Venezuela: The struggle for workers' power

The Venezuelan revolution, led by socialist President Hugo Chavez, has captured the imagination of millions of people around the world with its increasingly successful challenge to US imperialism and US-backed neoliberal policies that have caused widespread impoverishment across Latin America. Since Chavez's re-election in December on an explicitly socialist platform, there has been a struggle to significantly "deepen" the revolutionary process towards creating a "socialism of the 21st century".

One aspect of the process that has been closely watched internationally is the role of the workers' movement. Venezuela's union movement has been traditionally weak, organising only a small minority of workers. However, enormous hopes were raised with the formation of the National Union of Workers (UNT) in 2003, which supported the revolutionary process. The UNT quickly overtook the right-wing, discredited Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV), which had helped organise attempts to overthrow the Chavez government.

A movement for workers' co-management in industry also gathered strength in 2005, with a number of experiments in workers' direct management over production. However the UNT has since been weakened by internal fighting, and the movement for co-management has largely stalled. While Chavez has called for workers to be in the forefront of the revolution, there is a difficult struggle to find a way to advance the organisation of workers in order to drive the increasingly radical economic program of the revolution forward and develop workers' power.

Green Left Weekly spoke to Federico Fuentes, who coordinated a solidarity brigade of Australian trade unionists to Venezuela in May, including an official delegation from the Australian Council of Trade Unions. Participants were able to witness Venezuela's social transformation as well as meet with a range of forces from the workers' movement.

This is the second part of an interview published in GLW #711, in which Fuentes gave a very positive account of the increasing social gains for ordinary Venezuelans, the strengthening of popular power through the grassroots communal councils, and the deepening radicalisation of the Venezuelan people — reflected in Chavez's re-election with the highest number of votes in Venezuelan history. Fuentes commented on the significance of and enthusiasm for the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), the new party being formed to unite all the often-dispersed pro-Chavez forces from the ground up. Since then, 5.7 million people have expressed an interest in joining the PSUV, far exceeding expectations.

Fuentes explained that he encountered "a feeling among the people that, following Chavez's election victory, now was the time for serious inroads into the capitalist system, that now was the time the revolution would significantly deepen. And this has been expressed especially through the real surge of community organising."

Divisions in the UNT

However Fuentes also told GLW about some of the difficulties and contradictions the revolution is grappling with, especially in the workers' movement. He explained that brigade participants "had quite a lot of meetings with different currents within the UNT, who each expressed their viewpoints on, for instance, the question of holding internal elections in the UNT [divisions around which led to a cold split in the UNT at its May congress last year]. It now appears that by the end of the year there will be some national elections — the first such elections inside the UNT, which was formed over four years ago." (See article on page 14.)

"Everyone inside the UNT agreed, when we met with them, that it has never been as dispersed and fractured as it is now", Fuentes said. "It is now made up of five different currents, and there is a sense that perhaps the UNT will completely split. At the moment it is a de facto split, where everyone refers to themselves as a particular current of the UNT. No-one actually speaks on behalf of the UNT as a whole.

"This was drawn out at the May Day demonstration, which was not called by the UNT, but by a coalition of unions affiliated to the UNT. There were also no speakers on the platform — instead there was one person reading out a statement, which was the only thing the five currents could agree on. No current trusted any of the others to speak."

Fuentes added: "This is aggravated by the fact that the current minister of labour is also a member of one of the currents, leading to a sense of exclusion among other larger elements."

Nonetheless, Fuentes said that there "are some positive steps forward, such as in the public sector union where an electoral commission has been set up involving all five currents to hold elections, which had been delayed for two years. If this is able to occur it will be a step forward towards broader elections within the UNT. Another positive step is the move to unite the four unions in the petroleum sector into one federation."

Fuentes placed the UNT's difficulties in the context of the broader struggle to create space for new layers of revolutionary militants who are leading on the ground to develop and take control of the process of change. The expansion of the communal councils and formation of the PSUV both aim to facilitate this. Fuentes said: "I have no doubt that if elections were held now, many of the current so-called national leaders of the UNT [from all currents] would not necessarily be re-elected. On the other hand, there are many union activists who are playing a positive role in their day-to-day struggles who are yet to develop as real leaders, and the UNT hasn't provided a vehicle for that to occur. Among the rank-and-file, people are fed up with the situation and something needs to change."

Fuentes commented on two of the key issues of debate within the union movement. "The first is the role of the union in relation to the government, which partially comes down to how to categorise the government, and beyond that the state." Fuentes said that while the debate is not expressed in such a counterposed way, it is "essentially about whether the role of the union movement is solely to support government policies, or should the union movement also defend workers against some actions, of, if not so much the government, then the state bureaucracy."

Fuentes told GLW that the second issue related to the recent legislation allowing for the formation of workers' councils in public and private workplaces across the country, in order to allow workers to exercise democratic control over production. Fuentes said this has provoked the question of "what is the role of unions themselves? Is there a need to go beyond unions to focus on the workers' councils, giving unions a secondary role? Should the unions and such councils go hand in hand in the next stage of this process, or are unions more important than the workers' councils?" Fuentes said the latter view "comes from one of the currents that is very concerned about the workers' councils, [as it] doesn't believe they will be real organs of power, and therefore doesn't want to give up the existing role of unions".

Fuentes explained that the biggest problem is that "at the moment things are too polarised and personalised for the discussions to be had properly. The UNT national leadership cannot even sit down to discuss these issues."

Deepening of the revolution

The context for the debates within the workers' movement is the significant deepening of the struggle to create socialism following Chavez's re-election, including the increasing moves against the capitalist class — most notably the nationalisation of the section of the oil industry that remained in private hands, as well as the main telecommunications company and six electricity companies. Fuentes commented that "Chavez has been clear that the companies being nationalised are those that were previously privatised, and, the government argues, need to come back into state hands".

