Venezuela: Recycling workers' struggle for justice

"Once they got their wages, [the workers] occupied the installations and demanded that the company go, then they occupied the offices and demanded that the administration of Sincreba [Merida Waste Incineration and Recycling System] retire", Simon Rodriguez told Green Left Weekly on the peaceful take-over by its workers of the Solid Waste Processing Plant in Merida in September last year.

The take-over was sparked by a series of disputes revolving around the company bosses violation of the law in sacking hundreds of workers and replacing them with subcontractors on much worse conditions.

"The company called the police, saying they were kidnapped by the workers, but of course it was the opposite situation — the workers wanted them to go. After some hours [the administration] left … with so many workers [about 100] the police couldn't do much."

Rodriguez is a leading member of the Colectivo Libre Aquiles Nazoa (CLAN), which has been working with the plant's employees in building links with other unions, popular collectives and the alternative media in order to promote solidarity with the Sincreba struggle. GLW spoke to him about the situation.

History

During the past 25 years, the production of solid waste in Merida has increased rapidly. Solid waste from five municipalities (Rangel, Santos Marquina, Libertador, Campo Elias and Sucre) was sent to one area in the south of the state. The landfill collapsed several times and was relocated to different areas — generating pollution, ecological damage, and health problems.

Nearby communities battled to close the dumps and demanded the authorities find alternatives. The mayors from the five municipalities proposed the construction of a waste treatment plant, and hired Sincreba for that purpose.

In 2001, construction of the plant began, costing over 10 times the initial budgeted amount. Investigations were recommended into the improper financial management of resources given ti Sincreba by the Venezuelan state.

Sincreba was a company without capital or experience in the recycling field, and the final design of the plant was designed more for waste dispersion than recycling or waste processing, which it was supposed to be constructed to carry out.

The plant opened in June 2006 with over 400 employees. In violation of the law, many of the workers were gradually dismissed, until the remaining 250 workers were fired in
December of that year. These workers had been on the minimum wage and lacked basic safety conditions.

In January 2007, 110 subcontracted workers — subcontracted by the Cooperative La Rosa Mistica de San Benito — rejoined the plant under even worse conditions. The chief employee of Sincreba was also general coordinator of the cooperative. Establishing a "cooperative" allowed Sincreba to receive government aid.

The workers' pay was based on kilos of waste processed, and they received less than the minium wage (the equivalent of around US$200 per month). The scales used to weigh the waste were not certified by the regulatory body and the process was run by family members of Sincreba's owner, Ricardo Vielma.

Workers' management

The workers protested, declared the sacking of Vielma's board of directors and took over the plant on September 22, 2007. The plant was run under workers' management for two weeks.

"Everyone earned the same, including the leaders, and they invested money to fix the trucks and machinery that had been abandoned and damaged by the company. In the first week, sorting was manual, by hand, as the machines were damaged. By the second week they had managed to get the machines to work at 50% capacity", Rodriguez said.

Vielma responded by using hired mercenaries to sabotage the plant — destroying machinery, interrupting water and electricity services and leaving five workers injured.

The police did not heed the workers' requests for protection, and the police and mercenaries succeeded in driving workers from the plant on October 19. Workers re-took the plant peacefully on October 22 and the following day the Libertador municipality rescinded the concession granted to Sincreba.

However,local and regional authorities took no steps to formalise workers' control of the plant, nor to protect the workers.

On November 11, a heavily armed group attacked, tied up and gagged workers guarding the plant. One worker was tortured, as the attackers sought to find Sonia Mejias, one of the workers' leaders.

Finally, on November 19, Sincreba mercenaries and police succeeded in evicting workers from the plant and looted machinery and trucks (which were public property). Since then workers have not been able to access the plant.

Rodriguez explained that many of the mercenaries consisted of ex-Sincreba workers and community members, "who did it not for ideological reasons, but because they were paid to".

"It's important to know that many of the people working in the plant were ex-prisoners, unemployed and the most needy. It's very hard work. This economic fragility allowed the company to take advantage of them", he added.

Before the plant was constructed, 30 Sincreba workers had been working informally in the dumps, collecting plastic and other re-sellable goods. "One of the justifications for the construction of the company was to finish with informal recycling. It's very dangerous. But now these workers have had to return to that again."

Why haven't the police and the relevant mayors — all five of whom are "Chavistas" (at least nominally supporting the process of change being led by President Hugo Chavez) — supported the workers?

Rodriguez argued that the "institutions and laws guarantee the basic principles of capitalism". He pointed out that the lawyer for Sincreba is part of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), a mass pro-Chavez party that has had 5.7 million people register to be members.

Rodriguez argued that the PSUV is party that "has members from all the different classes". He said that "some militants of the PSUV have supported the struggle as individuals". The mayors, he claimed, are "just wearing red t-shirts".

He also argued that when local government authorities "mediate" from a stated position of "neutrality" in industrial disputes, they in fact gave assistance to the more powerful forces in the dispute.

The mayors came to an agreement with the Puente Viejo communal council (grassroots committees that promote participatory democracy) to give them the responsibility of guarding the plant. The workers' cooperative formally asked to meet with the council to start the plant again with the participation of the community and the workers, but until now it has refused to meet.

Rodriguez said it was likely they are being pressured by the Libertador mayor, who is backing the opening of a dump in Hacienda La Chorote. "The authorities used the communal council like contracted workers are used, so that the mayors and the [local] governments could pass on the responsibility", Rodriguez argued.

Many community members were also more concerned about the environmental issues than the workers' problems. With the plant closed, rubbish now goes directly to a dump, and there is no sorting or recycling. In Merida, a Spanish company, Urbaser, collects the waste with the original plan being that Sincreba would process it.

"The law establishes that the municipalities are responsible for the rubbish. They contract out the work to private companies … the problem is that there's no policies that encourage community recycling, nor incentive to educate about the issue."

Ongoing struggle

"In the past few months the struggle has mostly been generating publicity. Since November, for economic reasons, the workers have had to look for work and so the group's activity is less and more dispersed. So we are focusing on public opinion", Rodriguez explained.

CLAN is calling for the intervention of the state, citing recommendations of the National Assembly, to allow the workers to manage the plant. CLAN argues that a company that sorts and recycles the solid waste should be, because of its nature, a public company run under workers' control. It argues that this would allow an advanced experiment in recycling as well as a socialist model of workers' management.

I also met briefly with Mejias. In her arm she had a few manilla folders, and she showed us all the documents the workers had prepared and letters they had written. "No one responds to us … I don't understand why they don't open the plant, it's basically an abandoned factory."

Rodriguez concluded: "We say that in the context of a bourgeois state that defends private property of the means of production, a struggle like this is always difficult. The possibility of winning this struggle depends on if we can take advantage of the political circumstances to put pressure on the authorities to give a favourable response to the workers' demands."

International solidarity can play a role. Donations would help the workers and campaigners finance publicity and for things like travel to Caracas. Rodriguez also encouraged organisations and individuals to send in short letters of solidarity in English or Spanish to colectivolan@gmail.com. Workers from the cooperative have requested only donations from organisations that have sent a message of solidarity. Email redbird5608@yahoo.com.au for details of how to make a donation.

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