisation, often driven in response to successfully fighting off attacks from the opposition.[lxiii] Will a strong election victory for Chavez in October mark a move against internal barriers to further radical transformation in Venezuela? In the election campaign on 26 July, Chavez highlighted his awareness of the problems of bureaucracy in state institutions, when he spoke of the importance of self-criticism and the need to correct existing errors in the revolutionary process. He personally addressed the bureaucracy, saying that “the office, the meetings, the analysis, the air conditioning, the chauffeur and the good salary; that’s not worth anything, what matters is the commitment with the people, that’s why we’re here”.
Finally, by what has been achieved so far, Venezuela’s worker control movement demonstrates to the world that workers can indeed collectively self-manage their factories and workplaces, and that capitalist hierarchies and divisions of labour are not the only, nor best, way of organising economic life. By running production in a collectively democratic manner, workers’ alienation from their labour and the unfair distribution of produced resources can be overcome, while leading to the greater education and consciousness of workers. Such a model can also benefit society as a whole, as production is geared toward the needs of society and not profit for capitalists, and lays the basis for deeper economic and social transformation. In the context of austerity being imposed by an elite upon peoples across Europe and North America as a result of the latest crisis of capitalism, worker control in Venezuela is another example of not only how another, better, world is possible, but also what that world could look like.
[i] Information on Grafitos gathered during interviews in April and December 2011, Ciudad Guayana. All direct quotes from December 2011 interview.
[ii] Azzellini, D. (2009) Economía Solidaria, Formas De Propiedad Colectiva, Nacionalizaciones, Empresas Socialistas, Co- y Autogestión en Venezuela, Org & Demo, Marília., vol. 10 n. 1/2 (En – Feb), p17-18
[iii] Brulez, S. & Esteban, F. (2010) El Laboratorio del “Socialismo del Siglo XXI” Sigue Buscando l Fórmula Adecuada (Parte I), Viento Sur, n. 112 (Oct), p28
[iv] FRETCO (July 2011): El Frente Bicentenario de Empresas Bajo Control Obrero, Lucha de Clases
[v] In November 2011 MIBAM was restructured, with most heavy industries managed by the new Ministry of Industries, and mining operations administrated by the new Ministry of Petroleum and Mining.
[vi] Interview with Jesus Pino in Sidor, Ciudad Guayana, April 2011
[vii] Riera, M. (2008), Nacionalización y Control Obrero: Entrevista con Juan Valor, El Viejo Tope, n. 249, pp64 - 68
[viii] FRETCO (July 2011)
[ix] Informe Final (6/06/09), Plan Socialista Guayana 2019 , Periodo 2009 – 2012, p 4
[x] Lucha de Clases & Sayago, E. (October 2011), Workers’ Control, Challenges and the Revolutionary Government: An Interview with Elio Sayago, President of CVG Alcasa, translated by Venezuelanalysis.com
[xi] Informe Final (6/06/09), Plan Socialista Guayana 2019, pp7 - 11
[xii] Presentation of Plan Guayana Socialista by Working Group 1: “Organisational Model of the Iron-Steel and Aluminium Socialist Companies”, p24
[xiii] Informe de Mesas Tecnicas del Plan Socialista Guayana 2009 – 2019 (January 2010), p11
[xiv] (22/5/2009) Venezuela Nationalises Gas Plant and Steel Companies, Pledges Worker Control, Venezuelanalysis.com
[xv] Garcia, B. (September 2011) Plan Socialista Guayana Postrado por la Technocracia del CVG y MIBAM, Aporrea.org
[xvi] Informe de Mesas Tecnicas del Plan Socialista Guayana 2009 – 2019 (January 2010)
[xvii] (16/5/2010), Worker Self-Management Introduced in Primary Industry Companies in Guayana, Venezuela, Venezuelanalysis.com
[xviii] Garcia, B. (September 2011)
[xix] Brohmer, P (June 2010), Venezuela: The Revolution Continues, Bolivarian Perspectives
[xx] With information from Larsen, P. (9/6/2011), Venezuela: 900 Representatives of Factory Committees Meet to Strengthen the Fight for Workers' Control, PeopleResist.net, and (24/5/11),First National Meeting of Socialist Workers’ Councils Takes Place in Bolivar, Venezuela, Venezuelanalysis.com
[xxi] Interview with Alexis Ardarfio, Ciudad Guayana, December 2011
[xxii] (19/8/2011), Trabajadores de CVG Alcasa Aprueban Recibir Inversiones de Clientes Nacionales, Prensa CVG Alcasa / Aporrea.org
[xxiii] Adarfio, A. (25/10/2011), ¿Cómo Avanza el Plan Socialista Guayana?, Aporrea.org
[xxiv] Interview with Alexis Ardarfio, December 2011, Ciudad Guayana
[xxv] Adarfio, A. (9/5/2010), Plan Guayana Socialista 2019, Aporrea.org
[xxvi] Lucha de Clases & Sayago, E. (October 2011)
[xxvii] Adarfio, A. (9/5/2010)
[xxviii] Information from Sayago and Adarfio interviews, & PGS Jan 2010 report.