"Recently the developments over [the privatised steel company] Sidor demonstrate why Chavez is taking this line. Having threatened to nationalise Sidor, which had worked against Venezuelan interests by exporting most of its products overseas, leaving the Venezuelan state to import the same products at higher prices, the government negotiated a settlement with the Argentinean company that owns the majority of shares. Under the agreement, Sidor will sell its steel inside Venezuela at below market prices. So it has put heavy controls on what privately owned companies do, without taking them directly back into state hands.

"Alongside this process, there are still a number of factories, which have been left idle or sabotaged by their bosses, being taken over by the workers. A recent example of this is the textile factory Sanitarios Maracay, where the workers have not only occupied the factory, but have opened and run it under workers' control. This is the first example, as far I know, in the struggle of occupied factories where workers have re-opened a factory under their control completely outside the law and in opposition to the factory's legal owner." The National Assembly recently discussed expropriating Sanitarios Maracay.

Workers' participation

Fuentes said that "there is an important discussion that is becoming more and more public, which is around the concept [promoted by Chavez] of creating socialist state enterprises". This is a discussion on how state-owned industry should be organised and how it can be integrated into a new, democratically planned economy run according to people's needs. The role of the corrupt state bureaucracy the Chavez government has inherited from previous regimes has proven that simply having industry state-owned doesn't mean it will automatically be run in such a way, but can instead be a source of corruption run on behalf of the old elite.

Fuentes said "The debate is not between public or private property, with the government repeatedly stating that there is room for both in the 'new socialism of the 21st century'. What the revolution is attempting to create is social property — where it is the people who truly own the means of production."

Fuentes explained that "this is a very intense discussion, because there is no doubt there are different wings within the government". Fuentes said part of the discussion involved the question of workers' participation in managing state industries. "There are those who are totally opposed to any real form of worker participation in state industry." Fuentes said that "it seems, for now at least, this is the position Chavez has backed". However, he added that "this is a discussion that will unfold and many are confident that it will be possible to clarify what workers' participation means and why it is so important in the state industries".

Fuentes discussed the initial formation of workers' councils, explaining that "there are a few workers' councils already set up, outside the framework of any law, often in factories that have already been occupied and then nationalised such as Inveval.

"But it is unclear exactly what scope these councils will have, and what their intersection with the communal councils will be. Some in the union movement were a bit concerned about some statements made by the labour minister that seemed to imply that the councils would essentially be given a supervisory role, rather than be real decision-making bodies in the workplace. But I don't think the question has been resolved yet."

Fuentes argued that a major obstacle to the plan for workers' councils is that the workers' movement, which is needed to lead the organisation of workers into councils, is still very weak. "This is an example where the law precedes the struggle, where legislation is in advance of what the actual level of organisation and consciousness of the working class is able to actually achieve on the ground." Fuentes argued that "this is not necessarily a bad thing, as it can act to stimulate struggle".

GLW asked Fuentes about the state of the movement for workers' co-management, whereby workers would jointly manage a company with the state, or in some instances a private employer. Fuentes said: "It is pretty fair to say that at a public, official level, and within the UNT, the discourse about co-management has disappeared." One reason for this, suggested Fuentes, was that "the tendency [within the revolution] that is opposed to workers' participation in 'strategic sectors' of state industry — that is opposed not simply to one or another form of it, but full stop — appears to have been able to get the ear of Chavez".

Fuentes said another reason is the result of bitter experiences in the struggle for co-management, such as in the electricity industry. It wasn't that electricity workers no longer wanted co-management, but that they no longer raise it "because of the huge fight they had against the management of [state-run company] Cadafe. The management of Cadafe went out of its way to sabotage and defeat moves to introduce co-management. If you go to most workers in the electrical sector and even mention the word co-management, it sends a shiver down their spines." Fuentes said the workers still raise the concept of workers' participation, but no longer talk of co-management specifically.

Fuentes told GLW that some examples of co-management still exist, most notably at Alcasa, where it "continues to face many problems". Fuentes explained that because Alcasa has been made a case study for whether co-management could work, "there are a lot of vested interests in ensuring it doesn't succeed".

"People point to the fact that the production levels at Alcasa are not as good as other similar plants, that it is a very dangerous and polluting plant. This is all true, but this existed before the introduction of co-management. This is why Alcasa was chosen to be the case study, the logic being if it could work at a plant with so many problems, then it would work anywhere."

Fuentes also pointed out that co-management still existed in one small sector of the electricity industry, at Cadafe Sector 7 in the state of Miranda, which has recently been integrated into Cadafe nationally. However, he said the workers are very concerned that, in the process of integrating into the national company, they will lose their experiment.

However, whatever problems facing the workers' movement today, it remains clear that major gains have already been made. One of the aims of the brigade of Australian unionists to Venezuela in May was to gather more information for a debate within the International Labour Organisation about whether it should continue recognising the discredited CTV, or the UNT. Fuentes said that whatever problems the UNT is struggling to overcome, it was clear that the CTV no longer has any real weight among Venezulean workers.

"The CTV is no longer really a union federation at all, but is more a political group in opposition to the government. The CTV-organised May Day demonstration had 1000 people at it, and that is the number given by the pro-opposition private media, so maybe it was even smaller in reality. Whereas the May Day march called by unions affiliated to the UNT was at least half-a-million strong, according to the organisers, and probably closer to 1.5 million.

"An indication of just how weak the CTV is, is that its current president is also a member of a construction union that happened to provide the largest delegation to the UNT-organised May Day rally. The CTV's own president has no support within his own union!"