Venezuela: Inside the worker-run ‘Proletarios Unios’ factory

The Proletarios Unios factory in Barquisimeto. Photo: Coral Wynter
Friday, October 13, 2017

Workers in Venezuela are demonstrating what is possible when workers and communities take over the means of production.

Faced with a company shutdown and mass sacking, workers at the former Brahma beer factory in Barquisimeto, Lara state, occupied the factory in 2013. Today, the company is owned by the community, run by workers and geared towards meeting the need of local farmers and residents.

As part of the international solidarity delegation organised by Venezuela Analysis in late August we visited the old Brahma factory, renamed Proletarios Unios (Proletarians Unite).

The Brahma factory was owned by a Brazilian company. It previously supplied beer for sale, not only throughout Venezuela but in Puerto Rico, the United States and many other countries in Latin America and Europe.

When former president Hugo Chavez, who spearheaded the country’s pro-poor Bolivarian Revolution, died in March 2013, the company decided that it had no future in Venezuela, as it believed the country would become bankrupt and that a military coup was coming. Brahma therefore decided to sell off all its assets.

Claiming it had sold the factory to PepsiCo, Brahma sacked its 900 workers so that the new owners could employ a cheaper workforce. However, a law passed under Chavez made it illegal to sack a worker without good reason.

It was later revealed in the secret Panama Papers, made public by Wikileaks, that Brahma was intending to sell its factory to Venezuelan billionaire and media mogul Gustavo Cisneros, who already has a large stake in national food production, and particularly beer production.

This move would have given Cisneros a monopoly over beer production, which is not allowed under Venezuela’s anti-monopoly law which prohibits monopolies within the food production sector.

However, Cisneros’ condition for buying the factory was that the entire workforce be dismissed, because he knew they were well organised and politicised.

In response to the sackings, the workers fought for two years to save their jobs and stop any machinery from being removed from the factory. The occupying workers faced continually attacks from local police.

Speaking to workers at Proletarios Unios, they told us that there are a lot of bureaucratic and corrupt forces within the Nicolas Maduro government, which had placed hurdles in their path to obtaining legal ownership over the factory.

In the end, the workers formed an alliance with the local Jose Pio Tamayo Commune, who helped them legally register Proletarios Unios as a Communally-Owned Social Production Enterprise (EPSDC).

Communal ownership

Communes bring together various local community councils within which communities diagnose local problems, democratically decide on how to resolve them and, with funding from the national, regional and municipal budgets, begin to tackle their most pressing needs.

Communes have been encouraged to direct funds towards setting up productive enterprises, such as Proletarios Unios, that can enable communities to become self-sufficient and fund future projects from the income generated by these projects.

Once registered as an EPSDC, the workers received an agricultural protection measure, which allowed workers to legally use any of the machinery and equipment in a factory for food production.

Able to restart production, workers set about finding ways to use these resources to help the community, rather than simply continue to produce beer, which was not seen as a priority.

There are many problems with access to water in Lara as it is a semi-arid area. Water is meant to be supplied by Hidrolara, which is owned by state government. But because the state governor is aligned to the opposition, water distribution is constantly sabotaged.

One of the first things the workers did was to begin supplying water to rural areas from the five deep freshwater wells located within the factory’s land. They delivered water for free to farmers as well as hospitals and schools.

Workers also redistributed 530 tons of barley left behind in the factory’s huge silos. After testing its quality, workers found the barley was not fit for human consumption.

They negotiated a deal to exchange barley for minerals, protein and other additives used in animal feed with another EPSDC in Maracaibo state, run by the Palito Blanco Community Council.

As the workers still needed other products to produce animal feed, especially soya beans, which is not produced in Venezuela, they came up with a solution, in alliance with local farmers, to break the dependence on imports.

They began to produce yeast, which they could grow in the beer tanks, and which is more nutritious than soya as it has a higher protein content.

Alongside animal feed, workers also began producing fertiliser in July last year. Previously, all animal feed and fertilisers were imported.

Proletarios Unios has been working directly with farmers and the commune to bring their produce directly to the customer, without needing to rely on intermediaries.

For example, they have organised with small farmers and rural communes who plant corn to sell them the corn they need for animal feed at a fair price. In turn, Proletarios Unios met with farmers to decide a price for animal feed based on the price of ingredients and production costs.

They also collectively decided on a price for meat based on the price farmers paid for animal feed and other production costs.

All farmers who receive feed or fertiliser from Proletarios Unios sell a percentage of their produce to the Jose Pio Tamayo Commune at an agreed price. The commune is responsible for distributing the meat in the community at a fair price.

Although only operating on a small scale (five communes in the northern part of Barquisimeto), this network of food production and distribution is an example of how, when communities control the means of production, they can generate concrete changes in the economy.

Opposition violence

During the struggle by workers to win legal registration, right-wing opposition activists organised violent street protests, referred to in Venezuela as guarimbas, with the support of the governor.

During one of the protests, they invaded the factory and set fire to wooden crates and plastic, with the aim of burning down the factory.

When the local community found out about the attack, they came with fire trucks and managed to stop the factory going up in flames. During our visit we saw burnt remains piled up inside the factory.

Lawyers for Brahma are still trying to get the factory back.

One worker, who has been at the factory for 24 years told us, “We are going to win the economic war”, referring to the ongoing sabotage to production carried out by bosses in Venezuela in their attempt to bring down the government.

“The power is with the people, as Chavez reiterated. If Maduro falls, we lose all this.”

Speaking to the delegation, Jesus Diaz, an elected parliamentarian on the Jose Pio Tamayo Commune, added: “We are trying to build a post-capitalist society. Chavez didn’t achieve it. Capitalism is huge.

“We are going in the direction of socialism, so we have to confront imperialism. The defeat of Venezuela is the defeat of everyone in the world.”

[A video of the Brahma plant takeover made by Katrina Kozarek can be viewed at venezuelanalysis.com/video/13021. Coral Wynter is a member of the Australia-Venezuela Solidarity Network. This is the sixth and final article in a series looking at her experience as part of the Venezuela Analysis solidarity delegation.]

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