Venezuela: Co-management in a sea of capitalism

Venezuela's Bolivarian revolution, and in particular its experiments with workers' co-management and in some instances workers' control, is at the cutting edge of the global movement against capitalism. With the bosses' lockout in 2002-03, which shut down much of the Venezuelan economy for a period of two months, hundreds of factories were closed down and workers turned out onto the streets to fend for themselves.

However, workers have stepped up to the challenge and it is estimated that some 1200 factories have been taken over and occupied after being shut down. In 2005 the government of President Hugo Chavez initiated a series of decrees to allow for expropriation of industry and workers' co-management in the interests of "public utility".

On July 24 I was able to visit Inveval — a valve manufacturing company that has been under workers' control since April 2005 — with a delegation from the International Miranda Center, to talk to the workers and find out more about their struggle, their history, their experience of workers' control and the challenges they face, as well as the broader question of how workers are strategising to transform Venezuelan society in the struggle for "socialism in the 21st century".

While showing us around the factory, Francisco Pinero, Inveval's treasurer, explained that although Inveval is legally constituted as a cooperative with 51% owned by the state and 49% owned by the workers, "real power lies with the workers' assembly". Rather than supervisors, the workers at Inveval elect, through a workers' assembly, recallable "coordinators of production", for a period of one year.

"Everyone here gets paid exactly the same, whether they work in administration, political formation, security or keeping the grounds clean", another worker, Marino Mora added.

"We want the state to own 100%, but for the factory to be under workers' control — for workers to control all production and administration. This is how we see the new productive model; we don't want to create new capitalists here", Pinero made clear.

This contrasts sharply with the experience of Invepal (a Venezuelan paper company) where a workers' cooperative became private owners of 49% of the company, and began to contract out the work to casual workers, becoming bosses themselves in the process and reproducing capitalist relations within the factory.

"Initially we never had in mind workers' control, we were just struggling for our jobs", Pinero added. However, he said the formation of the workers' assembly in the factory developed organically. "We were members of the union [Sintrametal — formerly aligned to the old corrupt union federation CTV], however, when we wanted to take over the factory we asked the union for legal help, but they didn't help us. Because the union didn't help us we began to form assemblies, and through that process began to negotiate with the minister [of labour, then Maria Christina Iglesias], who helped us a lot.

"We spent two years picketing at the gates before we decided to take it over. Through this process we developed political maturity very fast, not just through our own personal struggle, but the broader political struggles of the constituent assembly and the recall referendum."

When quizzed on their relationship with the National Union of Workers (UNT) and how they viewed the project of unifying the working class within the revolution, Rolando Aguilar said, "We want to see a UNT with a different kind of organising, rather than leaders from the top, we want participatory discussion and spokespeople elected from the factory floor. We don't want things imposed on us."

"The only union leaders that ever came to visit us were Orlando Chirinos and Marcela Maspero, but often they divide the workers' movement", Mora added.

"Workers have to take over productive spaces. That way we can pressure those that only want reforms, because we don't just want reforms", Pinero asserted.

In 2006, the workers at Inveval initiated FRETECO (The Revolutionary Workers Front of Co-managed and Occupied Factories) and held a national congress in October with representatives from 10 factories to discuss and debate their experiences and challenges as well as strategies of how the workers' movement can increase the take over of industry and implement authentic workers' control. On June 30, FRETECO held a meeting with representatives of 20 factories to discuss a unified proposal of statutes for implementing workers' control.

However, Venezuela's recovered factories, despite having the support of the Chavez government, are in essence faced with the same problem of the recovered factories in Argentina: how to survive in a sea of capitalist economic relations, how to ensure supply of raw materials, and how to ensure a buyer for the finished product.

Inveval is having particular difficulties obtaining the raw materials to manufacture valves. The workers at Inveval told us that when the original owner of Inveval (then called CNV), Andres Sosa Pietri (a former president of Venezuelan state owned oil company PDVSA), extended a bosses' lockout and closed the company down in December 2002, he also closed down the "sister company", a foundry that provided Inveval with the materials needed for producing valves. The workers in Inveval tried to encourage the workers in the foundry to take it over as well, but they decided to accept a payout from the boss instead and the foundry has remained closed ever since. Inveval is currently trying to negotiate a deal with the government to either buy out or expropriate the foundry.

Although, the workers at Inveval could source raw materials from other countries such as Mexico, Argentina or China, endogenous development regulations require them to prioritise sourcing raw materials from within Venezuela, and as yet they have not been able to find a source.

Therefore, the main area of work at Inveval involves the repair and maintenance of existing valves for PDVSA, with the company running at only 10% capacity and surviving from government loans, a situation that is obviously unsustainable. With the factory being completely unprofitable, the workers told us a two-month deadline had been set to find a source for raw materials, though this could be extended through a process of negotiations with the government.

Additionally, the workers at Inveval told us they were having difficulties with PDVSA, with whom they are contracted to supply valves. When the workers took over in 2005, after rehabilitating the factory, they started production using remaining raw materials to fill previously existing contractual obligations with PDVSA, but as yet PDVSA has not complied with its side of the deal and the finished valves have been sitting on the factory floor for the past eight months.

The workers at Inveval told us that during an April meeting between Chavez, Inveval and Veneval (the body responsible for contracting valve supply in PDVSA), the president of Veneval claimed that Inveval did not produce any valves. The president of Inveval said that was "rubbish" and that they had valves ready to supply PDVSA. Chavez ordered the president of Veneval to visit Inveval in April to see if there were valves. Since then, the workers said, PDVSA agreed to take the valves, however they are still waiting for them to be picked up and PDVSA has started to order valves of different sizes that it knows Inveval is unable to produce and is now claiming again that Inveval is unable to fill the orders.

The workers contend that corrupt sectors in PDVSA would much rather deal with private companies, where they can make deals and make money. Moro declared, "The bidding process for PDVSA allows for corruption. They should get rid of the bidding process and just get valves from us because we are a state company and they are a state company."

"There are definitely sectors of PDVSA that are opposed to workers' control and to the example of Inveval", Moro added.

Despite these difficulties, the workers at Inveval are keeping themselves busy, as well as carrying out community projects such as working with the local mental asylum. The factory, which was in excellent condition when we visited, provides space for [high school and university education programs] Mission Ribas and Mission Sucre, and the communal councils also use the factory as a meeting place.

All of the workers also participate in two hours of technical and socio-political classes each day, as well as attending classes after 4pm at Mission Ribas and Mission Sucre. Members of the local community also participate in the classes.

Inveval also regularly hosts political forums and visits from student groups, international delegations and delegations of workers from other occupied factories.

The workers at Inveval also view the political discussions about socialism at a national level as extremely important and believe it is necessary to insert themselves into the debate, "We can do this through the PSUV [the United Socialist Party of Venezuela currently under formation]", Pinero said.

"This process [the Bolivarian revolution] has helped us, now there is Barrio Adentro and free diagnostic centres and we pay nothing, employment is increasing and everyone is studying, if you're not studying it's because you don't want to, not for lack of opportunity."

"President Chavez has helped us 100%. Previously we were just exploited, now we are included — the president [of Inveval — Jorge Paredes] is meeting in Miraflores today", he concluded.

[Reprinted from <>.]

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