A 14-month struggle by Venezuelan electrical workers for an industry-wide collective contract culminated with the resignation of the president of the state-owned electricity company Corpoelec on October 22.
The struggle is emblematic of a growing conflict within Venezuela's Bolivarian revolution, as the process of transforming the oil-rich nation is known, between the workers' movement and the pro-capitalist state bureaucracy.
The dispute occurs in the context of a growing crisis in the electricity sector. This has included several big blackouts in 2008 and 2009, and electricity rationing throughout much of the country's interior.
Along with a growing number of bitter industrial disputes in state and private industry, the struggle raises questions about the future direction of the revolution — in particular the role of the working class in a process whose stated aim is "socialism of the 21st century".
In 2007, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez nationalised the electricity sector, including Corpoelec, by merging 14 regional electricity companies, some private and some state-owned, into a single company.
This was part of Chavez's push to "renationalise" companies privatised by previous neoliberal governments. Other industries in which companies have been nationalised include telecommunications, banking, cement, steel and food production.
Before nationalisation, the privately-owned electricity companies had been run down by management. Investment in expanding infrastructure for electricity production was neglected.
Joaquin Osorio, an electrical worker from Carabobo state, said many of the companies were on the verge of "operational collapse".
In May 2008, Chavez announced a 40% expansion of the country's electricity generation through 42 structural expansion projects. However, progress has been slow and the demand for electricity has outstripped the company's ability to produce it.
A report by the National Centre for Management of the Electrical System (CNG) said overall demand for electricity increased by 7.05% from August 2008 to August 2009, compared with a production increase of 3.6% for the same period.
Adding to the strain, it is estimated that more than one million Venezuelans are illegally connected to the power grid and paying nothing for their electricity consumption. Millions more pay only 1-2 bolivars (US$0.50-$1) a month, accounting for about 40% of household electricity consumption.
Osorio said the problem is not technical, but "political". He said management sectors in the new state company who opposed the unified company's creation have worked to sabotage its development and expansion.
A law passed after the sector was nationalised mandated the unification of management structures, including provisions for a single industry-wide contract for the workforce. But this has not been implemented.
Corpoelec has been operating essentially as an umbrella organisation.
Felix Vasquez, an electrical worker from Bolivar state, said: "Bureaucracy is eating at the company.
"We had 14 companies with 14 presidents — and now 15 with Corpoelec."
Worker's proposals, management opposition
As a first step towards unifying the company, workers are calling for the equalisation of wages across the sector as part of a single industry-wide collective contract.
The Federation of Electrical Sector Workers (Fetraelec) is also calling for workers' participation in the running of the company. The union is developing concrete plans to resolve problems in the sector.
Fetraelec president Angel Navas said on September 27: "Workers are the ones who know how we can solve this crisis. We have to change the bureaucratic structures and change the structures of capitalist management to a structure with a socialist vision.
"We have to change the relations of production and eliminate the bureaucracy that is killing the company."
The union's log of claims includes a pay rise of $744 per month for those "workers whose situation would not be improved with the equalisation of salaries", Navas said. There would also be compensation of $581 per employee for each of the 14 months that they have been without a collective contract.
The workers also say payment for electricity consumption needs to be enforced if the company is to remain viable.
Sectors of the Corpoelec management have blamed workers for the problems. One pro-Chavez National Assembly (AN) deputy, Saul Ortega, accused the workers of being greedy and sabotaging the industry.
Navas said: "They want to label the electrical workers federation as a money-grubbing, economist [concerned only with wages and conditions] federation, and not as a federation that, for many years, has been accompanying the revolutionary process, unleashing a fight against bureaucracy, against the opposition that [have tried] to sabotage the electricity sector."
The US-funded right-wing opposition in Venezuela, led by the private media, has tried to take advantage of the situation — arguing the problems have been caused by nationalisation.
Opposition-aligned media have called for street protests against electricity rationing, including burning electricity bills. The opposition is also attempting to provoke confrontation between the workers' movement and the Chavez government.
Opposition media news reports have implied that any increase in workers wages would be at the expense of poorer Venezuelans who pay the subsidised rate.
In some cases, workers have suffered physical and verbal abuse at the hands of electricity consumers frustrated at problems with the service.
Chavez intervened into the crisis on October 22 announcing a national plan to save energy and upgrade and expand the country's infrastructure for electricity production and distribution.
Citing a Fetraelec report, Chavez also called for workers' participation in the running of the company. He also appointed AN deputy Angel Rodriguez as the new president of Corpoelec and head of a newly created electricity ministry.
Rodriguez is from the Socialist Bolivarian Workers Front (FSBT), the same union current as former labour minister Jose Ramon Rivero. Chavez sacked Rivero in April last year after he sided with the management of the Sidor steel plant during a bitter industrial dispute. Chavez then nationalised the plant.
Rivero also used his position to advance his own current, the FSBT, at the expense of other sectors. An example was the dispute at the ceramics factory Sanatarios Maracay, which was occupied by its workforce in response to lay-offs. The workers demanded the factory be nationalised, but claim Rivero intervened to set up a parallel union and hand back the factory to the boss.
On October 22, Chavez said: "There are those who resist the full participation of the workers. We are going to give worker control to the workers, by placing a worker at the top."
Navas said he supported the creation of the new ministry, but said it was not just a question of appointing one person. "The problem is you have to transform the bureaucratic structure, which implements and promotes capitalist processes of corruption, which generates bureaucracy."
On October 23, 400 electricity workers in Carabobo state encouraged by Chavez's support for workers' participation occupied Corpoelec's Valencia headquarters.
They won a partial victory with the sacking of the regional manager.
However, on October 25 Chavez said that although he supports workers' participation, Fetraelec demands for equal pay and compensation in the context of the sector's crisis "appears to be rather thoughtless, unless they want to sabotage the revitalisation plan".
Navas responded by saying the cost of implementing the collective contract, which is linked to the process of unification, amounts to only 0.4% of the resources Chavez has committed to revitalising the sector.
Navas said: "Every time the government deliver more resources, those resources are squandered [by the bureaucracy]. They do not go towards the objectives that the company has and what people are clamouring for, which is to improve the quality of service.
"We need to change this situation and we are hoping the new minister convenes these discussions [with the workers] immediately."
However, during a nationally televised discussion between Navas and Rodriguez on October 27, the new minister said workers could not be incorporated into the running of the company until after the electricity crisis had been resolved — based on emergency plan proposed by "the outgoing management".
Navas pointed out that this plan was proposed by the same management responsible for the crisis in the first place. He insisted the workers' demands are "not negotiable".
Reports indicate various models of workers' participation are now under discussion with the new minister.
The electrical workers struggle is becoming a reference point for the broader workers' movement and has received strong support from the main pro-revolution union federation, the National Union of Workers (UNT).
In a joint statement, UNT leaders Stalin Perez Borges, Marcela Maspero, Orlando Perez, and Pedro Eusse called on the Socialist Worker's Front (the alliance of unionists in the Chavez-led United Socialist Party of Venezuela) "and all trade unions to support Angel Navas and the Federation of Electrical Sector Workers in their struggle because experience has shown us the need to fight to defeat the corrupt bureaucrats to ensure that this revolution can deepen".