People Before Profits

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, speaking in Caracas on May Day, invited “all industry to be part of the new society,” saying, “We will help every industry to expand production and will provide the funding to do so. However, the only condition is that workers be allowed to be part of the management.”

Government leaders believe worker-state co-management will promote export diversity and help Venezuela reduce its dependency on agricultural and industrial imports. They speak of “endogenous development.” Co-management, they suggest, will foster “transparency” and serve as an antidote to widespread corruption and profiteering in Venezuelan industry.

Chavez and the leaders of the UNT, a new labor federation that supports his Bolivarian Revolution, have assigned a major role to worker co-management in the nation’s revolutionary project, together with health and education programs, producer cooperatives, stepped-up industrial productivity and land reform. At the massive May 1 demonstration, banners read: “Without co-management, there is no revolution.”

The government has targeted unproductive factories, most of them abandoned or in bankruptcy, for state takeover. By designating expropriated companies as public utilities, it satisfies constitutional requirements. Not all expropriated companies have come under worker co-management, and privately owned properties are still immune. Chavez warned in January that for “factories that are closed, and abandoned, we’re coming after you.”

The government has owned the Alcasa aluminum plant in the state of Bolivar for some time. It had not made a profit for years, and corruption reportedly has been rampant. The minister of basic industry gave the go-ahead for worker-state co-management in January. Visiting the plant in March, author Marta Harnecker testified that with union leaders as managers, the atmosphere was charged with excitement (Monthly Review, May 2005). Union Secretary-General Trina Silvia reported that the elected governing body is made up of four workers, two government representatives, and one community person. One job of the latter is to make sure that company earnings serve the needs of society.

On Jan. 18 the government expropriated the bankrupt, abandoned Venepal paper company, introduced a worker-state management team, and invested $14 million to restart production. That high-profile takeover stimulated movement towards co-management elsewhere.

Workers reoccupied the Constructora Nacional de Valvulas (CNV) factory on Feb. 17, and the government expropriated it on April 27. That factory, owned by a leading opposition politician, has long held a monopoly in supplying the state-owned petroleum industry with high-pressure valves. It had been closed down most of the time since 2003.

The Chavez victory in early 2003 over the shutdown and sabotage maneuvers in the oil industry provided a morale boost for Venezuela’s labor movement. Business groups and the conservative national labor federation of the time had intended to force Chavez’s removal from office.

Then, for two years, up to the recent expropriations, workers in Venepal, CNV and other factories engaged in struggles that included lockouts, worker occupations, fights over unpaid wages, falling productivity and a brief failed attempt to run the Venepal factory.

At a mid-April co-management symposium held in Valencia, Angel Navas, leader of the Federated Electrical Workers, argued that profits from expropriated companies belong to the Venezuelan people, not solely to workers. Gustavo Marquez, an electrical maintenance technician now in a management role, stated, “My goal is not to earn more, but to make this plant productive.” He talked about a “horizontal management structure.” Navas compared the Venezuelan style of co-management favorably with that of Germany, Argentina and other nations, where workers are co-opted into existing management systems.

Co-management in Venezuela has grassroots origins. Radical unionism has long been a force there, with syndicalist overtones in some regions. For Chavez on May 1, co-management is part of his government’s “move from revolutionary democracy to socialism this year.” The Valencia symposium passed a resolution describing co-management as “Bolivarian, revolutionary and anti-capitalist.”

Words and deeds like these are unlikely to quiet the Bush administration’s case of the jitters about the Bolivarian Republic.

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