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Revolutionary Democracy in the Economy? Venezuela’s Worker Control Movement and the Plan Socialist Guayana


For quick reference, this article contains the following sections:

Introduction: Christmas at Grafitos

Part I: The Birth and Development of Plan Socialist Guayana

i) Venezuela’s Worker Control Movement

ii) The Nationalisation of Sidor and the Birth of Plan Socialist Guayana

iii) So what is the PGS?

iv) The Progress of Plan Socialist Guayana 2009 – 2012

Part II: The Promise, Politics and Problems of the PGS

i) Venezuela’s Worker Control Debate

ii) The Political Forces Opposed to Worker Control in Guayana

iii) 2012: Increasingly Public Conflict over Plan Socialist Guayana

Conclusion

 

 

Introduction: Christmas at Grafitos

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 white board 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’ fifty-five workers not in favour.

The sound of meat sizzling on the barbeque, salsa music and laughter drifted in from the factory yard below. It was the December 2011 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, eastern Venezuela. I had previously visited the factory with activists in April 2011, and as part of an investigation into the worker control movement in the region, had returned to see how the workers at Grafitos were getting on.[i]

The struggle for worker 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, with only 18 remaining in occupation 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 as they saw fit.

The workforce then debated how the factory should be run, and decided that the aim should be a model of collective self-management by the workers themselves: worker control. “We said that worker control was that workers controlled the factory”, explained Henry Escalon, the elected company president. Escalon’s position exists only to fulfill 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 to me how at first they had been unprepared for self-management. One of the mistakes that had been made was the attempt 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, with Escalon emphasising 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. While the factory assembly of all workers remains the sovereign decision making body, committees are chosen from among the workers to focus on specific areas of the factory, such as finance and production. A commission can also be set up to look into a specific issue or problem. Escalon himself has a committee of eight workers watching over his actions to ensure accountability. Every three months the factory assembly meets, where the commissions and the company president report back to the general assembly, and 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. “It’s to say that 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. Also, every worker is paid the same (before, the factory boss earned 15 times that of a worker), from the “president” to the cleaner, and workers can change positions if they wish, helping to overcome the division between manual and intellectual labour.

Indeed, the workers feel they have managed to develop 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 worker control movement. “There are other experiences of fellow comrades on the national level, [but] I think we are one of the most important worker controlled companies in Venezuela, and we are available to accompany fellow workers in the same conflict to keep advancing this idea [of worker control],” said Cesar Barreto.

Sitting comfortably in the boardroom where in the past they could only enter with the permission of the factory owner, workers described economic, psychological and community benefits to the democratic worker control model of factory management, compared 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 informed me in April 2011 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 increased. 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. We’re part of a hub that boosts the production of the basic industries [of Guayana]…we have raised consciousness, and gained a sense of belonging,” said Escalon. Cesar 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 in November 2011. All workers gave two days salary to help him with his recovery, a gesture “from the heart,” as one worker present put it. In the opinion of Barreto “this solidarity and comradeship that’s been constructing itself is really valuable and important” for working life in the factory.

Another change has been the role of the factory in the community. As 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 worker 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.

Beyond the sometimes tricky process of developing their worker control model, the factory has faced economic, political and legal challenges. Economically, the factory 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 explained that as a result of ordinary workers “from below” assuming administrative tasks and the overall responsibility of running the factory, often outside figures dealing with the plant have 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” he stated, with murmurs of agreement from around the table.

The legal issue for the workers was that ultimately their position rested upon a temporary decree from the government’s labour ministry, albeit renewed several times, which 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 2011 visit to Grafitos, with the workers communicating to me that they were satisfied with the arrangement. Indeed, now with legal protection from the state, the factory is still running strong under its worker control model.

A last question I had for the workers regarded their views on whether it was possible to have a democratic society without democracy in the economy. Cesar Barreto offered to answer, stating:

“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, that is to say, 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”.

 

Part I: The Birth and Development of Plan Socialist Guayana

i) Venezuela’s Worker Control Movement

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