Venezuela: Worker-controlled factory producing democratic model

August 25, 2012
A Grafitos worker, April 2011. His overall reads, 'Grafitos del Orinoco: Under Worker Control'. Photo by Ewan Robertson/Venezue

In May 2008, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez endorsed Plan Socialist Guyana (PGS), drawn up by elected representatives from workers in Venezuela's heavy industry sector in Guyana.

This plan calls for the introduction of workers' control across the state-owned industries grouped in the Guyana Venezuela Corporation(CGV), as well as a shift away from producing raw materials for multinationals towards Venezuela's development needs and taking the needs of communities and the environment into consideration.

Since then, workers have engaged in a multi-pronged battle to implement the PGS against the resistance of a privileged bureaucracy tied to state managers, the pro-Chavez but right-wing Bolivar governor Francisco Rangel Gomez, and sections of the Bolivarian Workers' Front. There have been some advances as well as key setbacks.

Venezuela Analysis's Ewan Robertson provides a detailed look at this struggle in a long piece that can be read at full in Green Left Weekly's sister publication Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.

Below is the abridged introduction to that piece, which looks at the experience of workers' control in one Guyana factory.

* * *

Walking into the plush corporate style boardroom, I greeted workers from the Grafitos del Orinoco factory before sitting down to conduct the interview.

On the whiteboard next to the door, the latest decision of the workers’ factory assembly was still in evidence: whether to pay themselves an end-of-year bonus. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the workers had reached an almost unanimous consensus, with only one of the factory's 55 workers not in favour.

The sound of meat sizzling on the barbecue, salsa music and laughter drifted in from the factory yard below. It was last year's Christmas party for workers and their families, and they had plenty to celebrate.

By their own admission, after a long struggle against the former boss and a trial-and-error learning process in self-management, the workers at Grafitos had succeeded in consolidating one of the most advanced and successful worker-run factories in the Guyana region, in eastern Venezuela.

The struggle for workers' control in Grafitos began in early 2009, when the former boss refused to negotiate a new collective contract with the workers’ union and tried to close the factory, taking the machinery with him. In response, the workers began a factory occupation which lasted eight months.

For economic reasons, many workers had to abandon the struggle. Only 18 remained when the Venezuelan government intervened in favour of the workers. The Venezuelan labour ministry released a “decree of temporary occupation for the reactivation of the company”, which in effect awarded the factory to the workers to manage.

The workforce then debated how the factory should be run, and decided the aim should be a model of collective self-management by the workers themselves.

“We said that workers' control was that workers controlled the factory,” explained Henry Escalon, the elected company president. Escalon’s position exists only to fulfil the legal obligation of having a company president, as he himself likes to make clear.

A workers council was installed, which from September 2010 debated how to organise the workers’ control of the factory.

Escalon and the other workers described how at first, they had been unprepared for self-management. One of the mistakes made was the bid to make every decision in a factory assembly with all the workers, which is the “sovereign” decision making body at Grafitos.

This proved inefficient and “wore out” workers. Escalon emphasised that “holding an assembly to agree to buy a screw, no, that’s falling into the abyss”. Yet, in the process of debating and trying different models “we learnt as we went along”.

Through this process of trial and error, the Grafitos workers arrived at their current model of collective management. The factory assembly of all workers remains the sovereign decision making body. But committees are chosen from among the workers to focus on specific areas of the factory, such as finance and production.

Escalon has a committee of eight workers watching over his actions to ensure accountability. Every three months, the factory assembly meets. Commissions and the company president report back to the general assembly. The factory trade union can also introduce proposals — for example, on pay and conditions.

The key decisions are made in the assembly, and every worker has a voice and a vote. Cited examples of decisions taken include making an investment into buying a bus to provide transport for the workers, and agreeing on costs upon which the graphite parts the factory produces will be sold to the nationalised Sidor steel plant, Grafitos’ main client.

“Here, nothing is done without the workers, all the workers have a minimum or maximum level of participation,” explained one of the committee members, Cesar Barreto.

