Sunday, November 19, 2006

Workers in Control: Venezuela’s Occupied Factories

Interview with FRETECO representative

Thursday, Nov 09, 2006

Latin America’s occupied factories and enterprises represent the development of one of the most advanced strategies in defense of the working class and resistance against capitalism and neoliberalism. This new phenomenon catching hold throughout Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Venezuela continues to grow despite market challenges. More than 30,000 Latin American workers are employed at cooperative-run businesses, which were closed down by bosses and reopened by employees.

In Venezuela alone, it is estimated that 1,200 business and factories have been occupied by their workers after bosses and owners abandoned them. In response to the Bolivarian revolution, many oligarchic and foreign investors have fled Venezuela leaving workers out to dry. Venezuela’s working class has stood up to the destiny of unemployment and helped to build a road to socialism: taking over ransacked companies, calling for the nationalization and implementing worker self-management. Since 2005, the Venezuelan government passed a number of legal decrees expropriating abandoned factories for workers to start up production. Today in Venezuela some 20 companies have been nationalized and function under worker co-management or control.

One such group working to coordinate the grass-roots based worker takeovers in Venezuela has been FRETECO (Co-managed and Occupied Factories’ Worker’s Revolutionary Front). Workers from the state-worker co-managed industrial valve plant INVEVAL formed FRETECO earlier this year to strategize how the worker occupied factory movement can multiply industry under genuine worker control. FRETECO held a small, but important conference in October where 15 worker co-managed companies (several producing and some still fighting to start up production) gathered to share how worker controlled companies are moving away from capitalism and challenges they must face.

Pablo Cormenzana representative from FRETECO and INVEVAL traveled to Buenos Aires in November as part of the Hands Off Venezuela campaign. I caught him before a talk at the BAUEN hotel, a recuperated enterprise and worker run cooperative in the very heart of the city. In the interview and talk, Cormenzana overviewed the successes and challenges of the worker occupied factory movement in Venezuela.

M.T.: What happened at INVEVAL that pushed the workers to take over their workplace?

P.C.: INVEVAL started when the owner shut down production in the plant which was formerly called CNV (National Valve Manufacturer) in 2002. The owner of CNV, Sosa Pietri, was part of Venezuela’s oligarchy. He decided to extend a management lock out and closed the company down on December 9, 2002, leaving all the workers out in the streets. On top of that he didn’t arrange any indemnification for the workers, leaving them out to dry without paying their salaries, social security etc. Originally, there were 330 workers at the plant.

A group of these workers decided to begin a fight to demand that the former owner pay them back what he owed them. Later, this demand transformed into the idea of recovering their jobs and to re-open the company. This stage lasted for two years, from March 2003 until April 2005. A group of about 65 workers continued fighting. They were alone in their fight, visiting labor courts and the labor ministry to demand the salaries that the owner never paid. This long and difficult process had a demoralizing effect on the workers and many abandoned the fight. The group was really dispersed at that time and in December 2004 only one worker continued to camp outside the factory.

Around this time, the former boss decided that it was the perfect moment to empty out the factory. Until December groups of workers had been camping outside the plant’s doors. One night the boss secretly began to transport the semi-constructed valves and tools from the plant. The workers found out that the owner was stealing material from the plant and re-mobilized. This time, more workers camped outside the company’s doors so that the boss wouldn’t continue to ransack the plant. They were thinking ‘this guy left us out in the streets and now he’s leaving with the few things that could be sold to pay us back what he owed us.’

At the very same time, two very important situations developed in Venezuela. In January 2005 during the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, President Chávez launched his proposal for socialism. This was very important moment for the worker controlled factories. The other important event for INVEVAL was the nationalization of the paper mill INVEPAL. The paper mill VENEPAL was in a similar situation as INVEVAL. The owner in this case claimed bankruptcy with the idea of breaking up the company and selling off shares to the transnational cardboard producer, Murphy. The owner of VENEPAL went bankrupt and left the workers out to dry. The Venezuelan government told the workers at VENEPAL that if they led a serious struggle and rallied on a large scale, President Chávez may consider nationalizing the company. The workers accepted the proposal and began to rally. They protested, pushing for nationalization of VENEPAL. The president accepted the proposal and decreed the nationalization of VENEPAL. The workers later formed INVEPAL.

The nationalization of INVEPAL motivated the workers of INVEVAL and they launched a new campaign to get their jobs back. The president decreed the nationalization of CNV, which is to later become INVEPAL-national endogenous valve industry in April 2005.

M.T.: How has the factory been re-organized since the worker take-over?