[xxix] (26/3/2012), Plan Socialista Guayana no Prende Motores, Primicias24
[xxx] Interview with Denny Sucre, Ciudad Guayana, December 2011
[xxxi] Interview with Lisa Maria, Ciudad Guayana, December 2011
[xxxii] Interview with Ruben Dario Morales, Ciudad Guayana, December 2011
[xxxiii] Interview with Denny Sucre, Ciudad Guayana, December 2011
[xxxiv] Interview in Grafitos del Orinoco, Ciudad Guayana, December 2011
[xxxv] Interview with Lisa Maria, Ciudad Guayana, December 2011
[xxxvi] FRETCO (July 2011); Interview with Jesus Pino in Sidor, Ciudad Guayana, April 2011
[xxxvii] (22/5/2009), Venezuela Nationalizes Gas Plant and Steel Companies, Pledges Worker Control, Venezuelanalysis.com
[xxxviii] Interview with Damien Pratt, Ciudad Guayana, December 2011
[xxxix] Garcia, B. (September 2011)
[xl] FRETCO (July 2011); Unete Anzoategui /CMR, (15/10/2011), ¡Por un Congreso unitario de trabajadores, pobladores y campesinos que elabore un programa de lucha para defender y completar la revolución!, Aporrea.org
[xli] Lucha de Clases & Sayago, E. (October 2009)
[xlii] Federico, F. (22/7/2009), Venezuela: Class Struggle Heats up Over Battle for Workers Control, Green Left Weekly, Issue 804
[xliii] Interview with Denny Sucre, Ciudad Guayana, December 2011
[xliv] Garcia, B. (25/9/2011)
[xlv] Lucha de Clases & Sayago, E. (October 2011)
[xlvi] Corriente Marxista Revolucionario (4/11/2011, An Initial Assessment of Trade Union Elections at Sidor, translated by Venezuelanalysis.com
[xlvii] Lucha de Clases & Sayago, E. (October 2011)
[xlviii] FRETCO (Julio 2011)
[xlix] Frente Socialista de Trabajadores de Alcasa (18/01/2012) Rangelismo culpable que la derecha se crezca en el sector aluminio de Guayana, Aporrea.org
[l] Interview with Alexis Ardarfio, December 2011; Interview with Ventura Nuñez, Ciudad Guayana, December 2011; Lucha de Clases & Sayago, E. (October 2011); Garcia, B. (25/9/2011) .
[li] Martin, J. (July 2011), Venezuela and Revolutionary Vigettes, Part I: Workers Control vs. Bureacrats, Mafia and Multinations in Bolivar, In Defence of Marxism
[lii] Ibid; Sayago (October 2011)
[liii] (26/5/2012), Plan Guayana Socialista no Prende Motores, Primicias 24
[liv] Interview with Ruben Dario Morales, December 2011
[lv] Martin, J. (July 2011)
[lvi] Lucha de Clases & Sayago, E. (October 2011); (29/02/2012), Designaciones de la CVG: “irrespeto” al control obrero y Plan Guayana Socialista, Diario de Guayana
[lvii] (27/2/12), Dismissal of Worker-President in Alcasa, Venezuela, Provokes Outrage, Venezuelanalysis.com
[lviii] (29/02/2012), Designaciones de la CVG: “irrespeto” al control obrero y Plan Guayana Socialista, Diario de Guayana
[lix] Remitido Público Nacional desde Guayana: Sobre la Situación de las Empresas Basicas, Parte I y II, (2 y 7 Marzo 2012), Aporrea.org,/Tribuna Popular
[lx] (27/02/2012), Angel Marcano viene a reforzar el Plan Socialista Guayana en Alcasa, Primicias 24
[lxi] (23/03/2012), Piden examen psiquiátrico para el gobernador Rangel Gómez, El Diario Venezolano
[lxii] Federico, F. (22/7/2009), Venezuela: Class Struggle Heats up Over Battle for Workers Control, Green Left Weekly, Issue 804
[lxiii] See E., Steve. 2008, Rethinking Venezuelan Politics: Class, Conflict, and the Chavez Phenomenon (Lynne Reinner)