Every worker is paid the same (before, the factory boss earned 15 times that of a worker), from the “president” to the cleaner. Workers can change positions if they wish, helping to overcome the division between manual and intellectual labour.

The workers feel they have developed a management model that allows workers to democratically organise themselves, and they are willing to support other factories in a similar position, as part of Venezuela’s wider workers' control movement.

Sitting comfortably in the boardroom where, in the past, they could enter only with the permission of the factory owner, workers described economic, psychological and community benefits to the democratic worker control model of factory management. They compared this with the old hierarchical capitalist model under the boss.

Spurred on by a sense of common ownership, the workers have been able to raise production. They told me when I spoke to them in April last year that they had just broken their production record.

With this, and equal and rising pay enjoyed by each worker, their material quality of life has risen. Workers have, for the first time, managed to get mortgages for a house or own a car, and have enjoyed new benefits such as Christmas bonuses and benefits to buy toys for their children.

Yet more than just material benefits, there have been value-based gains and an increase in the quality of the working environment, including a growing sense that the workers are part of a common project linked to the wider industries of the region.

“We no longer come just to sell our labour power for eight hours,” Escalon said. “We’re part of a hub that boosts the production of the basic industries [of Guyana]…

“We have raised consciousness, and gained a sense of belonging.”

Barreto conveyed how the relationship between workers had changed, saying: “Before there was persecution by the boss. Now there is freedom. The sense of fellowship, in comparison with other companies, has been strengthened.”

To illustrate their point, the workers gave me the example of when one of their colleagues suffered an accident last November. All workers gave two days’ salary to help him with his recovery, a gesture “from the heart”, as one worker put it.

Barreto said “this solidarity and comradeship is really valuable and important” for working life in the factory.

Another change has been the role of the factory in the community. Barreto explained: “Apart from improving the workers’ quality of life, we want to contribute to society, seeing that the resources we produce are geared toward society.”

Along with supplying Venezuela’s nationalised industries and politically supporting other workers' control projects, Grafitos allocates a portion of its resources to various community and social causes.

These include grants to community groups, funding for school equipment, and donations to international causes, such as helping refugees in Haiti after the January 2010 earthquake.

The factory has faced economic, political and legal challenges. Economically, it needed a great deal of investment after the former owner declined to invest for years, while running the existing machinery into the ground.

As a consequence, some of the factory’s machinery is out of date and workers have had to put a great amount of capital into upgrading it.

Politically, Escalon said that as a result of ordinary workers assuming administrative tasks and responsibility of running the factory, outside figures dealing with the plant have often treated workers with a lack of recognition and respect.

“They practically said to us, 'get lawyers [to deal with legal or administrative matters], you aren’t capable of this'. Well, we showed them otherwise.

“This is one of the most successful factories and experiences in Guyana.”

The legal issue for the workers was that their position ultimately rested upon a temporary decree from the labour ministry. Although renewed several times, this left the possibility of a takeover by a private owner at some point in the future.

What the workers wanted was full nationalisation: where the factory was owned by the state to prevent buyout, but run by the workers without interference.

As chance would have it, this measure was announced by the government a few days after my December visit. The workers told me they were satisfied with the arrangement. With legal protection from the state, the factory is still running strong under its workers' control model.

I asked the workers their views on whether it was possible to have a democratic society without democracy in the economy.

Barreto answered: “I think that historically in our countries we’ve been sold a false idea of democracy, a democracy where the minority take the economic decisions that affect the great majority.

“I believe that socialism comes to democratise the economy, where everyone is involved in decision making over resources, of the state and its institutions: not continuing to be managed by a minority that takes advantage of the resources produced by the majority.

“Right now we see in Spain, in Europe, resentment in society against the cases of 'democracy' that exist there.

“Here in Venezuela we’re making an important effort to substitute these relations, the old democracy, with a much more democratic system: so that the decisions are transmitted above from below, not imposed downward from above.

“I think this is the key to truly begin to change things.”

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