P.C.: The workers had to fight hard to recover the factory. The factory has been worker run since April 2005, a factory that was abandoned. We’re talking about a huge factory that runs with computers and giant machinery. And yet, the workers were able to make it work. They’re proving the theory that workers can run industry without bosses. Not only are the workers at INVEVAL successfully running a company without bosses or an owner, they’re also doing it without technocrats or bureaucracy from the government. The government has had

little participation in the functioning of the company. The company was solely recovered by the very worker.

M.T. So no professionals stayed on in the plant? How have the workers managed without professionals?

No, only manual workers stayed on in the plant. Middle and high level management abandoned the company along with the boss. They had alliances with the boss. I imagine that the former owner paid them their salaries and indemnity for laying them off and they later found new jobs.

The workers not only recovered a factory by taking over the manual tasks. The workers are also taking charge of the administrative areas. Currently, a group of workers are studying administration at the state-run university. They are proving wrong the theory that workers are unable to run a factory if they don’t have a manager watching every move they make. Factories under worker control function democratically, unlike with a boss. All of the decisions made at INVEVAL are made in a workers’ assembly. The factory is run by worker delegates. The current president of INVEVAL, Jorge Paredes worked in the plant’s stock deposit. The delegates and president were voted democratically by the workers’ assembly. If the delegates and representatives do not fulfill their responsibilities according to what the assembly says, the assembly can revoke the delegate from his or her position. All of the workers make the same salaries, it doesn’t matter if they are truck drivers, line workers or the president of the company. They are putting into practice genuine worker control at INVEVAL.

M.T.: What is the future of the worker controlled factory movement in Venezuela?

P.C: From the perspective of FRETECO we have a very positive outlook for worker control in Venezuela. October 13-14, FRETECO held a national congress. Over 10 worker co-managed factories participated in the congress, though more than 15 companies are participating in FRETECO. Five companies couldn’t participate because they couldn’t access transportation and because of limited resources due to lack of government support. It’s necessary to understand that in some cases workers are occupying factories that have been closed down and they have no income. Right now FRETECO is working with 15 companies, but we are getting a lot of calls from other companies that would like to join FRETECO.

There are more than 1,200 business and factories that have been occupied by their workers after bosses and owners abandoned them. President Chávez has nationalized more than 20 companies that are all in different situations. VENEPAL and INVEVAL are at the forefront of the worker controlled factory movement. The working class in Venezuela is gaining strength and there’s a lot of interest to continue to nationalize industry and put it in the hands of workers. After the December elections, which President Chávez is sure to win, the worker controlled factory movement will also move forward. We are going to push so that workers can recover their companies shut down by the owners and start up production under worker control.


Renegade Eye said...

I admire your writing at Znet, and was lucky enough to find this blog as well.

Are the occupation of factories syndicalist in nature, as socialism in one factory? Another way of saying an island of socialism, in a sea of capitalism.

I was at a conference in St. Paul, MN for Venezuelan Solidarity. In attendance was government officials from Venezuela. When questions of workers control were asked, they ducked or talked around them. The Venezuelan officials refer to the 1999 Constitution as the basis of the revolution. That constitution guarantees private property.

See: Welcome to the Chávez revolution - where the rich keep getting richer

Renegade Eye said...

I'am linking to this blog.

LeftyHenry said...

ah! Ren, you beat me too it. I was just about to post that exact same article. Oh well. This is one of the good sides of the bolivarian revolution. Hopefully we'll see more of these co-ops forming in the next couple of years as more capitalists flee when Chavez gets re-elected and goes to the "next phase" of the bolivarian revolution.

BTW, great blog. I'm linking too.

The Red Bolivarian said...

I was lead to this Blog by Renegade eye, who I like to call
R E since its more gangsta. Im linkin to it as well. great post. I always try to stay in touch with whats going on in VZ and this is a great place to keep up. ciao, y sigue la lucha.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
troutsky said...

My team member Che Bob visited Venezuela in August and visited with anarchists who were upset that the Chavez administration exerted control over worker run factories but your interviewee seems to dispute this. In my mind what is important is that the workers are employed and gaining new skills and this productive property belongs to the people in service to the people.As the revolution progresses, the concept of "title" will hopefully lose it's meaning in these cases.Great blog!

Marie Trigona said...

Hi Troutsky,

Your comment is definetly an important one. I haven't had the opportunity to travel to Venezuela but my collective has been in touch with several anarchist groups. I think it's really important to look at things critically, especially when a state is involved. The worker run factories in Venezuela have faced many challenges and have had to fight hard to gain limited government support. And there are still many closed factories which workers are trying to open. FETECO is pushing for Chavez's government to speed up the process of nationalization and expropriation of industry under worker control. They advocate state nationalization of industry and WORKER CONTROL. Worker control is a problematic theory. Worker control lends itself to central planning rather than decentralized decision making. We saw what happened in the soviet union and the workers councils. Autogestión or worker self-management facilitates direct democracy, non-hierarchical structures and equality, unlike worker control. However, I do want to mention that I support the workers'iniatives and I think it's important to defend these experiences. I also support the people's right to defend themselves against any imperialist occupation or threats. Saludos.

