Workers' control in Venezuela


The Bolivarian Revolution: Enter the Oil Workers!
Directed by Selma Jones & Nina Lopez
Produced by the Bolivarian Circle of the Global Women's Strike
VHS only, $16 (includes postage and handling)


When Hugo Chavez was elected president in 1998, millions of Venezuelans expected him to use the country's oil revenue to tackle the massive social problems and inequality in their country.

Venezuela is the world's fifth largest oil exporter, yet 80% of its population lives in poverty. In April 2002, the local oligarchy, supported by the old trade union bureaucracy and the CIA, attempted a coup to overthrow Chavez. However, millions of people took to the streets, creating a vital alliance with the military to defeat the coup.

One of the reasons for the coup was the ongoing tussle between the rich, and the majority, over control of the state-owned oil company PDVSA. Only a few months later, the elite organised a bosses' strike in the oil industry, locking out thousands of oil workers and paralysing PDVSA. The oil workers took over the industry and in a heroic effort managed to recover production and organise against massive sabotage in just two months.

Now, a new documentary tells the story of how the workers saved PDVSA, and are now organising to "put the oil industry at the service of humanity".

Through interviews with activists and leaders we learn to understand the strategic importance of the oil industry and the role that PDVSA plays in the revolutionary process. According to Jose Bodas, 80% of Venezuela's industry depends on oil revenue that had historically served the interests of the local elite and transnationals.

When the bosses initiated the lock out, the oil workers did not lead the fight back, but were drawn into the process through the decisive actions of the military and community at large. Nora Castaneda from the Women's Development Bank explains that Venezuela's industrial workers had been in retreat for decades, because of a strategic alliance of social democracy and the trade-union bureaucracy, which demobilised and atomised the workers while handing over billions of dollars to the local parasitical elite and transnational companies.

She says: "It's as if the industrial working class had been asleep... The women came out first and the military workers came, those who were not unionised — the grassroots — and placed themselves on the front. From that movement industrial workers in Venezuela became something entirely different."

The defeat of the 2002 coup gave the workers confidence and when the bosses' oil strike threatened to destroy the nascent revolution, the oil workers realised their strategic importance and started to organise as a movement.

One of the most inspiring and emotional stories is that of Tania Suarez, a contract worker in the oil industry for 14 years, who highlights the leading role that women have played in the revolutionary movement.

The documentary shows how workers' control and democracy can function. In 2003, workers set up the PDVSA guide committee, to unify workers across the sector and help them manage it. These committees play an important role in limiting the bureaucratic methods of management.

According to Jesus Montilla, during the bosses' strike, more than 18,000 workers left the industry, including 10,000-12,000 managers. They took with them vital and crippling know-how, codes, "the brains" of the oil industry. However through the tireless efforts of the oil workers (many of whom worked 22 hours a day) and the massive support of the broader community, which also engaged engineers, lawyers etc, oil production was able to recommence after only two months.

The PDVSA guide committees work in conjunction with the new trade union confederation UNT (National Union of Workers) and the community-based Bolivarian circles. The activists in the guide committees are only too aware that fossil-fuel dependence is a double-edged sword. That's why Jose Bodas says that oil-producing countries have a moral obligation to their poorer brothers and sisters in Third World countries to use this resource to create a more humane and just world. "We say no more blood for oil. We must use this energy not to destroy the planet, but so that all of us can live."

The documentary ends at a stadium where the UNT celebrates its first anniversary. Cheers, roars, thunderous claps and tears from the thousands of participants follow the statement of UNT president Maria Morilla and President Hugo Chavez when they declare that the workers united were able to defeat the trade union bureaucracy and criminal elite and that Venezuela in the hands of workers will be able to build a better society.

Now tell me, how can you not be inspired?

From Green Left Weekly, December 8, 2004.
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