Ché Bob said...


¡Saludos! Me alegro de que usted haya aparecido en el blogosphere. Me fascina su trabajo con este movimiento.

I am the person Troutsky was referring to that visited with an anarchist group in Venezuela. I share in their concern that to call the worker-occupied factory movement an example of "worker control" is misleading. The government "controls" the factories! The workers "operate" the factories!

I agree that supporting the movement is important to some degree, but I'm frustrated by and afraid of the uncritical (giddy) support that is being given to Chavez and his so-called "socialism." At the Alternative World Social Forum, the participants discussed the concerns they had with Chavez co-opting the social movements. This even led to Arundahti Roy's decision to not participate in future World Social Forums, expressing her concerns that governments and NGOs had become too tied to what was supposed to be a popular people's movement.

Anyway, what happens to the entire movement and the possibility of a social revolution if Chavez never goes to "next phase"? Won't we face another crisis on the left if people continue to support Chavez uncritically and then the whole thing blows up in our face? Won't we lose more people that had hope in a movement to the left? What happens when workers realize they are entitled to control the means of production, not the state?

Didn't Tomas Gutierrez Alea (from within the revolution) warn us in his film, "Fresa y chocolate", about the dangers of excluding the multiplicity of voices and ideas from the revolution? Didn't another Cuban, Jose Triana, also prophetcially warn us in his play from 1965, "Noche de los asesinos", that tyranny is tyranny no matter what color of beret it adorns? I fear Chavez is centralizing power more than people recognize. I also fear that his ego may cause a wicked train wreck for a social movement that does not belong to him. If he keeps expropriating factories that workers themselves have taken control of he is missing the point of "worker control."

troutsky said...

Che Bob, what happens when workers are the state? The fact that there exists a left as well as a right opposition tells politics is still alive, there is still a democratic discourse, thanks in part to the great constitution, and we need to support all signs of a deepening democracy as well as worker control. For instance , a mechanism is needed to deal with corruption within cooperatives. This means jurisprudence, which involves a state.

Ché Bob said...


Are you suggesting that the workers are the state? Or are you stating this hypothetically? If the workers were the state, well then fine, we'd call it "worker controlled." However, I think you and I both know full-well, that the state of Venezuela is not the workers. Power is increasingly being concentrated in Chavez, state institutions and his party. I fear, in a way similar to earlier patterns in China, Cuba and the Soviet Union.

As for corruption within the cooperatives, I believe (naively perhaps) that a genuinely "worker-controlled" cooperative would not need the state to ever intervene to handle cooperative issues. Besides the fact that "corruption" within a cooperative seems less likely since the objective is mutual aid, not profit.

Besides, how can a state handle jurisprudence when the state is the single largest source of corruption? Workers themselves would be far better off without a meddlesome, bureaucratic government leading by corrupt example.

Furthermore, I think the fact that a "right" and "left" exists is not a sign of deepening democracy. A sign of deepening democracy would be that these voices exist beyond marginal consideration. Chavez is no fan of the anarchists criticism, nor of PROVEA's annual report that continually calls him to the carpet. The constitution is indeed a positive step, but constitutional law is interpretive and ammendable to fit the needs of the establishment.

I, for one, believe it is prudent to be cautious when dealing with the states and gods. The historical record is enough to demand that we maintain a critical distance.

*Support the popular movements, yes.

*Support deepening democracy--which the anarchists, trotskysts, and PROVEA themselves are sceptical is happening--yes.

*Support the worker-occupied factory movement, no doubt!

But let's support a movement towards worker-control, not state control. If the state ever warrants being equated to the workers, we won't need to have this debate, until then: tierra y libertad!

Marie Trigona said...

The entire concept of worker self management is for a collective of workers or people to solve problems themselves without having to rely on any type of authority. What's so great about the worker run factories is that in some cases (of course not all) they are working toward worker self management -- increasing democratic relations, transparancy and providing solutions to very urgent problems autonomously from the state. In some cases like Zanon, they are not only solving problems like employement with no support from the state whatsoever, they are also supporting community projects which the state wants to destroy. As far as dealing with corruption, workers should be able to deal with this issue on their own. This real problem is most likely a result of lack of class consiousness or ability to act in mutual solidarity. Anton Pannecoek wrote about the problem of corruption in his book Workers' councils in which he suggested that accounting books in a self-managed enterprise should be open to all, especially to the group of workers. The last thing a group of workers need is a state (socialist or capitalist) to intervene and tell a group of workers how production should be organized. This is up to workers and the community.

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